An unconventional read, as only it could have been done

House of Exile: War, Love and Literature, from Berlin to Los Angeles

ON a surface level, House of Exile can be read as an attempt to understand the writer, satirist and radical, Heinrich Mann.

Mann was a complex and often contradictory type, driven by art yet driven too by a kind of lust for the colours and majesty of life. But dig a little deeper and this book becomes a study of exile’s effect on the artist, a contemplation on the sort of freedoms and confines that might possibly fuel or inhibit the art, and of the place and importance of love in the entire heady mix.

Though his career was overshadowed by his Nobel Prize-winning younger brother, Thomas (author of such masterworks as The Magic Mountain and Death In Venice), Heinrich Mann was, in his own right, an eminent and widely appreciated writer of short stories, essays and novels. He was also a vociferous politico, an outspoken opponent of Fascism and of Germany’s growing militarism during the period after the First World War, a stance which, considered in hindsight, establishes him as a voice of reason in a world tilting inexorably towards madness. For such explicit opinions and daringly incendiary writing, he saw his books burned in public as “contrary to the German spirit”, and, in 1933, accompanied by his second wife and most endearing love, Nelly Kroeger-Mann, was forced to flee his homeland, in common with a cadre of Europe’s artistic intelligentsia, for the exiled existence of the United States.

In terms of subject matter, approach and style, Miss Juers has created a genuine oddity of a book. Joyful in places, maddening at times when some new character, a Brecht or a Joyce or a Virginia Wolff, intercedes at a recklessly diverging tangent to hijack the storyline, what exists most prominently is the sense that we are tasting something truly unique. This is biography, but with a slant previously unseen, at least on such a scale.

There are occasions when the text veers a tad too close to the scholarly and risks becoming turgid, but the author’s descriptive powers are crisp and vivid, and when she can throw off the shackles of mere fact and allow herself to freely imagine, the story really comes to life. Largely by exposing undercurrents, her factual/fictional insights prove particularly adept at illuminating relationships.

In the final analysis, what this book does brilliantly, is to show the small tragedies that an exiled life inflicts. And not just on the Mann cadre either, but on their wider circle. There are times when the clutter of individual stories becomes problematic, and even moments where the author almost loses her reader due to the all-encompassing span of her lens. But finally, the whole proves far greater than the mere sum of its parts, and somehow everything is made to fit so organically together that we can happily overlook the seams.

What Miss Juers has achieved with House of Exile can conceivably stand as the very definition of oxymoronic ‘creative non-fiction’. It is flawed but daring, and almost without compare as a type. And it may very well be the only possible way that this particular story could have been written.

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