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Lost generation

A history, and an imagining, of the lives of Manns and other writers who fled Nazis

(Johanna Goodman for The Boston Globe)
By Richard Eder
Globe Correspondent / June 5, 2011

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“The dreamers of what is true’’ was Jacques Maritain’s phrase for artists. It could describe what Evelyn Juers is up to evoking the generation of writers who died as exiles from Nazi Germany; those, that is, who did not perish there.

“House of Exile’’ mines a prodigious amount of source material on Thomas Mann and his brother Heinrich, on Bertolt Brecht, on the novelists Alfred Döblin, Franz Werfel, and Lion Feuchtwanger, all of whom ended up in California; on Joseph Roth, who drank himself to death in Paris, and Walter Benjamin, who killed himself on the French-Spanish border trying to flee the Germans.

But Juers uses what isn’t there as well as what is; not so much to document as to imagine. “Might have’’ and “must have’’ — those bridges biographers erect over foggy rivers — swarm through her text. It can be a bridge too far. Of Nelly Kroeger, the emotionally troubled bar hostess whom Heinrich Mann would marry (and his brother would snub), she writes: “If ‘Madame Bovary’ had fallen into her hands, I imagine what she would have loved most was its intimacy, the heroine confiding in her greyhound much like her own conversations with her cat.’’ That is “might have’’ squared.

There is a purpose though; one that can succeed rather surprisingly even as it irritates. Juers, guided by intuition almost as much as research, is after the inner quality of exile, not just its exterior; how it felt along with what it was. And she is after something equally ambitious and risky.

She conjures out of these sharply individual literary figures, and all that was happening around them, a kind of collective consciousness; less a subtext than a spacious — and sometimes spacey — hypertext. Thomas Mann orders cabbage soup on one of his trips around the United States; a sentence or two later, Germany occupies Bohemia and Moravia.

Spain’s civil war erupts, the zeppelin Hindenburg catches fire over New Jersey, the Bengal tiger faces extinction. Virginia Woolf, feeling faint on a wintry Berlin trip, needs to eat; she points to some pastry at a nearby table; Heinrich Mann, who is eating it, nods politely. Joseph Roth walks by. (Woolf, representing a different kind of contemporary shattering, is a recurring figure, hauntingly inserted.) Juers pans the lode of her exile story while fetching up gravel, shale, and geology along with it.

The central figures in “House of Exile’’ are Thomas and Heinrich Mann and, in a kind of struggling counterpoint, Nelly. Juers writes in detail about the Manns’ childhood in Lubeck and the haute-bourgeois family, model for the Buddenbrooks, from which they fled, each in different ways.

Heinrich, the older, was colorful, vital, engaged. His novels were a popular success but are little known today, at least in English, though one was made into “The Blue Angel’’ with Marlene Dietrich. Thomas, introverted, reserved, was of course the far greater writer, yet made insecure by Heinrich’s achievements. He disapproved of Heinrich’s books, which he found “corrupt,’’ and of his flamboyantly Bohemian lifestyle.

The most glaring difference was in their public life. Heinrich, active on the left, was a leading voice in denouncing the Nazis, first in Germany and later in exile; during the war he was spoken of as a possible postwar German president. Thomas, initially a nationalist though always anti-Hitler, kept his opposition private until 1935 when he issued a public denunciation. He claimed that by waiting he, as a Nobel laureate, strengthened the impact. It also gave him a few additional years before his books unburnt, unlike Heinrich’s — were banned in Germany.

Juers prefers the volatile, recklessly spirited Heinrich to the meticulously self-centered and self-controlled Thomas. Clambering into the story, as she frequently does, she hopes that when a dinner companion of Thomas pops a button it will land in his dessert. Nevertheless we are likely to conclude that, guarding himself, Thomas was guarding his art; and that, expending himself, Heinrich had less art to guard. And despite his fastidious disapproval of Heinrich, and the odd sense of threat inspired by him, Thomas, world-famous and prosperous in exile, was unfailingly ready to assist his needy older brother.

The author makes evident the painful struggle of exile as her subjects flee and wander. Nowhere does it show so clearly, so movingly as in the peace and amiable climate of Los Angeles. Juers’s writing is at its best here: What her writers have lost is not just security and possessions but the sense of being connected to a culture where they had place and position. The very flowers smell different, and even if the same, their different names, as Joseph Brodsky once wrote, recall what is gone.

An innocently moving scene comes at the start. California’s sunshine breeds all manner of gorgeous and abundant fruit. But where are the gooseberries? Brecht, armored in single-minded and dismaying purpose, manages to find some. We see this man of cold and ruthless wit rejoining his straggling fellow Germans, each of whom clutches discouraged armfuls of beautiful apples and oranges; and offering them, for a fleeting moment, the lost and salvific sourness of their Europe.

Richard Eder, who writes reviews for numerous publications, can be reached at ederculloch @gmail.com.

HOUSE OF EXILE: The Lives and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann
By Evelyn Juers
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 384 pp., $30