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House of Exile: The Lives and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann

House of Exile: The Lives and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann

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by Evelyn Juers

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In 1933 the author and political activist Heinrich Mann and his partner, Nelly Kroeger, fled Nazi Germany, finding refuge first in the south of France and later, in great despair, in Los Angeles, where Nelly committed suicide in 1944 and Heinrich died in 1950. Born into a wealthy middle-class family in Lübeck, Heinrich was one of the leading representatives of


In 1933 the author and political activist Heinrich Mann and his partner, Nelly Kroeger, fled Nazi Germany, finding refuge first in the south of France and later, in great despair, in Los Angeles, where Nelly committed suicide in 1944 and Heinrich died in 1950. Born into a wealthy middle-class family in Lübeck, Heinrich was one of the leading representatives of Weimar culture. Nelly was twenty-seven years younger, the adopted daughter of a fisherman and a hostess in a Berlin bar. As far as Heinrich's family was concerned, she was from the wrong side of the tracks.

In House of Exile, Heinrich and Nelly's story is crossed with others from their circle of friends, relatives, and contemporaries: Heinrich's brother, Thomas Mann; his sister, Carla; their friends Bertolt Brecht, Alfred Döblin, and Joseph Roth; and, beyond them, the writers James Joyce, Franz Kafka, and Virginia Woolf, among others. Evelyn Juers brings this generation of exiles to life with tremendous poignancy and imaginative power. In train compartments, ship cabins, and rented rooms, the Manns clung to what was left to them—their bodies, their minds, and their books—in a turbulent and self-destructive era.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
The unlikely relationship between the anti-Nazi German literary lion and a bar hostess anchors this vivid if jumbled group portrait of a lost generation of European writers. Juers, publisher of Giramondo Publishing and Heat magazine, follows novelist Mann and his second wife from their romance in Weimar era Berlin into exile in France when Hitler took power and thence to Los Angeles, where they were alienated by the empty streets and "thin civilization." Juers's attempts to impute a rich soul to her underdocumented heroine ("If Madame Bovary had fallen into her hands, I imagine what she would have loved most was its intimacy") yield mixed results: she presents a brave, warmhearted but troubled woman who comes alive mainly during repeated nervous breakdowns. The couple are ensemble players amid a swirl of fragmentary vignettes of intellectual icons, including Mann's Nobel-winning brother, Thomas; Bertolt Brecht; Freud; and Virginia Woolf, who keeps popping up with little connection to other people or events. Mundane life clashes with the catastrophic as modernist refugees grasp at love and literature while the world burns. But with lives overtaken by persecution, homelessness, suicide, and mass murder, Juers's collage gels into a haunting evocation of Europe's tragedy. (May)
From the Publisher

House of Exile is an engaging, unconventional exercise in collective biography . . . [that] mixes historical research with almost poetic imagination, creating a compelling panorama.” —Ian Brunskill, The Times (London)

“Scintillating and rather magical . . . House of Exile is an extraordinary book, and a really rare accomplishment.” —Michael Hofman, The Times Literary Supplement

“Juers creates a composite subjectivity through which the reader experiences the unfolding political events with unusual intimacy and immediacy. Her use of various running motifs to connect different parts of the story adds to the effect . . . It's a provocative but inspired application of the methods of poetry to non-fiction . . . [There is] an implicit assertion that, in the right hands, history and biography can do everything the novel can do, only better. [Juers] certainly makes a good case for it.” —James Lasdun, The Guardian

“It is rare to find a book as well written as Evelyn Juers's House of Exile: The Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann. This dual biography is the richest, most intelligent and intellectually satisfying book I've read in years. I lived gratefully within its marvels for a precious week. Among the great tangle of facts and destinies streaming across Juers's pages, she never once loses touch with the compelling essentials of her story, but navigates her material with masterful assurance. This book has been composed with as much attention to the pleasure of the reader as it has to satisfying Juers's authentic need to own the story. I was greatly moved by it. It is a masterpiece and a joy to read.” —Alex Miller, author of Autumn Laing

Kirkus Reviews

An impressionistic collective biography of literary Europe in the 1930s and '40s, focusing on the circle that gathered around brothers Heinrich and Thomas Mann.

HEAT magazine co-publisher Juers takes suicide and exile as her organizing themes. The narrative begins in southern California in the summer of 1944, where the Mann families had fled to escape Nazi persecution. Nelly Kroeger, Heinrich's longtime partner, had just killed herself with a drug overdose. Juers' narrative voice shifts lightly between conventional biography and interior monologue as Heinrich recollects his artistic German childhood and, especially, his flamboyant younger sister Carla, a dramatic actress who used cyanide to stage her own theatrical exit from a failed love affair in 1910. Heinrich took up with a series of actresses before beginning, in 1929, his liaison with Nelly, a young woman profoundly scarred by the death of her illegitimate child in Berlin. That autumn, Thomas Mann won the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the Woolfs, Sackville-Wests and Bells—key figures of England's Bloomsbury Circle—arrived in Germany. Nelly, always at the margins of the Manns' literary world, wrote a brilliant autobiographical novel, which Heinrich burned before explaining to her that he intended to rewrite it himself. With Hitler's rise to power, the Mann families abandoned Germany for exile, first in southern France and later in Los Angeles. As a portrait of one of the most compelling eras in European cultural and literary history, the book is richly textured, but the self-reflective and occasionally sentimental narrative voice makes the somber subject matter occasionally maudlin. Readers in search of anything inspiring or redeeming in what was, in the grand scope of things, the Manns' rather privileged escape from Nazism will be disappointed. As a fresh piece of the historical record, however, the book is a welcome contribution to World War II studies.

An intimate account of how Europe's literary elite survived the era of fascism in exile.

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House of Exile

The Lives and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann

By Evelyn Juers

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

Copyright © 2008 Evelyn Juers
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-4299-2284-5


Blink of an Eye

Approaching from a distance, hand in hand like lovers, the tall blonde and the old gentleman both called out to him – Brecht! He turned towards them and waved. The Californian sun glinted from his glasses like the sword of Zorro. It was early morning. Heat and the scent of jasmine hung loosely all about the market-place. Sunlight played upon the unreal splendour of the fruit and vegetables. Not quite real. Some people claimed the produce of this country lacked character, it always looked much more promising, bigger, brighter, than it tasted. Especially apples. They complained that there were certain things – gooseberries, for instance – which you could not get at all. Asparagus only came in cans. And who had been able to buy chanterelles since they'd left Europe? On this day in the summer of 1944, just before the German generals' attempt on Hitler's life, the news had sped like wildfire through the community of European exiles in Los Angeles that a farmer from the north was selling berries at the market. Not just strawberries, blueberries, raspberries, blackberries, there was also a small supply of gooseberries. At the head of a line of people anxiously waiting to be served, Bertolt Brecht chewed on his El Capitán Corona. Fond of sayings and slogans, he proclaimed that the early bird catches the vorm, and money talks, and proceeded to buy up all the golden berries. Oh yes, they were ripe enough to eat. Striding across the plaza towards Nelly and Heinrich, he stopped here and there to divide the loot, handing Gänsebeeren, as he jokingly translated from the English, to friends who had missed out.–Ah, here comes the man who loves gooseberries, someone said in a heavy accent, referring to one of Chekhov's stories, casually, as if Russian classics were still common currency, as if Brecht had just crossed Berlin's Savignyplatz and was offering summer berries from a cone-shaped paper bag. Finally he scooped a great mound of amber fruit into Nelly's basket. He gave them each, Heinrich and Nelly, a translucent gem to taste.–One for Adam and one for Eve, he chuckled. The proof of the pudding. And crushing a berry against his own palate like an oyster, announced triumphantly that it was delicious, the real thing, not a hybrid, and that he was no gooseberry fool.

It could have happened.
It had to happen.
It happened earlier. Later.
Nearer. Farther off.
It happened, but not to you.


Several months later, on Sunday 17 December 1944, at home at 301 South Swall Drive, Los Angeles, in the not yet broken darkness before dawn, the outline of a bowl of fruit on the windowsill, its curves – a hand of bananas Nelly had bought earlier in the week, grapes, some pears – reminded Heinrich of Brecht's generosity and of their animated exchange that day at the market, when they'd all had new information about friends in trouble, jailed, people killed, and shocking rumours of the progress of the war. Oh the terrible disgrace! They'd switched between languages, Stachelbeeren, Stacheldraht, Stacheln, barbs.–Barbarians! Brecht had exclaimed. But that moment, which Heinrich tried to conjure up, now faded.

It left nothing before his eyes but a silhouette of fruit backlit by a gauze of curtains, grey on grey. He was a very old man shrinking from the night, from this terrible night, the worst night of his life.

He was no longer sobbing uncontrollably. He felt numb. Unable to focus. Did he doze? Briefly? Perhaps he was dying? His only physical sensation came from the bridge of his spectacles pressing on his nose. He made himself take them off, and rubbed his eyes. Did he then recall or did he dream? That when they were children his brother had once worn a peg on his nose for a whole day, until a blockage in the plumbing was fixed and the stench the household had to endure was gone.

Heinrich sat very still inside the folds of his suit. Inside the immaculate whiteness of his long-sleeved shirt. His wife had washed it, hung it out, brought it in, ironed it as he watched her through the open door, and placed it on a hanger, smoothing it with the flat of her hand, tugging each cuff into shape. This image and the thought of her absence was too much to bear. He was crushed with grief. He sat deep inside the maculations of his own soft skin and felt minuscule. Like a grain of sand. His mind searched for a place to go, where it could escape.

In Lübeck. In summer. In the garden. In the scented air. Where it was warm and still. A red dragonfly–Sympetrum vulgatum, the vagrant darter, how strange to remember it – hovered over the fountain like a hawk. Dragonflies fed on mosquitoes; mated in the air; this one settled for a moment on the leaf-blade of a stand of purple irises. Blackcurrant and prickly gooseberry bushes grew against the garden wall. He sat in the shade of the walnut tree. From an open door someone called his name.–Children, how far did we get with this? he heard his mother ask.

A change in the weather. A wind came up, and suddenly clouds like great grey waves were being swept along. The boy looked up, following their crazy script. Just then a grain blew into his eye and he rubbed the irritation with his fist until the billowing sheet of sky that he'd been watching flashed red from too much rubbing, and his eye burned with pain. He took up his pencils, blindly, and the sketches he'd made. With one lid shut, the other squinting sympathetically, he felt his way along the wall until he reached the door.

The old man did not want to enter. He knew that there was no going back. For one thing, this house at Beckergrube 52 no longer existed, it had been destroyed during the British raid in 1942.

Lübeck, a member of the once significant Hanseatic league of Baltic ports, lies on a low-crested island between the rivers Waken-itz and Trave. Even in the long decline since its peak of power in the fourteenth century, with its trademark late-Gothic gateway, the Holstentor, and the towers of St Aegedien, St Jakobi, St Katharinen, St Marien, St Petri, and the Dom, rising above step-gabled merchant-houses that line narrow streets and foreshores, the town always retained the demeanour of an independent trading centre. During the night of 28–29 March 1942, by the light of a nearly full moon, deemed excellent visibility, more than half of Lübeck's buildings were destroyed and hundreds of people killed and injured; 234 aircraft had split into three waves of attack to drop more than 400 tons of bombs. In retaliation, it is said, the Germans opened a Baedeker tourist guide to England, selected several sites of historic significance, and bombed Bath, Exeter, Canterbury, York and Norwich.

But of course, innocent of what the old man knew, the boy had already gone into the house, there was no stopping him. He was splashing his face with water, telling his sisters no, no, that he hadn't been crying, that it was just a bit of dirt. And so the old man followed his childhood self, unseen.

–How far did we get? their mother asked again. On sofas and chairs they sat in an attentive circle, while she opened a volume, resting it on the lid of her desk. To read to them, she often stood up, and so it almost seemed like a sermon in church, or a lesson in school. It might have been in the early summer of 1886, when he, Heinrich, was aged fifteen, Thomas (whom they called Tommy) was eleven, Julia (called Lula) was nine, and Carla, sitting close to her eldest brother, was only four years old. Always inclined to theatrical pranks and gestures, they had picked flowers that morning and had assembled for the reading, with Carla wearing an extravagant crown of pansies. Tommy had plaited it, Lula had pinned it to her sister's curls. Now they waited in mischievous silence, until their mother looked up from leafing through the book and broke into a smile.–Ah yes, she said. Here we are ... she wore a little wreath of pansies.

Then she continued ... and there were more pansies on the black ribbon winding through the white lace at her waist ... They were spellbound by the scene of Kitty, Anna and Vronsky at the ball, by the quadrilles, waltzes and mazurkas. But some minutes into the reading they noticed, one by one, the intense concentration etched on Carla's petalled brow. She had folded one leg up against her chest, her slender arms encircling her knee. This was how she always sat, in her own embrace. And for a few seconds more, she held her pose, deepened her frown, delighted in her audience, before she too, not exactly knowing what was funny, burst out laughing.

An actress, Heinrich thought. Years later, this is how he would begin his tribute to his sister ... She was an actress.

As far back as each of them could remember, their mother had read to them. Folktales, Mörike's Peregrina poems, Goethe, E.T.A. Hoffmann's sinister stories that made their hair stand on end, or Theodor Storm's sentimental ones awash with wind, sand, sea and mist, where the moon swam from its cloud cover, and where in summer on wooden benches in the shade of linden trees young boys listened to the chronicles of old men's lives. As soon as she discovered new books for herself, thrilled especially by heroines who were themselves readers of the same novels she had lined up on her shelves, she read selections to her children. They were captivated as much by their mother's dramatic ingenuity – she could be a haughty princess, or one of Fritz Reuter's roughest peasants speaking dialect – as by the language, crisp or languorous, the spin or tease of verse, the ever-new suspense of stories they'd heard a dozen times before.

Tommy wanted to know how characters clung to life. He held a toy soldier tightly in his hand. To live, to live on and not die, like Frederick the Great who had inspired his troops to persevere. One day, the novelist Thomas Mann would write that all the heroism lies in enduring, in willing to live and not die. At the end of the reading hour he often became aware that his mouth had stayed a little open and his eyes were half closed, that the rhythm of his mother's voice echoed in the warm, gentle pulsing of his blood as it coursed through his body; there was a wavelike rushing in his ears.

Even more memorable than these sessions in the library were the bedtime stories Julia told her children, who half reclined on pillows before sleep, or sat on the floor of her room as she dressed to go out. Tommy fastened her pearls. Heinrich sketched. For herself Lula dreamed of ruffled dresses and festivities. And Carla played with a collection of fans, fluffing their feathers or tracing their painted landscapes with her finger. All the while, intrigued by the romance of their family heritage, they listened closely to their mother's childhood reminiscences.

* * *

The fourth child of Maria da Silva, of Portuguese-Brazilian descent, and Johann Ludwig Hermann Bruhns, a North German coffee and sugar merchant, Julia Mann was born Julia da Silva Bruhns in 1851, while her parents were en route between the Brazilian coastal towns of Angra dos Reis and Paraty. She was not yet five when her mother died in childbirth in 1856, seven when she, her sister, brothers and father made the two-month journey to Lübeck, where the girls, under the guardianship of their widowed German grandmother, were to be educated. Obliged to attend to his business in Brazil, her father bid her a sad farewell and returned to South America with his sons. Through death she had lost her beloved mother, and then through distance that seemed as sundering as death, father, brothers, home and language. Julia mourned as only a child mourns, with an unwavering fidelity to all she'd lost.

Later she re-created for her children what she always longed for. She coaxed their limber imaginations to the doorways, windows and verandas of her childhood home, the Fazenda Boa Vista, to look in one direction across the Bay of Paraty, in the other, along a dense wall of forest. She asked them to choose which way to go, towards the sea or jungle, and so to select their favourite stories.

To convey the allure of the sea, she would tell them she was fishing for words, prompting her audience to call out colours – sapphire, turquoise, emerald, ink – with which to paint the water, where it lapped onto pale sand, where they waded, swam, then deeper, where they rowed. Shells and rocks, she incanted, ships, islands, the horizon. Silver at dawn, copper at dusk. Within this glistening shorescape, she unfurled a series of adventures made even more incredible by the occasional appearance of a powerful sea-goddess or a temperamental, shape-changing serpent.

Their mother said that when she was very young she had heard the beat of the green heart of the jungle. Monkeys, parrots, toucans, hummingbirds, orchids, flowering climbers, glass-winged insects, with every retelling the bounty was augmented. Each of the children entered their mother's trancelike pact of remembrance, and claimed an affinity with this closely woven tapestry of sound and scent and light. Lula and Tommy thought that their darker colouring most closely matched their mother's, and Tommy convinced himself of a special mutuality, that certain exotic racial characteristics in his external appearance had come to him from her. They were unaware that in order to enhance her own romantic image of herself, she dyed her hair. Many years later, writing Death in Venice, he might still have wiped his brow with his pocket handkerchief when imagining – on his hero's behalf – crouching tigers, creeping tendrils, rising sap, and a hairy palm-trunk thrusting upwards from rank jungles of fern, from among thick fleshy plants in exuberant flower ...

Carla was sure that she closed her eyelids, fringed with long black lashes, just as her mother did, slowly, to be transported to faraway places and fabled lives, daughter like mother.

Heinrich had no need for special claims. When he was born, 27 March 1871 (the year Germany became a nation), named Luiz Heinrich, nicknamed Heine, his mother was barely out of her teens, and for four years he was her only child. He was the first of all his siblings to hear her laugh out loud like a schoolgirl, or whisper conspiringly, play Chopin, or sing Lieder, sweetly, to herself. The first to learn that she sometimes disappeared into a terrible tumescence ... of what, he did not know ... of melancholy ... and that his childish kisses and embraces made her sigh, but that he could not console her. In equal portions, their relationship combined intimacy and distance. I sit in front of her desk, playing with a small bronze box, its lilac lining effusing a magical scent. In this box, or perhaps in another, he found feathers, shells, tiny rings made from the tailtip of an armadillo, a little black ragdoll she called the negrinho, and most curiously of all, a leathery hand-sized purse which was the large dried flower of the golden chalice vine, Solandra maxima. A neat circle of holes pierced near its mouth was threaded through with faded velvet ribbon; it was full of clinking foreign coins.

Some objects are the shape of thoughts. Some thoughts illuminate the dark, like swamp lights, constellations, lines of narrative. In Los Angeles, in the dead eye of night, without conscious effort, Heinrich Mann sketched his childhood. He was a boy stretched out in a summer garden, daydreaming, picturing the adult world just outside his reach. A woman who resembled his mother turned away from a man, an officer with a sword at his side. Who was this man? Was she rejecting him, or flirting? Was it a game? Water spurted from a fountain, unambiguously. There was a walled garden, a house, and inside the house, a baby in a cradle. From courtship to consummation and conception, to birth, his own birth, or one of his siblings', in one round scene.

The old man remembered how as a boy he had once watched his parents as they dressed for a party, a masquerade. My father is a foreign officer, with a powdered wig and sword, I am immensely proud of him. As the queen of hearts Mama flatters him more than ever. His father – Thomas Johann Heinrich Mann, called Henry – always wore softly textured suits, and a small flower in his lapel. He was a grain merchant, head of the family firm, and a senator; a pillar of society with many civic responsibilities. He made, lost and regained fortunes. He was a man, Heinrich later said, who was unfamiliar with the idea of creative genius outside business hours, and who believed that his experience and status would one day pass to his eldest son.


Excerpted from House of Exile by Evelyn Juers. Copyright © 2008 Evelyn Juers. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Evelyn Juers is the copublisher of Giramondo Publishing and HEAT magazine. She has lived in Hamburg, Sydney, London, and Geneva. She has a PhD from the University of Essex, and her essays on art and literature have appeared in publications around the world.

Evelyn Juers is the copublisher of Giramondo Publishing and HEAT magazine. She has lived in Hamburg, Sydney, London, and Geneva. She has a PhD from the University of Essex, and her essays on art and literature have appeared in publications around the world.

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