House of Exile is a work of creative non-fiction. It is a biography of a group of European intellectuals and those close to them, and of the devastating psychological impact for them of the rise of Nazism, the outbreak of war and enforced exile. Although non fiction, it is written in the style of a novel, and Juers frequently focuses on the thoughts and feelings of her characters. It should be said she is not totally imagining these - as most of the people portrayed here were writers, there are extensive records such as diaries and letters
The story centres on Heinrich Mann and his lover, later his second wife, Nelly Kroeger, and on his more famous younger brother Thomas Mann. The many other writers whose lives are discussed in the pages include Bertolt Brecht and Virginia Woolf.
For me, Nelly's story is particularly memorable, and it was clearly a central concern of the author. She was 27 years younger than her husband and had spent a lot of her life in Berlin working as a barmaid, and has gone down in history as something of a bimbo. Perhaps it is significant that this portrait of her came from the letters of her brother in law Thomas Mann, who looked down on her.
In fact, she was the daughter of a fisherman, from a much more working class background than Heinrich, and had had the basic education available to a woman of her class. I really enjoyed learning about what this bookworm of nearly 100 years ago liked to read - she had quite a few books and would read in cafes before work, jotting down notes as she read. Intriguingly, her favourite books included Anna Karenina, Madame Bovary and Hedda Gabler, all by men about women. Juers describes the first meeting of Heinrich Mann and his future wife - she was reading in a café. This scene and many others in the book could come from a novel, but although Juers avoids interrupting her narrative with the footnotes/endnotes of a conventional biography, most of these story scenes draw on real correspondence and diaries.
Nelly also wrote down her own life story, but unfortunately for us after he read it Heinrich destroyed it and then used a lot of her work as a basis for a novel of his own. Juers is kinder to him about this than I felt reading about it.
The quality of the writing and the stories of how the subjects grew up and of the events in their lives make it all the sadder that most of them never really adjusted to new lives in exile, and many committed suicide in the 1930s and during the war, or even later. This and other books I have read recently really made me think about the fear and stress many refugees lived with, and that keeping something to kill yourself with in case the Nazis came for you became a habit for many exiles later even when living in apparent safety.
This volume (I have a hardback copy) lacks some of the features that many biographies now come with. There are no photographs or pictures (most biographies now have at least one section of photographic plates). The author's Note on Sources runs to 11 pages detailing books and archives consulted but the book doesn't contain footnotes/endnotes or an index (given the number of names in the text, this is a significant omission).
House of Exile is a challenging but memorable read and a fascinating approach to biography, and highly recommended.
I received a copy of this book through the Amazon Vine reviewers programme and this review has previously appeared there.
Published in the UK Allen Lane May 2011 (earlier in Australia)
RRP £25, Amazon £13.50, Kindle £11.99