Allen Lane, £25, 400pp £22.50 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030

House of Exile by Evelyn Juers

Brothers at odds in dark times

Things seem to have come in twos for the Mann family. Two of them were renowned writers, the one, Thomas, winning the 1929 Nobel Prize, the other, Heinrich, a star in his own lifetime whose novel Professor Unrat was turned into the film, The Blue Angel, that catapulted Marlene Dietrich to fame. Two wars straddled and defined these brothers' lives, while their two sisters, Carla and Lula, both committed suicide, as did two of Thomas Mann's children.

All of this, and much more, is described in Evelyn Juers's collective biography of a brilliant generation of German writers and artists. Hers is a richly nuanced account of forbidding fathers, bad mothers, too much imagination , the rise of Hitler, and war. Apart from the Mann brothers, the likes of BertoltBrecht, Sigmund Freud, Joseph Roth and Ernst Toller jostle for space with Virginia Woolf, whose struggle for life and art is threaded through the narrative.

But it is Heinrich Mann who stands at the heart of this book. Heinrich was the radical, the organiser, the internationalist, at one point optimistically tipped to be a possible head of Germany. While the narcissistic Thomas decided his fictions would have a greater impact on the German people than his voice raised in protest (which, in turn, would have led to the banning of his fiction), Heinrich had no such doubts. As Thomas tried to justify his silence to his increasingly critical children, Heinrich kept on speaking out. His reward was to be among the first to have his books burned by the Nazis: in the list of those considered most dangerous, he was outranked only by the two Karls – Marx and Kautsky.

House of Exile opens with Heinrich in Los Angeles broken and alone after the death of his beloved second wife Nelly. It flashes back to childhood, to Heinrich's birth in 1871 (the year that Germany became a nation) and to life in a German bourgeois family, with a stern father and a scarred mother whose passion for reading to her children and for making up stories was carried through the generations. Thus did Heinrich and the younger Thomas grow up, tied together by their "bonds of love and jealousy".

Sibling rivalry seemed part of what made Thomas tick. In later life in America, while Heinrich was struggling to put food on his own table, Thomas was feted wherever he went. Even so, Thomas seemed to begrudge the slightest compliment paid either to his older brother's work or to his political achievements. The contrast between the two is writ large: the bourgeois, repressed and repressive Thomas did not bother to conceal his disapproval of Heinrich's "depraved" writing and of Heinrich's personal choices, the major bone of contention being Heinrich's beloved Nelly Kroeger.

Nelly's vibrant presence runs through this book, lighting with her life force what might otherwise have been a catalogue of death. Juers likes her Nelly, and has gone a long way to making us like her. This is some feat. Whereas the two Manns left behind a considerable body of evidence, Nelly's story has been pieced together from anecdote, fragments of diaries and letters, with incidents creatively imagined.

We read speculations as to Nelly's relationship to the Nivea family, or suffer with her at the death of her only child, or laugh at the way that the outspoken Nelly was evicted from hospital after she had provoked a rebellion over the quality of the food. She worked for her living, and later on for Heinrich's, first as a seamstress and then a hostess in Berlin bars. She was a troubled woman with an uncertain past. Too coarse for Thomas's taste, she was the love of Heinrich's life, his source - literally in some cases - of inspiration, while providing constant provocation.

Nelly suffered periodic emotional collapses, making more than one suicide attempt before she finally succeeded in killing herself. By the time she does, the other suicides that run through this book protect the reader from taking her end too hard. The inclusion of Virginia Woolf's fight against darkness underlines this theme of suicide. As we follow her through successive novels and through Europe (which included travelling to Germany long after the other protagonists of the book had been forced to flee), our familiarity with her impending doom underlies the fates of the coterie of artists whose memories are conjured up by House of Exile.

We also follow the last terrible days of men like the painter and printmaker Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, or philosopher and performer Egon Friedell, or critic and essayist Walter Benjamin, each driven to take their own lives by the certain knowledge of the worse fates that awaited them. Their stories are plainly told, and all the more painful for that. And, as well, we are given glimpses of Goebbels making his jolly way onto the pages of history, and of Goethe's tree near Weimar, so precious that it was especially protected even as the Buchenwald concentration camp was built around it.

Juers has cleverly summoned up a world where one novelist might find international recognition as another is forced to lick the spit of his tormentors. The cumulative impact is a wrenching, and informative, portrait of an age. The narrative is sometimes curiously anti-psychological - the book does not, for example, attempt to explain why, having read his beloved Nelly's account of her life, Heinrich not only re-wrote it, turning it into one of his more famous novels, but burnt Nelly's manuscript (an echo of another book burning?). But the reader is left with a nuanced understanding of times and politics so terrible that even those for whom writing was life were made to bear witness to the complete failure of the word.



Gillian Slovo's latest novel is 'Black Orchids' (Virago); she is the President of English PEN

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

    As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

    Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

    ... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
    Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

    Europe's biggest steampunk convention

    Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

    Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

    Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

    The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor