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

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