Monday, 30 April 2012

House of exile

 In February or March this year, International PEN asked members for a few lines on a piece of writing by a woman writer we particularly admired, to mark International Women’s Day on March 8th. You can find the contributions sent in  on their website here 

Some of the books I’ve already read, but others I have not heard of, and I will definitely be tracking some of them down.

This made me think of other books I’ve felt inspired by, which others may also enjoy.

This is an excerpt from a review I wrote of

Evelyn JuersHouse of Exile, published in 2011.  (The complete text can be 
found here)

This is what biography should be! This book pushes you deep into the consciousness of the time by its descriptions of the lives of individuals.

The main characters are the writer Heinrich Mann and his wife Nelly Kröger-Mann. Other members of the Mann family put in frequent appearances particularly his brother, the Nobel prize-winning Thomas and his son Klaus, and a host of other writers, including James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Bertolt Brecht, Robert Musil, Walter Benjamin, Lion Feuchtwanger, Jakob Wassermann and many others. It takes us through the thirties and the rise of fascism in Europe, and the war years.

Evelyn Juers has managed very cleverly, I think, and after a huge amount of research, to get inside the lives of her main characters. She does this partly by quoting their letters and journals, partly through magnificent writing where she does not signal her presence by waving opinions or interpretations, though does sometimes say things like - I imagine her walking down the Kurfurstendamn etc. So that we feel as if we are experiencing events through the eyes of the people described. And there is no hint of judgement, but rather, great compassion, which is not overtly stated, but in which the whole book is steeped, like a colour, a subtle scent or flavour, the kind of light which is only found in a certain place, whether geographical or psychological.

One of the many passages that sticks in my mind is the way Heinrich Mann [then nearly seventy] and the others with him had to climb over the Pyrenees to escape to Spain. And how the Nazis in pursuit reached Cerbère near the French-Spanish border a day later – they were just in time. The relentless pressure, anxiety, fear for oneself and one's loved ones. No wonder people turned to alcohol, and came to rely on morphine, barbiturates and other drugs, as they tried to sleep at nights.

Thomas Mann's journals and letters are often quoted. It's clear from them that he never liked Nelly, Heinrich's wife, considering her 'common'. After her death –she had problems with alcohol, other health problems, and eventually took her own life – Thomas Mann says 'she caused him [Heinrich] a lot of trouble.' She also cooked for him, looked after him, typed up his manuscripts, went out to work and took on menial jobs in the USA to support both of them, and clearly loved him. She was described by others as 'a ray of sunshine', and 'the kindest person I ever met'. Heinrich was devastated by her death, and particularly remembered her courage and how she helped him when they were escaping over the Pyrenees into Spain.

So relevant to our own times too, as many refugees from various wars and oppressive regimes continue to seek asylum, escaping from horrors quite unimaginable to us, who live in freedom and relative security.

Morelle Smith

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