by Evelyn Juers
As rich and dense as wedding cake, and just as hard to digest in anything more than the smallest portions, House of Exile is, according to its cover, ‘the tale of the unconventional love affair between… Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger’. To me, it read more like a dry academic tome about several dozen writers; Heinrich and Nelly are at the heart of it, but so thickly crowded by other lives, they’re rather hard to see.
Almost Biblical with its extensive genealogies and connections, I found the first quarter very stolid indeed, bitty, unfocussed and, frankly, dreary. Rather than the ‘intricate weaving’ of lives described in the blurb, it seemed to me to lurch heavily from Heinrich Mann to Thomas Mann to Virginia Woolf, to Kafka, to Brecht, to Joyce, or any other of several dozen characters – switching focus from paragraph to paragraph with a bare minimum of connectivity.
It gets a lot better as it hits the years immediately preceding the war, then the war-years themselves, which are by far the best chapters. Thanks to the death of so many of the peripheral figures, the focus narrows, a narrative emerges, and the book becomes much more readable, something you read as much for pleasure as the good of your soul.
Written in a strange style, more textbook than novel and full of pluckings from diaries and letters, The House of Exile is certainly very detailed, sometimes overwhelmingly so. I took a lot of knowledge away from this book, about events and how they touched the lives of each character, but no feeling whatsoever for any them; the style is too clinical, too coldly academic to allow the people to escape from the words and become living breathing beings.