Review copy provided.
If you have time to look through the transcript of this interview (or to listen) you may feel that Ramona Koval gives Sydney academic and writer Evelyn Juers something of a gruelling time over her biography of Heinrich Mann and his second wife, Nelly Kroeger-Mann, but that's not quite the case.
Some of the issues faced by Juers in writing House Of Exile, a collective biography of writers and intellectuals exiled from Germany in the thirties, are covered in more detail there than I will attempt here.
I've read a couple of biographies like this - the most memorable that comes to mind is A. Frances Johnson's 2007 novelised study of the life and art of Eugene von Guerard, Eugene's Falls.
The construction of Juers' book is admirable. As she explains in her interview, the pre-war period is covered with an eye on more poetic facts than the years after Hitler comes to power, and provides a welcome breathing space before same.
I was very impressed by the care she took to weave so many people's stories together in the later sections without losing focus; the events of the war are a powerful focus, I suppose, but it would not have been difficult to wander off following somebody and lose a reader here or there.
There is no risk of that in this formidable enterprise which is nonetheless humane and warm; Juers speaks of 'cold facts warmed up' in the interview, and her unerring ability to point up small details gives urgency and life to what is for the most part an overwhelmingly bleak period in European history. It's certainly not just about Nelly and Virginia's cakes and coffee.
There is a lightness and warmth to Evelyn Juers' invented backstory for Nelly Kroeger-Mann that is most appealing, counterpointed as it is with the cinematic backdrop of Berlin and prefaced by the rise to prominence of those éminences grises, the brothers Mann.
Helen Garner is right; she has an unerring eye for the detail that will bring a scene alive, and an ear for prose rhythms that make this kind of literary biofaction irresistible.
I was irritated at first by the introduction of the Woolfs and their entourage travelling in Europe in the thirties until I realised that part of the purpose (but not all, as you will find) might have been to point up Heinrich's appropriation of Nelly's only literary production.
Here is Leonard, carrying Virginia over his shoulder out of a cafe and into a train after she has been given travelsickness medication, telling her The Waves is a masterpiece. (Given that Victoria Glendinning's excellent biography has now been in circulation for nearly three years, it is good to see this revisited, as well as other things Woolfian which impinge naturally on this narrative.)
Here is Heinrich in 1932, burning his partner's manuscript and rewriting it as his own, telling her it will get nowhere with her name on it:
He explained that it was an important story and that it must be told, but as the Life and Times of Nelly Kroeger, a complete unknown, it would never be published in the current climate. It was a serious life, he added, and that would be its title, Ein Ernstes Leben. And since it was not right for him simply to put his own name on her manuscript, he was rewriting it. The book was finished in July and I like to think that she told him she thought her version was the better of the two, and he agreed.
(Ha! thinks the reader. We can wish.)
And here, too, in 1940 is Ms Kroeger helping to carry the man who stole her life-story over the Pyrenees to freedom , with the Gestapo hot on their heels. (Mann was sixty-nine, and not fit enough to travel fast on foot.)
It's one thing to write of this as an intensive literary study, as some have suggested, but it is much more. There is so much rich detail that breathes on the page, and is not fossilised by dry language. Juers' writing sings, her quiet asides about research never detracting from the drive forward, but enriching the conversational tone of this remarkable piece of literary life-work. It's a work of great love as well as of scholarship, I think.
And every so often you come across a quotation from one of many famous writers which makes you wonder, is this what sparked her off on this quest? such as Musil's thought that he might 'construct a person from nothing but quotations'. (Fortunately not all of the bitchy asides from Brecht and Musil about Thomas Mann's tendencies to preciousness make the whole picture.)
It is also charming to have questions posed in mid-story about the nature of this kind of writing (something Johnson also did with considerable style as she attempted to rehabilitate von Guerard, regarded by some art historians as a hack), nowhere more strikingly than when Heinrich Mann ponders how to end his own version of Nelly's novel:
We don't know how Nelly ended her own story, but its new author, struggling to compose the final pages, might have looked up from his writing and told her that she deserved a happy ending, a new beginning, and in a fairytale flourish, he punished the bad and rewarded the good. The heroine was arched between biographical truth and fiction like an acrobat whose supple spine describes a backflip, semi-circular...
Not unlike the supple Ms Juers herself. The bibliography contains a long list of sources, many of them in German.