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The Brothers Mann—and Nelly

ullstein bild/Granger Collection
Thomas and Heinrich Mann, New York City, 1940

Few writers have ever revealed themselves as daringly and completely as Thomas Mann; and from the very beginning, one of the things he felt it most urgent to reveal was his obsessive sense of fraternal rivalry. In Buddenbrooks, the family epic that made Mann famous in his mid-twenties, we meet Thomas Buddenbrook, a rigidly disciplined businessman (and the author’s namesake), and his brother Christian, a neurotic loafer whose only interest is the theater. Precisely because Thomas feels himself vulnerable to the same vices that have destroyed Christian, he holds his brother in “fierce contempt”: “You’re an abscess, an unhealthy growth on the body of our family,” Thomas rails.

In Mann’s next novel, Royal Highness, he tells the story of a younger brother, Prince Klaus Heinrich, who takes the place of his older brother, Albrecht, as the ruler of a small German principality. “I’ve always looked up to you because I’ve always felt and known that you are superior to me and the more distinguished of us two, and that I am a mere plebeian compared to you,” Klaus Heinrich tells Albrecht. But Albrecht, who hates being king, recognizes that it is Klaus Heinrich who has received the mysterious blessing of popularity. In the younger brother, and not the older, the people recognize “an idealized version of themselves, whom to cheer would make them happy.”

After such beginnings, it seems inevitable that Mann would turn, for his magnum opus, to the biblical story of Joseph—the younger brother destined for great things, who is sold into slavery by his older brothers and repays them by saving their lives. The trope of fraternal struggle was so deeply ingrained that when Mann wrote an essay about Hitler, in 1938, he titled it “My Brother.” Even the tyrant he fled and fought appeared to him as “a brother—a rather unpleasant and mortifying brother. He makes me nervous, the relationship is painful to a degree. But I will not disclaim it.”

To be the brother of Thomas Mann, clearly, was no easy fate. Actually, he had two brothers, but he was never deeply invested in his relationship with Viktor, who was fifteen years his junior. It was Heinrich, his elder by four years, who mattered. As Thomas once put it in a letter, Heinrich was “my brother (in the higher sense I have only one; the other is a good lad with whom no enmity could be possible).” Any pair of brothers start life as rivals, for family status and parental love; when the brothers pursue the same career—say, as partners in a family firm—the rivalry can become all-consuming, the kind of thing novels are written about. But when the brothers are novelists themselves, when the success or failure of their work is a kind of public referendum on the quality of their very being, it would take almost a miracle to avoid “enmity.”

The referendum on Heinrich and Thomas Mann has been going on since 1901, when Buddenbrooks appeared the year after Heinrich’s first major book, In the Land of Cockaigne. And with only a few momentary exceptions since then, Thomas’s work has always been more beloved and more popular—even more so abroad than in Germany itself. In America today, most of Thomas Mann’s books are still in print, and the major ones have been translated twice or more. Only two of Heinrich’s novels, on the other hand, are remotely likely to be known to an American reader. These are Professor Unrat, which lives in the wake of its great movie adaptation, The Blue Angel, and Der Untertan, the ferocious satire of Wilhelmine Germany that has been translated under several titles, including The Loyal Subject and Man of Straw.

What this means is that it’s almost impossible to form an opinion about Heinrich Mann without also making a judgment on Thomas. This was already the case a hundred years ago, when—as Nigel Hamilton recorded in his pioneering joint biography The Brothers Mann (1978)—the following ditty was making the rounds of Berlin cafés:

If people really knew
The sort of man
Who is Thomas Mann
They might show more respect
For Heinrich Mann.

The verse suggests the way that Thomas Mann’s colossal, suffocating fame—as well as his cold, reserved personality—can itself breed a reaction in favor of Heinrich, who lived and wrote on a more recognizably human scale. As one mutual acquaintance put it, “It was easy to make friends with the open-minded, easy-going bon vivant Heinrich, who unlike his brother Thomas was not in the least bit pompous.”

Evelyn Juers quotes this sentence in House of Exile, her eccentric new book, but she could have used it as an epigraph, since it perfectly captures her fundamental partisanship. Nominally, House of Exile is a book about Heinrich Mann and his second wife, Nelly Kroeger-Mann, who followed him into exile after Hitler took power in 1933, and ended up committing suicide in Los Angeles in 1944. In fact, it is better described as a potpourri of biographical data, fictionalized narrative, and digressions in the W.G. Sebald manner, in which Juers muses on the whole generation of German exile writers to which the Manns belonged—“a collective biography set in an age of fragmentation and flux,” as she describes it in a note. It is also, unmistakably, a brief against Thomas Mann, and the style of literary greatness that he defended and embodied.

Yet Juers’s preference for Heinrich over Thomas is not really a literary one. Surprisingly, for a book almost entirely about writers—in addition to the Manns, we hear from and about Alfred Döblin, Bertolt Brecht, and Walter Benjamin, not to mention many extraneous diary entries by Virginia Woolf—Juers has little to say about literature. The absence of any criticism or even description of Heinrich Mann’s novels is especially notable, given that he is supposed to be the book’s major subject. Instead, Juers offers a series of evocative details, culled from these writers’ biographies and letters and diaries:

From my forays into the past I often return with little more than a clutch of names and dates, cold facts. I pick through them like someone looking for coins in the pocket of an old coat, blindly feeling for unexpected details to emerge, blunt or buffed or dented, that will clink together, pay my fare, take me to yet another point of origin.

In the absence of any wider context, however, these details do not actually take the reader very far. What are we supposed to make of the information that “when Kurt [Schwitters] wet himself as a child he was locked in the bathroom,” or that Joseph Goebbels “loved his dogs, his mother, and Christmas”? Juers offers up such details as though inconsequentiality were inherently poetic. When it comes to her main subjects, however, she knows more is needed to bring them to life on the page; and when she can’t find what she needs in the sources, she fills in the gaps with imagined details and invented narratives. Much of the time, in fact, House of Exile reads less like a “group biography” than like a biographical novel.

This would not pose problems if Juers made clear which episodes and details in her book are made up, and which are rooted in some concrete source. But while she offers an extensive bibliography, House of Exile is completely without footnotes, leaving the reader to make educated guesses about whether Juers is quoting, alluding, or inventing. Early on, for instance, we see Heinrich Mann in his home at “301 South Swall Drive, Los Angeles,” in the wake of Nelly’s suicide:

He was no longer sobbing uncontrollably. He felt numb. Unable to focus. Did he doze? Briefly? Perhaps he was dying? His only physical sensation came from the bridge of his spectacles pressing on his nose.

The address is factual; the rest seems like plausible, because mundane, fiction. Or did Heinrich Mann actually mention his spectacles being uncomfortable, perhaps in some letter? It’s impossible to say, and in the end it doesn’t really matter; Juers leaves the reader no choice but to treat all such details as invented—as fleeting stabs at producing a realistic effect.

More provocative are moments when Juers braids actual quotation with fictionalized events or motives. “It’s likely that on the first day of 1934 Nelly and Heinrich got up very late,” she writes, and goes on to picture them reading Thomas’s newly published novel The Tales of Jacob together.

When they finished, he wrote to Thomas about the book’s richness and…what shall I say? He called out to Nelly as she chopped onions and garlic in the kitchen, and against the sudden hiss of vegetables in hot oil she called back…say it’s poetic. So he wrote that it was a poetic extension…of slender sources.

The italicized words appear to be quoted from a letter that, in the invaluable edition of the brothers’ correspondence, Letters of Heinrich and Thomas Mann, 1900–1949,* is dated December 25, 1933. But of course the idea that the word “poetic” was suggested to Heinrich by Nelly is a pure supposition—and an unconvincing one, given how seriously the brothers read and criticized one another’s books.

In House of Exile, this particular invention also has a polemical purpose. In the absence of any comparative critical judgment, Juers grounds her strong preference for Heinrich Mann over Thomas Mann wholly in their personalities, or what she takes to be their personalities; and she finds the contrast between them most obvious in their views of Nelly Kroeger-Mann. Little is actually known about Nelly. She was born Emmy Kroeger in 1898, in a small fishing town on the Baltic; her mother was an unmarried housemaid, and family lore had it that the father was her employer. (If so, this would mean that Nelly was half- Jewish—a suggestive fact, since both Heinrich’s first wife, Mimi, and Thomas’s wife, Katia, were also Jewish.)

Nelly moved to Berlin in 1919, where she worked first as a seamstress, then as a barroom hostess or Animierdame—“Animieren, to animate or stimulate,” Juers explains. This occupation, then as now, was separated by only “a fine line” from prostitution, and it is impossible to say under just what circumstances Heinrich Mann first made Nelly’s acquaintance in a bar on the Kurfurstendamm, in 1929. They were soon living together, though Heinrich would not marry her until 1939, when he wrote to Thomas:

I can help Frau Kröger regain her health, if I marry her. After ten years, not all of which were easy, she has come to richly deserve it. I had hesitated primarily until my daughter was married.

This letter, not quoted by Juers, suggests that Heinrich was well aware of the social awkwardness of their relationship, even if he was undaunted by it. The three major romances of his life before Nelly were all with actresses or would-be actresses (shades of Christian Buddenbrook), and he was at home in Bohemian milieus in a way that Thomas, with his burgherly rectitude, certainly was not. This triangular relationship is at the heart of House of Exile—Thomas the cold snob and Heinrich the warm-blooded lover, set at odds by Nelly the free spirit. Juers drives the point home with a pair of pointed quotations. First, Heinrich describes the moment when Nelly arrived in the South of France to meet him, after he escaped the Third Reich: it was “the greatest expression of human affection I have ever received. In all truth a moment of pure happiness.” On the next page, there is this from Thomas: “When he returned home he found that Heinrich and Nelly had arrived for dinner, exasperating his tiredness and nervousness. He thought Nelly was very common.”

  1. *

    Edited by Hans Wysling (University of California Press, 1998). 

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