Visiting Researcher Wins Australian Literary Prize
Evelyn Juers' House of Exile recently won Australia's prestigious Prime Minister's Literary Award for non-fiction. Juers received an Exile Research Grant from USC's Feuchtwanger Memorial Library in 2008 and incorporated her intensive research at the USC Libraries' special collections into her biographical study of exiled German novelist Heinrich Mann (brother of Thomas Mann) and his wife Nelly Kröger. After escaping Germany during World War II, Mann and Kröger faced many disappointments during their exile in Los Angeles--where they joined an active circle of German emigre artists and intellectuals.
Feuchtwanger Memorial Library curator Michaela Ullmann recently interviewed Juers about her research and award-winning book.
Ullmann: Evelyn, first of all I would like to congratulate for winning the prestigious Prime Minister's Literary Award of Australia for your book House of Exile: The Life and Times of Heinrich Mann and Nelly Kroeger-Mann. As a recipient of the Feuchtwanger Grant for Exile Studies, we met in 2008, when you visited the Department of Special Collections here at USC in order to work with the Heinrich Mann Collection which contains not only Heinrich Mann's business correspondence and manuscripts, but numerous letters between him and his wife Nelly as well as immigration papers, work permits, etc. There are so many prominent figures among the German-speaking exiles. Why did you decide to focus mainly on Heinrich Mann and his wife Nelly Kröger?
Juers: I was brought up with the work of many of the German writers who were in exile in the 1930s and 40s, and have continued to read those books. Over many years of research House of Exile became a collective biography. It’s really about all of them, and about different experiences of literature and exile. So Heinrich and Nelly are just the ones who open the door, so to speak, to this House. The focus is on Heinrich Mann because he always regarded German culture with an excellent critical eye. He was an anti-militarist during WWI and an anti-fascist activist during WWII. Like many others, he broke a lot of rules. And amongst those others--a generation of extraordinary intellectuals--he was loved and highly respected. He epitomizes the writer in exile, to the point that although his ashes are now in Berlin, his status has never really been “returned” to Germany. Culturally, he’s still in exile. When I found out that his novel Ein ernstes Leben (a book I’d read when I was quite young) was based on the life of Nelly Kröger, I had to find out more about her. I’ve written an essay called “Trouble in the House” (HEAT 20, 2009), which further explains my choices and discusses the process of writing the book.
Ullmann: How did you come up with the idea for the book?
Juers: It arose from a need to understand the great global tragedies of the first half of the 20th century. I wanted to write a book that was at once biographical, cultural, and historical. It would require a large canvas, but I did not want to fall into generalizations or abstractions. So I questioned--and imagined--that era through what I knew best, literature, and then more specifically, through the personal writings--diaries, letters--of some of the era’s leading intellectuals. I wanted my book to establish both private and public perspectives, and the connections between them.
Ullmann: I loved that you put a lot of detail into portraying Nelly Kröger, who was never really accepted by the Mann family and others and was often referred to as an alcoholic who was not very intelligent. But, as actually many wives of intellectuals who had to flee Europe under the Nazis, she was an incredibly strong and hardworking person. Do you feel you've gotten to know her better through your research? And how would you characterize her in a few words?
Juers: Oh yes you’re right. There’s a lot of intellectual snobbery and chauvinism in the biographies of the Mann family, an extension I think of the way Thomas Mann regarded not just Nelly but anyone else he did not approve of. So Nelly has been treated as a joke, or a social misfit, as some kind of anomaly in literary circles. But in the course of my research I found that she was smart, a great reader, a great cook. Her alcoholism is not very different from Thomas Mann’s or many others’ dependence on various drugs. Her existential despair, leading to her suicide in 1944, was also shared by other exiles. In addition to her (often exaggerated) flaws, I discovered Nelly Kröger-Mann possessed intelligence, personal integrity, warmth, and courage.
Ullmann: In order to write a book like yours, extensive research is necessary. I assume you spend a lot of time in archives working with primary sources. Could you tell us a little bit about your research process? Which sources did you use to learn about the characters in your book and how did you locate them?
Juers: I began, as I said, by reading the work and diaries of early 20th-century German writers and their non-German contemporaries. I then added history books to my reading list. When it became necessary to look at unpublished material in archives in Lübeck, Hamburg, Berlin, and Los Angeles, I kept returning to these and various other places. It was also important for me to spend time in Niendorf, where Nelly spent her childhood, to get a sense of place. At the same time, I established e-mail correspondence with other scholars, as well as some of my subjects’ relatives and associates, some of whom I then met in person. Sometimes I was rewarded, such as establishing contact with Nelly’s nephew and niece, or with the daughter of her friend Rudi Carius. Other times, after many years of searching, I was terribly disappointed, as in the case of Nelly and Heinrich’s friend Salomea (Sarah) Rottenberg...I would have loved to know more about her background, her life in France, and her last years in America.
Ullmann: After receiving so much well deserved recognition for House of Exile, what is your next project going to be? Are you already working on another book?
Juers: Thank you, Michaela. My new project is something completely different. For a long time I’ve been interested in how people think about nature, and I’d like to research and eventually write a book about 19th- and 20th-century German naturalists (including botanists, explorers, artists, and photographers) who came to Australia (where I live!). It will be another large canvas, another collective biography.