The Haunted California Idyll of German Writers in Exile – The New Yorker

After 1933, the exiles had to come to grips with a world that surpassed their most extravagant nightmares. One popular stratagem was to insert contemporary allegories into historical fiction, which was enjoying an extended vogue. Heinrich Mann produced a hefty pair of novels dramatizing the life of King Henry IV of France. A gruesome description of the Bartholomews Day Massacre makes one think of pogroms in Nazi Germany, and the leaders of the Catholic League radiate Fascist ruthlessness. Dblin, by contrast, immersed himself in recent history, undertaking a novel cycle titled November 1918. It examines the German Revolution of 1918-19, with the Communist leaders Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht featured as principal characters. Dblin seems almost to be reliving the Revolution and its aftermath, in the hope that it will have a better outcome.

A handful of migr novels have emigration itself as their subject. Segherss Transit is the classic example of the genre, but others are worth revisiting. Feuchtwangers Exil, translated into English as Paris Gazette, is a soulful satire, set among disputatious emigrants in Paris. Sepp Trautwein, the protagonist, is a high-minded German composer who transforms himself into a belligerent anti-Nazi newspaper columnist. His finest hour comes when he invents an absurd speech by Hitler on the subject of Wagner. Exile is a humiliation, Feuchtwanger writes, but it makes you quicker, more ingenious, subtler, harder.

A more desperate vision emerges in the work of Klaus Mann, Thomass oldest son, who labored all his life in his fathers cold shadow. The Volcano, published in German in 1939, three years after he arrived in the United States, registers the toll that exile exacted on the young. In scenes anticipating Klauss own fatehe died of a drug overdose in 1949, at forty-twocharacters spiral into suicidal despair or chemical oblivion. Hollywood provides no respite: All was false herethe palms, the sunsets, the fruit, nothing had reality, everything was swindle, mere scenery. The novels depiction of gay desire presumably explains why an English translation never appeared. At the end of the narrative, a mystically inclined Brazilian boy converses with an angel, who kisses him on the lips, takes him on a flight around the world, and brings the consoling news that tolerance reigns in Heaven.

Werfel, having prophesied Nazi terror in Musa Dagh, shied away from a head-on confrontation with it. At the start of his final novel, a bizarre and fascinating experiment called Star of the Unborn (1946), Werfel confesses his inability to address the monstrous reality of the day. In a sly way, the novel speaks to that reality all the same. The narrator, F.W., is transported to a peaceful utopia in the distant future, which collapses into chaos. The tone is mainly playful, even zany, but a chill descends when F.W. visits a facility known as Wintergarden, in which those who have tired of life undergo a retrovolution into infancy and then death. The process sometimes goes awry, producing ghastly mutations. It is a conjuring of the Holocaust written just as reports of the German death camps were appearing.

Thomas Mann, the uncrowned emperor of Germany in exile, lived in a spacious, white-walled aerie in Pacific Palisades, which the migr architect J.R. Davidson had designed to his specifications. He saw Bambi at the Fox Theatre in Westwood; he ate Chinese food; he listened to Jack Benny on the radio; he furtively admired handsome men in uniform; he puzzled over the phenomenon of the Baryton-Boy Frankie Sinatra, to quote his diaries. Like almost all the migrs, he never attempted to write fiction about America. He was completing his own historical epic, the tetralogy Joseph and His Brothers, which is vastly more entertaining than its enormous length might suggest. The Biblical Joseph is reinvented as a wily, seductive youth who escapes spectacularly from predicaments of his own making, and eventually emerges, in the service of the Pharaoh, as a masterly bureaucrat of social reform. Its as if Tadzio from Death in Venice grew up to become Henry Wallace.

Manns comfortable existence depended on a canny marketing plan devised by his publisher, AlfredA. Knopf,Sr. The scholar Tobias Boes, in his recent book, Thomas Manns War (Cornell), describes how Knopf remade a difficult, quizzical author as the Greatest Living Man of Letters, an animate statue of European humanism. The supreme ironist became the high dean of the Book-of-the-Month Club. The florid and error-strewn translations of Helen Lowe-Porter added to this ponderous impression. (JohnE. Woodss translations of the major novels, published between 1993 and 2005, are far superior.) Yet Knopfs positioning enabled Mann to assume a new public role: that of spokesperson for the anti-Nazi cause. Boes writes, Because he so manifestly stood above the partisan fray, Mann was able to speak out against Hitler and be perceived as a voice of reason rather than be dismissed as an agitator.

Essays like The Coming Victory of Democracy and War and Democracy remain dismayingly relevant in the era of Vladimir Putin, Viktor Orbn, and Donald Trump. In 1938, Mann stated, Even America feels today that democracy is not an assured possession, that it has enemies, that it is threatened from within and from without, that it has once more become a problem. At such moments, he said, the division between the political and the nonpolitical disappears. Politics is no longer a game, played according to certain, generally acknowledged rules.... Its a matter of ultimate values. Mann also challenged the xenophobia of Americas strict immigration laws: It is not human, not democratic, and it means to show a moral Achilles heel to the fascist enemies of mankind if one clings with bureaucratic coldness to these laws.

On the subject of German war guilt, Mann incited a controversy that persisted for decades. He was acutely aware that mass murder was taking place in Nazi-occupied landsa genocide that went far beyond what Werfel had described in Musa Dagh. As early as January, 1942, in a radio address to Germans throughout Europe, Mann disclosed that four hundred Dutch Jews had been killed by poison gasa true Siegfried weapon, he added, in a sardonic reference to the fearless hero of Germanic legend. In a 1945 speech titled The Camps, he said, Every Germaneveryone who speaks German, writes German, has lived as a Germanis affected by this shameful exposure. It is not a small clique of criminals who are involved.

The overwhelming fact of the Holocaust led Mann to call for a searching self-examination on the part of German people all over the world. In Germany and the Germans, a remarkable speech delivered at the Library of Congress in 1945, he argued that the demonic energies of Hitlers regime had roots reaching back to Martin Luther. Mann did not exclude himself from the web of shame: It is all within me. I have been through it all. In the end, he said, there are not two Germanys, a good one and a bad one, but only one, whose best turned into evil through devilish cunning. The entire story is a paradigm of the tragedy of human life. That message of universal responsibilitywhich, Mann made clear, is not the same as universal guiltaroused fierce opposition in postwar Germany, where searching self-examination was not in fashion. Allied forces, for their part, were happy to skate over the de-Nazification process, so that Western Europe could focus on fighting a new enemy, the Soviets.

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The Haunted California Idyll of German Writers in Exile - The New Yorker

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