Hitler’s rise to power in 1933 resulted in an exodus of intellectuals from Germany. The Nazi Party’s control extended into all areas of science and culture, including literature; by the end of 1933, over 1,000 books had been banned by the Party, and the notorious book burning ceremonies had been held in Berlin. Behind Einstein, possibly the most famous exile was Thomas Mann, the Nobel Prize winning author of Death in Venice and The Magic Mountain. Holidaying in France at the time the Nazis took control of the government, Mann was soon informed that it would not be safe for him to return to Germany. Instead, he settled with his family in Switzerland, where he began work on the third volume of his epic novel Joseph and his Brothers. In her debut novel The Decision, lawyer Britta Bohler examines Mann’s life in exile, and fraught relationship with the country of his birth.
This is not the first time that the intellectual exodus has been tackled in literature: Andrew Crumey’s The Secret Knowledge, for example, deals with Walter Benjamin’s doomed flight from Germany, as well as Theodor Adorno and Hannah Arendt’s life in American exile. The Decision is notable in that it doesn’t deal specifically with the events of Mann’s flight from Germany. Instead, it focuses on three days in January 1936, during which the exiled author vacillates over whether he should publish a letter critical of the Nazi government.
Although he was instinctively critical of the regime (a position which became more pronounced during the war years), he was still fiercely attached to Germany and its culture, and held out hope of being allowed to return. Furthermore, he worried that a critical public statement would endanger his publisher, and lead to the banning of books in his native country. The conflict between Mann’s instincts as an author, a bourgeois democrat, and a German provides the narrative tension which runs through The Decision.
There is a sense throughout the novel that Mann represents a culture which is being swept aside by the events of the Twentieth Century. His personality is patrician, and the experience of becoming ‘othered’ by his exile is jarring. The move is presented as a great downsizing – most of his assets and belongings remain irredeemably in Germany, and he has anxiety dreams about his diaries falling into the wrong hands. His bourgeois mindset lends a slightly banal air to the novel’s opening section: Mann thanks God that he ‘had invested the Nobel Prize money abroad right away’, and refers to his new home having ‘all the advantages of city life with none of the disadvantages’.
Unfortunately, these concerns take precedence over a potentially more satisfying theme, that of ‘the gap between being an artist and bourgeois life’. Mann’s instinct tells him that ‘literature must keep its distance from politics. A writer has to create, not agitate’. And yet his family and his peers insist that it is his duty as a public figure to speak out against the crimes of Nazism. All too briefly, Mann ponders the myth of Faust, and the idea of the artist as a pure spirit, free from worldly concerns; sadly, this section receives less space than an account of the author walking his dog.
More interesting are Mann’s thoughts on exile. Despite being relatively privileged, certainly compared to the likes of Benjamin, he experiences a keen sense of loss, not only of home comforts (much of his library remains in Germany), but also the sense of being separated from his homeland. This homesickness affects him like ‘a chronic infection of the soul’. His long-term security has been swept away, rendering him unusually vulnerable and indecisive, and he struggles to concentrate on his writing.
Bohler’s novel is tightly put together, and touches on interesting themes, but unfortunately the third person narrative stops us from really inhabiting her subject’s thoughts. It feels as though the real psychological conflict of the novel is under-developed, as the narrative is overwhelmed by the everyday details of Mann’s life.
Any Cop?: There’s a fascinating story here, but The Decision only really scratches the surface.