Archive for the ‘ reviews ’ Category

The Master, by P.T. Anderson


Billed as PT Anderson’s ‘scientology film’, The Master is really an enigmatic melodrama about everything and nothing. This is its strength, in a way, but also ultimately its weakness. Continuing in There Will Be Blood’s vein of hammed-up thespian intensity, like that film The Master focuses on two larger-than-life characters. Freddie Quell is an emotionally damaged WW2 veteran and wildly self-destructive drinker, whose benders involve alchemising lethal moonshine from ingredients like cough syrup and (literal) rocket fuel. However, most of the pre-launch hype has surrounded his counterpart, the bombastic, pseudo-messianic shyster Lancaster Dodd, inspired by South Park’s L. Ron Hubbard.

Quell falls under the influence of Dodd by chance, having wandered onto a cruise ship rented by Dodd’s cult, during the course of one of his binges. The two strike up a strange mutual dependency, with Quell falling under the spell of Dodd’s charismatic oratory and cod-spiritual guidance. Quell’s priest, psychoanalyst and surrogate patriarch in equal parts, Dodd is also in some ways a kindred spirit and mirror image. In a strangely triangulated pact, he feeds off Quell’s childlike reverence, growing ever more dependent on Quell’s dependency.

Dodd also, it is hinted, develops something approximating Quell’s physical dependency for the potent cocktails he concocts. Just as There Will Be Blood concerns the intoxicating effects of the will to power, religious fervor and primal animosity, The Master concerns the parallels between those of belief, personality, and alcohol. Both films make more sense if you bear in mind that, in one way or another, the characters spend most of their time completely wasted.

As is immediately discernible, then, this is not Anderson’s personal critique of the tenets of scientology, an exercise that would be unlikely to merit two and a half hours of any thinking person’s attention.  The cod-philosophy that Dodd spouts is clearly spurious, but its details are arbitrary and only briefly gestured at. Anderson is clearly interested in belief and where it comes from, but he is primarily concerned with the human compulsion, need, manipulation, desire and force of personality that creates it, not the details of that which is believed. Even when a rare, educated listener challenges Dodd as he spouts his ludicrous metaphysics, the focus is on the human content of his violent and paranoid reaction, rather than the truth-content of the objection.

If this is a character film rather than an issues film per se, that is not to say that Anderson does not attempt to locate his characters within the specifics of their time and place. Indeed, the film is full of gestures towards wider themes. Quell is a lost boy who has no idea how to take control over his life having been cast back into civilian society after the war (though the latter is never shown). His search for a surrogate family is underwritten by his own rootlessness, his father having drunk himself to death and his mother having died in an insane asylum. He makes a living for a time by taking family photographs in a shopping centre – the ultimate symbol of America’s mid-century crisis of spirituality – creating endless reconstructions of the idealized nuclear unit from whose authentic reality he is alienated.

Yet if Anderson intends Quell to embody some sort of wider truth about the postwar condition, this intention is at odds with Joachim Phoenix’s caricature posturing – which is not to say that it isn’t an extraordinary performance. In many ways it is a remarkable display of method-acting rigour. Indeed, Pheonix’s sneering, maniacal intensity recalls that of Klaus Kinski in Werner Herzog films like Aguirre, The Wrath of God, Fitzcarraldo and Woyzeck.

Yet the uses to which Herzog and Anderson put this sort of performance are very different. Herzog’s Kinski films are defined by Wagnerian excess – explicitly, in the case of Fitzcarraldo. The histrionics of Kinski’s performances are matched by Herzog’s overreaching metaphysical bombast. Their elemental intensity recalls classical tragedy, serving to dissolve the individuality of Kinski’s personas and elevate them to the realm of archetype. Herzog’s purpose is not to create a sense of empathy or three-dimensional believability in the case of Aguirre, any more than Homer’s is in the case of Achilles.

Anderson is interested in filming similarly spectacular and histrionic performances from both his leading men, but he also seems to want to domesticate them in a way in which Herzog has no interest. This creates a conflict. Anderson seeks to examine Quell and Dodd and tap into their interiority, understanding the human motivations that underpin their relationship. But their performances are so external and aestheticized in their studied thespianism that they remain remote. Quell and Dodd are neither believable enough to be fully human, nor representative enough to be compellingly symbolic. They neither fully achieve nor transcend the particular. The result is caricature.

There is much to admire in The Master, but it is not a film that ever achieves more than the sum of its parts. Indeed, the main impression I left with is that Anderson is an interesting and talented director who has fallen into the trap of believing his own hype. Profundity, much like humour, is something that can’t really be forced. The earlier films that launched Anderson’s reputation, Boogie Nights and Magnolia, are triumphs of style, offbeat humour and imagination, but they are not works of any particular artistic or philosophical depth. They are films that are not about anything per se; they merely are – in a way that is unforced, singular and vital. The Master, in contrast, is a work that in its desperate striving to say something meaningful about life ultimately fails to attain a life of its own.


The Kid with a Bike , by the Dardenne Brothers

In Vittorio De Sica’s 1948 Italian neo-realist classic The Bicycle Thieves, a desperately impoverished, salt-of-the-earth Roman worker has his bicycle (and thus livelihood) stolen, shortly after securing a long sought-after gig pasting up posters during the post-war depression. The film follows his quest to recover his cherished mode of conveyance, accompanied by his cherubic son. Along the way they encounter various examples of the dog-eat-dog pragmatism of poverty, illuminated by the odd flash of human warmth, not least that which emerges from their own relationship. Dominated by hardship and misery, the film nonetheless offers a glimmer of redemption in the form of human compassion and forgiveness, a contrast to the alienating indifference of a capitalist system that reduces people to units of currency.

It is tempting to view the Dardenne Brothers’ latest film as a remake or homage, though as tends to be the case in their particularly stark brand of unadorned realism, any of the consolations of humanism are considerably harder won. Whereas De Sica’s social realism depicts the material circumstances of urban poverty but is seduced by the twin temptations of sentimentality and dramatic performance, in the Dardennes the human subject is shown to us at a far more advanced stage of late-capitalist alienation. De Sica’s implied faith in the redemptive transcendence of the human soul is replaced by unknowable, conflicted individuals whose acquisitiveness and occasional flashes of affection are never straightforwardly separable. If the Dardenne Brothers are not always as engrossing or aesthetically memorable as De Sica, at their best they are a good deal more unsettling.

Whereas The Bicycle Thieves is glued together by the fundamental bond between father and son, The Kid with a Bike focuses on Cyril, a 12 or 13 year-old boy who has been casually rejected by his father. Initially the plot concerns Cyril’s attempts to recover his bike, yet it morphs into something more akin to a bildungsroman, a character portrait of a vulnerable yet resilient child adrift in a world in which acquisitiveness and indifference are the norm. An abandoned orphan, Cyril is offered an unexpected lifeline in the form of a hairdresser who encounters him during one of his frequent dramatic flights of rage, and subsequently agrees to foster him. As in De Sica, a bond emerges between the two that offers the film’s promise of redemption. However the sentimentality and idealised character traits (the stoical simplicity of the father, the crowd-pleasing cuteness of the son) that mark that film are absent, or at least presented far more problematically.

Just as their hero Robert Bresson remade Dreyer’s silent classic The Passion of Joan of Arc in a way that stripped it of what he regarded as its grotesque thespianism, the Dardennes slam shut the door that De Sica offers us to his characters’ interior lives, rejecting any unnatural expressiveness and obviously scripted dialogue. As in Bresson, the Dardennes’ mode of characterisation is all flatness and surface; physical movement and cinematic syntax take over the work more conventionally assigned to dialogue and performance. We are denied the background information or intimate access that would allow us to readily categorise the characters, or credit them with the clearly differentiated motives, desires and stable traits of traditional humanist subjects.

This alienation ties in with the films’ more fundamental concerns. Though the Dardennes deal with the wrong side of the tracks, they seem to be primarily interested in a form of spiritual rather than material poverty. True, their characters are generally frenetically rushing around struggling to make ends meet, and a lack of material opportunity and hope is a continual backdrop. However, they are not primarily out to shock us with representations of extreme poverty or domestic abuse, or to promote a clear-cut social or political message. Existential themes of meaninglessness and indeterminacy are instead pushed to the foreground, and this makes their films far more unsettling. Whereas a film such as The Bicycle Thieves encourages the utopian interpretation that if it were merely unburdened of an unfair social system mankind might flourish, the Dardennes are as interested in emotional and spiritual forms of alienation as they are in social disenfranchisement. Though they may in some ways be by-products of a dehumanising capitalist system, there is no obvious political solution to the problems they confront.

If this groups the Dardennes films together into one, that is because they are in a sense stages of the same project, corners of a cumulative picture of the world as viewed through the microcosm of the unremarkable industrial city in Belgium in which all their films are set. Through adapting Bressonian techniques they have developed a method by which to translate their worldview into a cinematic form that is at times almost perfectly at the service of content, utilizing and making a virtue of the tendency of film to aestheticize and keep us at arms’ length, rather than attempting to overcome it through artificial means. The immediacy of the medium gives them a mimetic advantage over the Zola-esque novels their films recall, presenting the world to us in its natural state of flux and indecipherability, free of the necessarily reflective dimension of language.

Despite being of the same bloodline, and though it shares many of the broader virtues that make them so unsettling and indispensible, The Kid with a Bike in my view ultimately falls slightly short of the devastating cogency of films such as L’Enfant and Rosetta. Though the first half of the film is flawlessly crafted, in the second there is a tailing off that I would suggest can be traced to both structural and thematic problems that are absent from their best work. The ending of the film is in a sense a reprise of that of The Bicycle Thieves. In that film the father, driven to desperation, steals a bike from a crowded square only to be chased down by an irate mob. Though initially out for revenge, the owner of the bike relents upon seeing the man’s defenceless child, and opts for forgiveness. The son too forgives the father and, as the film ends with a shot of them walking away hand in hand, materially destitute but somehow spiritually enriched, we are left with an image of humanity that transcends the dehumanization of material want.

Similarly, The Kid with a Bike ends on a note of hope and redemption. Cyril has briefly become caught up with a local small-time dealer, and in return for a bit of mild buttering up commits a robbery that involves him – somewhat implausibly in an otherwise rigorously realistic film – knocking out a father and son with a baseball bat. He is saved from the path of juvenile detention and seemingly inevitable ruin by the man he has assaulted, who agrees to forgive him and drop charges. Cyril is ultimately able to return the compliment when the man’s son attempts to exact revenge and briefly fears he has killed him. In an apparent nod to its own artificial symmetry, Cyril is also knocked out only to come around minutes later having suffered no serious ill effect.

Part of the deflation that takes place with this late storyline comes from the fact that not all of its details are particularly believable; but this would not be a primary concern if it served a more compelling essayistic function. The problem for me is that the ending feels rather too determinate, dissipating some of the energy generated through the powerful portraiture of the opening half of the film. In the Dardennes’ best work the final scene arrives as a crescendo that is also a paradox, an inevitability that somehow also manages to question and redefine all that has gone before – like the emotional outpouring at the end of L’Enfant that is rendered all the more shattering for its stubborn indeterminacy, or the sheer relentlessness that marks the final crescendo of Rosetta. Both scenes confer on us an urgent interpretative choice, as in the devastating final shot of Trouffaut’s The 400 Blows when the young Antoine is frozen in an unexpected close-up, looking almost pleadingly into the camera as if to ask ‘what now?’

In the more optimistic closing note of The Kid with a Bike, we can still hear some characteristic undertones: the conflict between that which is shown and presumed, and the probability that the symmetry of the plotline is coincidental and ultimately meaningless. As Cyril cycles off into the sunshine we have no idea what he is thinking, whether he will manage to choose a better life than that which seemed his fate, whether he will collapse from a brain haemorrhage following his concussion, or indeed whether he will make it home at all without being hit by a lorry. Yet it failed for me to gather these conflicting possibilities into the sort of compelling paradox that makes films like L’Enfant and Rosetta so piercing and resonant. As an addition to the Dardennes’ body of work it sits somewhere short of the apex, but it still does enough to demonstrate why they are of a completely different order of significance to 99% of the films that will be showing in a cinema near you this year – and for that reason it demands to be seen.     

Dogma, by Lars Iyer


“You should never learn from your mistakes”, declares W. in the opening line of Dogma, the sequel to Lars Iyer’s cult philosophical comedy, Spurious. Fans will be reassured to know that neither W. nor Lars seems to have learned much between then and now: they still hang around in pubs abusing each other and waxing grandiloquent about the End of Days; they still haven’t really figured out Rosenzweig and Cohen; they still haven’t had an original thought; and though Lars’ apocalyptic plague of damp may be in recession, it has been replaced by a chronic infestation of rats. All in all, what with academia falling ever further into disrepair and W. on the verge of losing his job, if anything things have become even more hopeless.

Like its predecessor, Dogma revolves around the suffocating inertia of Lars and W., its tragi-comic double-act. The characters move around a bit more than in Spurious, but – like the dancing chicken at the end of Werner Herzog’s Stroszek, which W. adopts as a symbol of the idiotic ‘dance of the cosmos’ – it is movement without progress, without sense and without cease. As well as visiting each other in Plymouth and Newcastle, this time the pair embark on an ill-fated lecture tour around the Deep South, visit Oxford, and go to worship at the shrine of their latest ‘leader’, the misery-folk recluse Josh T. Pearson, at a music festival in Somerset (which those of a certain cast of mind will recognise as ATP).

Read the full review at ReadySteadyBook

Scenes From Provincial Life, by JM Coetzee

‘Autobiography as defacement’, my piece on JM Coetzee’s trilogy of autobiographical works Scenes From Provincial Life, has been published over at 3:AM Magazine.


Whom do we hear speaking in the following sentence?  “For a man of his age, fifty two, divorced, he has, to his mind, solved the problem of sex rather well”. The self-justifying tone of the opening clause, the rhetorical qualification ‘to his mind’, the telling definite article in ‘the problem of sex’, suggest an inflection on the part of the character in question. But the journalistic parenthesis ‘fifty two, divorced’, to say nothing of the fact that it is written in the third person, sounds more like the author spatchcocking in some background information to chivvy his narrative along. The voice is neither straightforwardly that of the author nor that of the character. It occupies, though the use of Flaubert’s style indirect libre, a space between the two that allows both for critical detachment and internal access.

The above, the opening sentence of Disgrace, might be cited in a creative writing course as a textbook example of a modern literary style (though the uses to which Coetzee puts it are anything but). Coetzee retains a reputation for this kind of minimal, slightly frosty precision, surgically dissecting his characters while maintaining all along an unflinching distance and restraint. Passages such as the above play out the uncertain relationship between the narrator and narrated in their every word, and this dynamic has been one of the key points of tension throughout Coetzee’s oeuvre. Indeed, his very first novel, Dusklands, begins with a narrator who labours under the gaze of a military supervisor named Coetzee. (First sentence: “Coetzee has asked me to revise my essay”).

Read the full piece here 

Spurious, by Lars Iyer

How fitting that a book called Spurious, that started life as a blog, should be a frontrunner for the Guardian’s Not The Booker Prize. This not being the Booker, Spurious is neither a state-of-the-age doorstopper, a fictional resurrection of a misunderstood historical personage, nor a parochial lament warbled from the banks of the Liffey. It is instead a series of blogpost-sized snippets following the repetitive interactions of a tragi-comic double-act – the down-at-heel narrator Lars, and his hilariously harsh friend W.

Lars and W. are relatively undistinguished philosophy tutors at English universities, and both are united by a feeling of utter inadequacy, irrelevance, stupidity and, well, spuriousness in the face of their intellectual heroes. They meet, talk, drink, despair and console, but mostly W. just mercilessly – and hilariously – abuses Lars. In one particularly funny passage, W. compares their friendship with that of Blanchot and Levinas – except whereas the French philosophers exchanged correspondence of depth, significance and high seriousness, W. and Lars draw each other pictures of cocks on the internet. Their problem, W. notes, is that neither of them is a Kafka – they are both Brods.

Spurious is an un-English book in several ways – partly because of its complete lack of interest in the mode of mainstream, lyrical realist fiction that is so dominant in this country, but also due to its subject matter and tone. W. and Lars’s heroes stem from the tradition of continental modernism – from Kafka, Heidegger, Blanchot and Beckett to Bela Tarr – and they are infused with a very European anxiety. The book also owes a great deal to Thomas Bernhard, who is unmentioned but whose presence is unmistakable throughout.

Following the distancing technique employed by Bernhard in novels such as The Loser and Old Masters, the entire narrative is reported to us by a narrator (Lars), who is the passive figure in most of the interactions. Thus the book consists for the most part of the thoughts and opinions of W., though the only narrative access we have to him is second hand. This introduces an aspect of what James Wood calls ‘double unreliability’ – we know that W. has been rewritten by Lars, but we don’t know to what extent. As in Bernhard, the characters’ voices are subsumed in the act of narration, reinforcing the insurmountable distance between art and life, and the fundamental impossibility of writing.

Indeed it is this sense of distance and impossibility that is perhaps the central current running through Spurious. Lars and W. are anachronistic figures chasing a seriousness and authenticity of intellectual experience that seems to be no longer attainable. Even their despair is ironic, clichéd and absurd – the very possibility of authentic thought seems to have withered and died, suffocated by the intellectual giants in relation to whom their failure is assured.  As with Bernhard and Beckett, Spurious is pulled along by gallows humour, but the bleakness and despair underpinning it is real too.

Spurious will probably remain a cult book that appeals primarily to those with the sort of intellectual interests that lead them to empathise with Lars and W. That said, for all its acknowledged spuriousness and self-mockery, it is a book that responds to serious questions in a way that is honest, thoughtful and deceptively profound. It is, in the best possible sense, the opposite of the sort of book that normally wins the Booker Prize. That it will have to make do with that award’s tongue-in-cheek inversion is therefore entirely appropriate.

Taste of Cherry, by Abbas Kiarostami

Watching Taste of Cherry is an intensely claustrophobic experience. Shot on digital film mostly from the inside of a car, it follows a middle-aged man, Mr Badii, as he spends a day driving around the charred, industrial hilltops on the outskirts of an Iranian city. With lengthy takes of seemingly unscripted dialogue, he engages a series of men – a worker, a plastic bag collector, a young soldier, a guardsman, a trainee priest, and a taxidermist – in small talk, trying to lure them into his car. If he succeeds, he drives them to a shallow grave on a secluded hillside and makes them a proposal: in return for a large amount of money, they are to return to the hillside at 6am and call out his name. If he answers, they are to help him out of the hole. If he does not, they are to cover his body with twenty spade-fulls of earth.

So in one sense the film is a character portrait of a man preparing to end his life, though any intimacy we gain is by virtue of sheer proximity. We spend a great deal of the film quite literally looking into Mr Badii’s face from the passenger seat. Kiarostami filmed a lot of the footage by just driving around with him, pointing a digital camera in his face, and we certainly get an insight into his manner and small-talk, the morbidly quotidian chat-up he uses to disarm his passengers enough to make his offer. But we know virtually nothing else about him or his reasons for wanting to die. In this sense he functions in part as a constant, an inscrutable premise. For the first half of the film at least, the narrative tension doesn’t really come from whether or not he will follow through with his plan to kill himself, so much as the varying reactions of the passengers to his proposition.

The only revealing piece of biographical information we glean is when he tells a young soldier that he looks back upon his military service as the happiest period of his life, a time of friendship and companionship. Now, we infer, he is wretchedly lonely, and it seems reasonable to presume that this is part of his suicidal motivation. But though this interpretation is implicitly encouraged, it is not substantiated in any way. It’s also perfectly conceivable that Mr Badii was either never in the army, or was and hated it, and merely makes his claim as a way to disarm the young soldier. The film trades on this kind of elliptical uncertainty, refusing to give us the sort of easy answers that allow us to stop thinking and questioning.

Indeed, the film uses uncertainty to explore the two-edged sword of our connections with other people. On the one (pessimistic) hand, it reinforces our insurmountable isolation, the impossibility of ever having true access to the thoughts and feelings of another human being. Mr Badii spends most of the day being confronted with barriers, trying to chip through the guardedness, suspicion and awkwardness of the people he meets to attain a sufficient state of intimacy that will allow him – with no small amount of grim irony – to persuade his passengers to help him end his life. When asked about his reasons for wanting to kill himself, Mr Badii replies that it is pointless to explain since even if another person were to know the events that caused it, they would still be incapable of feeling his pain.

Yet we are also presented with an optimistic counterargument in the form of the final passenger (the taxidermist), who embodies warmth and disinterested concern. He tells Mr Badii the story of his own attempted suicide when, having given up all hope in life, he went out one morning to hang himself from a tree. However, having climbed the tree he picked a cherry and tasted it. He suddenly realised that he was staring out at a beautiful sunrise. Some school children came and asked him to shake the tree, and cherries fell down for them to taste. Suddenly he no longer wanted to die.

So the protagonist is presented with two opposing arguments – the cold, pessimistic logic that dictates that one person is damned to solitude, and the human, epicurean counterargument that says we can overcome this isolation through sense experience, or good old fashioned faith. With the apparent simplicity of a medieval morality tale, the film sets up for its final scene as an either/or, preparing us for either a consummation of the ruthless logic of philosophical pessimism, or the leap of faith that will give him the strength to carry on.

And then, having meticulously built to this final scene, Kiarostami pulls out the rug. We are faced with a final shot of the protagonist’s face in the shallow grave, eyes open, from which it is impossible to tell if he is dead or merely waiting for the taxidermist to arrive and help him up, symbolically and literally, out of the hole. After a lengthy blackout we switch to a mise en abyme, showing the shooting of the film – with the actor, Kiarostami himself and the crew conversing by the hillside, shot on grainy hand-held film. We then pan round to the group of soldiers whom we have previously seen marching in the film, ‘off-screen’, larking around looking happy. The critic Roger Ebert, who hated the film, saw this as a tacky gimmick, the sort of postmodern ‘distancing effect’ that does nothing but ram its own cleverness down your throat. Unfortunately he completely misses the point.

As in Nabokov’s wonderful short story Signs and Symbols – also concerning suicide – Kiarostami is in one sense setting the artificial logic of the narrative, which invests images with significance and symbolism, against the resistance of events to this form of explication. The structural similarities are striking. Nabokov’s story is about a suicidal young man who suffers from ‘referential disorder’ in that he thinks everything in the world – every sign and symbol – refers to him: ‘Everything is a cipher and of everything he is the theme’.  The short narrative ends with a phone call to his parents, which we are invited by the structure of the story to presume will be the hospital informing them of his suicide. But in taking up this hermeneutic invitation we would be suffering from a form of the same referential mania from which he suffers, falling victim to the bad faith of fiction’s artificial structures of meaning and causality – faith in which, it is implied, would constitute a form of insanity.

Similarly, Kiarostami meticulously builds up his narrative to the either/or final scene in a way which confers potential inevitability on one of two outcomes: the logical death-spiral resulting in suicide, or the leap of faith leading to redemption. Depending on our reading, there is evidence in the signs and symbols of the preceding narrative for the structural inevitability of either outcome. On the one hand, the flashes of human connection that illuminate the stilted interactions, the warmth of the taxidermist, the beautiful shots that we and the protagonist witness as he sits by the graveside. On the other, the rigid logic that makes these transient comforts meaningless in the face of death. Like Nabokov, in letting us make our own decision about the outcome, Kiarostami reinforces the disjunction between the structures of art and the structurelessness of life.

Kiarostami could have achieved this effect if he, like Nabokov, had simply ended on uncertainty, leaving us to decide the outcome. Yet the complexity is multiplied by the closing image of the soldiers. The effect of showing us the group of smiling soldiers transplanted from the parameters of the narrative is to relieve them of their symbolic function and show them to us as a free-standing image. It undercuts the arbitrary meanings we impose through the narratives we construct – both good meanings, in the sense that they make life explicable for us, and bad meanings, in that they can trap and suffocate us, imposing inevitability where it may not otherwise exist.

Yet even outside of the narrative boundaries, the image of the soldiers cannot be merely an image. It confers a kind of choice upon us that in itself demands allegiance to a paradigm. Does the group of soldiers evoke the happy period of the man’s life in the narrative (implying the ascendancy of the optimistic interpretation), or did this period never even exist and arise simply from misinterpretation (reinforcing the pessimistic interpretation)?

There is no answer, and the image serves to suggest multiple philosophically loaded meanings while reinforcing its own essential meaninglessness. And within the context of the paradigm created by the film, this could be ‘bad’ meaninglessness leading to despair, or ‘good’ meaninglessness undercutting the logical death-spiral driving the main character to suicide. It is up to us to confer meaning on what we see, but – as Kiarostami shows us by ripping down the barriers between what is and isn’t a part of the plot – we can never do so free of artificial paradigms.

The House of Exile by Evelyn Juers

“The best writing occurs on a narrow ledge between fact and fiction”, states Evelyn Juers midway through The House of Exile. “That uneasy place the poet Wallace Stevens calls the metaphysical streets of the physical town”. She would say that, really. The House of Exile is described as a ‘collective biography’ but in reality it inhabits just such a street in just such a town. In his 2010 book Reality Hunger: A Manifesto David Shields called on contemporary artists to shake off the hackneyed garb of fictional plot and imaginative flight and bring art and reality together in their work. The House of Exile is precisely the sort of work that Shields’ book prophesies – a genre-blurring confluence of novelistic prose and historical documentation, primary sources mixed with fictional techniques and unashamed departures into the realm of speculation, amplifying the element of fiction contained within any biography.

 Despite its novelistic style and fictional elements, The House of Exile is founded on biographical practice. It follows the Mann family – primarily Heinrich, the left-wing German novelist, activist and anti-fascist campaigner, and Thomas Mann, his more illustrious but less sympathetically portrayed younger brother – as they are forced to flee their homeland by the rise of the Nazis, and eventually driven across the Atlantic by the outbreak of WW2. However, though devoting plenty of time to reconstructing their personas out of historical detritus – their novels, diaries, pieces of correspondence, newspaper reports, testimonies of friends and associates – Juers’ vision is more panoramic than that of the conventional biographer. She assembles a loosely connected cast of peripatetic artists and intellectuals that encompasses some of the most important names in modern European letters: Musil, Doblin, Kafka, Benjamin, Brecht, Woolf, Joyce, Roth, Bloch. For anyone with an interest in continental modernism this is wonderfully rich material, yet the book’s narrative pacing and elegant design are such that it can be enjoyed without too much prior knowledge.

Indeed, the material is sufficiently fascinating – framed by the political and aesthetic debates of the era, with illuminating insights into the personalities and day-to-day lives of its most important artists – that Juers’ more overt fictional interventions are not always entirely welcome. Her project is an interesting and admirable one, following in a rich tradition of works that probe the intersection of fact and fiction: JM Coetzee’s trilogy of BoyhoodYouth and Summertime, the semi-fictional works of WG Sebald, Vladimir Nabokov’s artfully reconstructed memoir Speak, Memory, right back to Marcel Proust. Yet in practice the more obviously fictionalized moments are those that tend to be Juers’ least successful. An inauspicious opening vignette involving Brecht, Heinrich Mann and his wife Nelly, would be indistinguishable from a supermarket-shelf potboiler if not for the names of the characters (“He turned toward them and waved. The Californian sun glinted from his glasses like the sword of Zorro”).

The book is top-loaded with this kind of literary posturing, as Juers sets the scene by introducing us to the main characters – first during their purgatorial wartime stint in the US, before imaginatively transporting us back to the childhood of the Mann brothers in Germany.  Unfortunately it doesn’t do us, or her, that many favours. The problem is that during these moments Juers comes across as a frustrated novelist, adopting a lyrical style that doesn’t play to her strengths. That which is presumably meant to sound profound often just sounds clichéd: “Julia mourned as only a child mourns, with an unwavering fidelity to all she’d lost”; Heinrich produces his work “in hot flushes of creativity”; “the excitement of the moment coursed through his veins and he could not stop the chain of thought”.

In general Juers’ fictional refashioning of her material works best when it is least obvious, and it recedes into the background as the book progresses, squeezed out as history plunges toward the abyss of WW2 and all of its attendant horrors. Juers takes care to occasionally remind us of the hybrid nature of what we are reading by punctuating the narrative with nudge-nudge wink-wink references to aesthetic statements such as Stevens’ ‘metaphysical streets’, or openly acknowledging the artistic license involved in the act of narration (“St Paul, she might have told the young man serving in the shop, found his refuge in a cave”).

She might convince us more when she recedes into the background, but throughout Juers is responsible for shaping our attitudes towards the main characters, whether overtly or insidiously. Virginia Woolf emerges as flighty, introverted and eccentric, but charming and full of irreverent insight; Joyce is a self-obsessed bore who “was upset that the publication of Finnegan’s Wake was upstaged by the war”; Heinrich Mann is warm, generous and admirably energetically in his convictions; Thomas Mann, on the other hand, is a conceited big-time Charlie who hobnobs in Princeton with Einstein rather than speaking out against the Nazis, and is frequently referred to as uptight, priggish and repressed. In a kind of reverse characterization Juers also portrays him as plagued by sexual arousal, seemingly colouring him with some of the traits of Aschenbach, the protagonist of his own Death in Venice.

Sometimes it does seem that Juers harbours something of a grudge against Thomas, the much-fêted elder statesman of German letters who has so overshadowed Heinrich in posterity. Thomas’ patrician disapproval of Heinrich’s wife Nelly – 17 years his junior and a former housemaid whom Thomas regards as common and crass – seems to have done little to endear him to our historical demiurge. After driving a distraught Heinrich home following Nelly’s funeral, we are told: “Thomas believed Heinrich did not have a cent because Nelly had spent all of his money, and on top of that, had incurred debts. In the evening, Thomas continued reading Kierkegaard”. No appeal is made to historical evidence to substantiate this self-absorbed and uncaring portrayal, and accordingly it reads as something of a low blow against one whom mortality has deprived of his right of reply.

Indeed, telling the story of the peripheral figures overshadowed by Thomas Mann’s imposing reputation seems to be one of the motivating factors behind Juers’ book. Despite being surrounded by a dream team of 20th century literary giants, it is Nelly who emerges as the unlikely hero of the piece. In her passion, warmth and humility she is everything that Thomas is not, and Juers makes no attempt to hide her personal affection. She, along with so many of Germany’s most talented sons and daughters, does not live to see her homeland liberated from the horrors of Nazism. It is this looming spectre of historical inevitability that gives Juers’ entire narrative its tragic undertone, and makes this absorbing work such an emotionally as well as intellectually engaging read.