Helen Lowe-Porter in 1907

Set in Munich, Oxford, and Princeton, my new novel ANTICIPATION (excerpt below) is loosely based on the life of Helen Lowe-Porter, the translator of Thomas Mann and a writer in her own right. It’s the story of a brilliant, ambitious woman’s struggle for her own voice, against convention and the demands of the two male luminaries in her life.

Helen Lowe-Porter’s translations of the great twentieth century German novelist Thomas Mann bring him acclaim from the English-speaking literary world—and the Nobel Prize. But her elegant, precise, painstaking work is overlooked by readers, ignored or criticized by reviewers. Mann himself complains about having a woman translator and pressures her to work faster. Helen swears that one day she’ll quit this servitude and finally finish her own novel.

Helen is married to the celebrated scholar Elias Lowe who claims the freedom to sleep with other women, citing his excessive “life force.” In love with her husband, Helen dreads but tolerates his romantic encounters. But when he seduces their daughter’s young friend she’s forced to reimagine her own future.

Imagining Helen: The Life of Helen Tracy Lowe-Porter



The Mann Dinner



In the Institute’s oak-paneled dining room the long table was set with white linen and galaxies of flower-patterned plates, gleaming silverware, crystal glasses, opened bottles of Chablis and Bordeaux clustered at intervals, bowls of small fragrant roses echoing the plates. The scholars were in dinner jackets dug out from the backs of closets, their wives in cocktail dresses. The Knopfs, visitors from a more glamorous world, orbited smoothly among them–Blanche with her sleek hair and thin bare shoulders, Alfred with his lovingly groomed moustache which always made Helen think of a show pony. Helen was in dark blue velvet, a color that flattered her eyes, as her daughters had told her. She stood at Mann’s shoulder, introducing guests, murmuring translation when he needed it, relieved not to have to make cocktail chatter herself. Mann looked every inch the celebrated author with his well-cut jacket and bow tie, his straight-backed stance. His collar was so stiffly starched that it dug into his neck. He did not seem to notice. He and Katia were the Institute’s guests of honor—double exiles, since after an uneasy sojourn in Switzerland they were now seeking refuge in the United States. They were displaced and sad, haunted by the nightmare taking place in their homeland. But tonight they radiated wellbeing. Everyone in the room was a friend, a reader, an admirer, a like-minded opponent of Hitler who respected their courage in leaving. They were safe, they were embraced and adored.

Dr. Milstein summoned them all to the table.

“You must sit beside me, Helen,” whispered Mann, taking her arm. “I will need your help.”

“A toast!” proclaimed Dr. Milstein when everyone was seated. “To our honored guest, the greatest living German novelist and a courageous opponent of Fascism.” Vigorous nods around the table. “To Dr. Mann and his wife!”

“Hear, hear!” chorused the scholars. Glasses were raised and sipped. The Manns smiled graciously. “’His wife’,” thought Helen as she clinked glasses with her neighbor. Does Milstein not know her name? But Katia Mann did not seem affronted– no doubt used to being subsumed in Mann’s persona, no more expecting specific mention than would his ear or his thumb. Helen admired the woman’s apparent equanimity as she blinked in acknowledgment. I couldn’t do it, she thought. I couldn’t devote myself body and soul to my husband’s work, genius or not.

Mann raised his wine glass and waited. The cheering table quieted down instantly.

“It is my turn to propose a toast,” he said in German. He paused for Helen to translate, not looking at her. “To Mr. and Mrs. Knopf, my visionary publishers!” said Mann. He gestured grandly to them. “They have done me the great honor of introducing my work to the English-speaking public. My wife and I thank you both!”

The German-speakers at the table applauded when he paused, joined by the others as soon as Helen translated. “Hear, hear!” they all cried. “To Mr. and Mrs. Knopf!”

Mann lifted his hand and again there was a hush. “And above all,” he continued, now in rehearsed English, “I must thank my dear Mrs. Lowe, my devoted and brilliant translator! If you know my work it is because she is working so very, very hard. Without Mrs. Lowe I am an unknown German only.” He smiled down at her. “To Helen Lowe-Porter!”

And they all drank to her, looking at her with admiration and pride—our Mrs. Lowe, our own Mrs. Lowe. Elias, across the table, joined in the chorus of “Brava!” with gusto. For once it was not he who was in the limelight.

Helen hardly knew what to do with Mann’s praise, so rarely had she received it in any form. “Thank you, Dr. Mann,” she said, trying to summon an articulate response. “May I say that it is the greatest privilege and pleasure to spend my days immersed in the works of a master.” For a fleeting moment she and Mann held each other’s gaze. No one else could possibly know what it meant to dwell inside Mann’s invented worlds, to take account of every word, every allusion. No one else, not even Katia, shared their partnership, invisible to others and never before acknowledged even to each other.

The moment passed.

“Dr. Mann,” said Professor Berenson, one of the younger scholars, “may I ask, what is it like for a citizen of Germany to be in the United States at this moment?”

Mann looked at Helen, eyebrows raised. She murmured the question in German, trying to warn him with her choice of words that diplomacy was needed here.

“Ah,” he said, bowing slightly to the questioner. “We are filled with gratitude. My wife and I find here an indescribable sense of freedom.” Helen translated faithfully, though irritated by his sentiment, which she’d heard before. She did not share Mann’s idealism about America, as naïve in her view, as her own misplaced idealism about Communist Russia for which she had not forgiven herself.

Mann went on: “And may I add that we are confident in America’s ability to defend this precious freedom.”

Berenson raised his eyebrows and glanced around the table. “Do you mean that you believe we should enter the war?”

Helen held her breath. In their private communications Mann was scornful about the United States’ isolation. “Is it not time,” he’d said, “for your countrymen to share the sacrifices that your allies are making every day? On your behalf?” She could not disagree, much as she loathed the fact of war. But it was not an acceptable position for a recently arrived refugee, no matter how elevated his status.

Now Mann responded to Berenson: “I mean only that your magnificent country embodies the future towards which we can all work together.” With relief Helen rendered this into courteous English and Berenson nodded.

There was another star at the table, of even greater magnitude than Mann: the Institute’s legendary physicist and another exile from the Third Reich. Professor Einstein was the only man not wearing a tie, his gesture to the occasion an attempt at smoothing his white mane and a tweed jacket instead of his usual unraveling sweater. He said: “And Helen, what about you? How do you find your native land these days?” They were friends, he and Helen. She sometimes translated his papers and speeches. They wrote affectionate doggerel for each other’s birthdays.

Helen’s thoughts flew at the speed of light. She was a refugee herself, of a sort, and almost as constrained by her outsider position as Mann was. “I am happy to be here again,” she said carefully. “We are a fortunate country. But I believe that what happened in Germany warns us to be vigilant. No country, including ours, is immune to political madness.”

Einstein nodded. She knew that he shared her skepticism about American moral pride.

The conversation flowed in braided streams of penetrating observations about war and politics, literature and science: the cleverest people in the world exercising their minds over a feast that defied wartime austerity, all in honor of Thomas Mann, the great novelist and heroic symbol of resistance, and his esteemed wife. Helen’s voice wove in and out, not loud but clear, now in English, now in German, French, or Latin, when those languages were called for. She told a story about the time she and Alice, visiting Berlin in 1933, tried to hex Hitler by setting fire to a tiny Hitler doll—“with a movable right arm for heiling,” she said. But thanks to clever German engineering the doll was made of asbestos and wouldn’t burn. Enough wine had been drunk by now that a couple of the scholars banged on the table to punctuate their laughter, rattling the knives and forks.

“A wonderful moment for a prachtwoller mensch,” said Professor Einstein as they said goodbye. “A beautiful person. And I mean you, my dear. Not him, though he impresses, certainly. Come to me tomorrow, if you can, please. I need your help.”

“I will, gladly,” she said, kissing him on both cheeks. Helen enjoyed sitting with the professor at his table piled with mysteries and miracles, tackling whatever new letter or article needed her linguistic lift, with pleasurable detours into political conversation or whimsy. It was the opposite of her collaboration with Mann. And Albert did not stint on gratitude.