SDR Book of the Week: The Exiles Return, by Elisabeth de Waal
The Exile’s Return, by Elisabeth de Waal. Picador, 319 pp. $26
As its title suggests: Elisabeth de Waal’s novel, published posthumously with help from her grandson, Edmund (author of The Hare With Amber Eyes) is a novel of return. In three separate-yet-connected plot lines, her characters find themselves searching for a return to their past, for what was in earlier days.
Professor Kuno Adler, a Jewish scientist who fled Vienna to America fifteen years ago, finds himself coming back to his former home. He anticipates picking up where he left off, and finding that while the Vienna in his memory remained the same, the Vienna he finds has changed dramatically in the aftermath of World War II.
Theophil Kanakis, by comparison, comes to Vienna to pick up the pieces the war left behind. He wants to restore Austria to its former beauty and grandeur, and hopes that in the process his own standing in society would rise further. He is a middle-aged man, nearly forty years old, though he surrounds himself with people much younger than he in part to emphasize his wisdom and experience, and in part to live forever in his youth.
Marie-Theres, or Resi, is sent to Vienna to live with her aunt. In America, where she was born, she lives rather apathetically, and her mother–a former Princess–hopes sending her daughter to her own home might help spark some life in the teenager.
Sprinkled into each of the stories is the Grien-Lauterbach family–Nina and Lorenzo, or “Bimbo.” Earlier generations of this family was considered royalty, though now the titles “Princess” and “Prince,” respectively, are worth little more than the letters they include. Nina is happy to move forward; she goes by “Frauline Grien” rather than the more decadent “Princess Nina.” In contrast to his sister, Bimbo wants to restore the impact of “Prince” to his name and his family.
What I found compelling about The Exiles Return, however, is a far deeper element of redemption de Waal has written into the story. Much as the characters return to something they’d lost, Austria is searching to rebuild itself after the war. What was formerly a noble country has been reduced to rubble, and now the time has come to pick up and begin again.
Elisabeth de Waal wrote five novels throughout her life: three in English and two in German. As stated by Edmund in the foreword, she was a member of the Ephrussi family, a “dynastic Jewish family that had adopted Vienna as its home thirty years before” her 1899 birth year.
The Exiles Return is a novel of great vividness and great tenderness, which at its heart depicts what it might mean to return from exile. Within its pages it reflects a truly ambitious writer and a woman of considerable courage. Elisabeth returned to Vienna weeks after the Anschluss in 1938 in order to save her parents in their moment of greatest need. She managed to get her father to England in 1939. And she returned immediately after the war to find out what had happened to her family. She fought for a decade to get justice for the wrongs that had been done, battling the intransigence, hostility and derision of the authorities in Vienna. Yet she did this without losing her ability to live fully in the present and not be held hostage by the experience of being a refugee.
While Elisabeth was never published in her lifetime, she continued to write. Her first novel, The Exiles Return, was published in London seventy-five years after the Anschluss, the “cataclysmic, convulsive act when Austria allowed Hitler to enter unopposed into Vienna.” Edmund notes the significance of this anniversary in his foreword, and I’m sure this novel may serve as yet another reminder to the world that Austria–and, really, Europe as a whole–has returned.