If Elisabeth de Waal’s name sounds familiar, credit her grandson, Edmund de Waal. His acclaimed book “The Hare with Amber Eyes” (2010) chronicled the history of Elisabeth’s family, the Ephrussis, an eminent Jewish clan in Europe. As readers of the younger de Waal’s book may recall, Elisabeth (1899-1991) lived an accomplished life, but one achievement eluded her: Although she wrote five novels — two in German and three in English — not one found a publisher. Until recently.
The manuscript now published as “The Exiles Return” is set mainly in 1954-55, in the months leading up to the signing of the State Treaty, which, the novel’s brief and enigmatic prelude reminds us, “led to the withdrawal of the Allied Occupation forces and finally restored Austria’s independence.” This setting may prompt some readers to view “The Exiles Return” as a historical novel, but for Elisabeth, it was a fairly contemporary creation.
It is also a highly autobiographical work. In a foreword to his grandmother’s novel, Edmund finds Elisabeth’s experiences threaded throughout the fictional narrative. In part, he locates these in the character of Dr. Kuno Adler, the first returning exile the reader comes to know. Through this Jewish scientist who found safety in the United States 15 years earlier, we discover some of what Elisabeth encountered when she returned to Vienna to reclaim what she could of the Ephrussi family’s past and possessions.
In his own book, Edmund stated, “I really don’t want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss.” Elisabeth’s novel takes a similarly unsentimental stance. Her Adler goes even further: “I have made up my mind not to enquire too closely into anything that happened while I was away, or into anybody’s recent past, or I could not have come back at all.”
Alas, the past is inescapable, evoked deftly by characters who reveal so much more than they actually say. On a more concrete level, the novel engages directly (if not always with 21st-century sensibilities) with topics that may have frightened away publishers two generations ago: Nazi atrocities, abortion and homosexuality.
Adler’s circumstances differ noticeably from those of two other central characters. Theophil Kanakis, scion of a Greek-Austrian family, has also returned to Vienna after some years away in the United States. Because he’s not Jewish, the reason for Kanakis’s exile sounds far less urgent: “When his father died and he himself had barely come of age, he took himself off to America with all his fortune.” Now tremendously wealthy, Kanakis returns to war-ravaged Vienna intent on using his money to fund a pleasure-seeking life.
Then we meet Resi Larsen. Also born to a non-Jewish family, Resi was a toddler when her Danish father, sensing war ahead, moved his family to the United States. Now a beautiful, if immature, young adult, Resi travels to stay with her mother’s Austrian relatives when her parents can’t quite decide what else to do with her.
That both Kanakis and Resi are American citizens turns out to be significant. Indeed, if Vienna itself manifests as a sort of character, so too does America: rich, powerful, controlling the destinies of both Austria and the Cold War West — and yet somehow bland and uninspiring. Questions of power and savoir-vivre similarly suffuse the plot, whether those issues play out through money, morality or a final bit of melodrama. Although Adler’s plotline remains rather apart, the stories of Kanakis and Resi draw together in a tragic conclusion. Elisabeth de Waal has assembled an unusual tableau — evocative and altogether memorable.
Edmund de Waal notes that “The Exiles Return” was first published in England in 2013, “in the week of the seventy-fifth anniversary of the Anschluss, the cataclysmic, convulsive act when Austria allowed Hitler to enter unopposed into Vienna.” Introducing the novel at the Austrian Cultural Institute in London, he recalls, “was not a melancholic occasion. It was a powerful affirmation of how stories can survive and find audiences.” Here’s hoping that “The Exiles Return” will now find the American audience that it deserves.
Dreifus is the author of “Quiet Americans: Stories.”
the exiles return
By Elisabeth de Waal
Picador. 319 pp. $26