The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal

The Exiles Return - Elisabeth de WaalThe Exiles Return – Elisabeth de Waal
Persephone Books, March 2013

Review copy from the publisher
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In The Exiles Return, Elisabeth de Waal, Edmund de Waal’s grandmother, narrates the return of a number of exiles to Vienna, fifteen years after Austria’s Anschluss to Hitler’s Germany forced them to leave. Set in the years 1953-1955, the reader witnesses post-war society from the viewpoint of different characters, as Vienna’s society prepares to regain independence from their occupying forces in May 1955.

Slowly but surely, the reader becomes acquainted with a number of characters, at the core of which are five, even though some are more front and centre than others: Professor Adler who wants to return ‘home’ after years spent in an unhappy family and career situation in the United States. He is re-employed at the laboratory where he used to work, and there he meets Princess Nina, who also works at the laboratory and helps him with his work. Kanakis is a wealthy businessman who returns to Vienna in the hope of reestablishing the pleasurable life he led there in the prewar years. He takes an interest in Prince ‘Bimbo’ Grein, a very handsome but dissolute young man who has the status of his title, but no longer has the money. The fifth character is eighteen-year-old Marie-Theres, or ‘Resi’, who is sent to stay with her mother’s family when she fails to fit in with US society.

Resi’s story is the thread that runs through all of these lives. Most, if not all, characters encounter her during the years that are described, and two play a major role in her tragic ending. You may think that a spoiler, but the tragedy is described in the first pages of the book. However, it is not until the end that you find out what her reasons are and how they came about. The Exiles Return begins and ends with Resi, and in her many a reader will recognise part of the difficulties of growing up. For Resi is lost. Her family doesn’t exactly know what to do with her, especially as she does not seem to enjoy what the older generation expect her to enjoy. Instead, she spends her teenage years listless, mostly reading and listening to music in her room. Having been that kind of teenager, I felt a sympathy for Resi, even if at times I also felt a strong understanding for her family’s exasperation in wanting her to do something, and enjoy it. Resi is somewhat naive and excessively pretty. What is interesting is that at times she fits the stereotype that those lines so often invoke: she is easily persuaded, too much for her own good, she goes where her environment takes her without thinking it through. But at times, she is also resistant and strong, and she knows where her boundaries are. Resi is flawed, but very believably so.

Apart from Resi, my strongest sympathies were with Professor Adler. Through his story we encounter the experience of someone who returns from exile most strongly. Implicitly, Elisabeth de Waal shows us how a happy marriage can turn unhappy when circumstances change and people have to adapt to a new society, in showing us how the Professor came to the decision to leave his wife and children and to return to his homeland. Some of the strongest scenes in the book were those that describe his encounter with ‘his’ city after fifteen years:

There he was, and there it all was; though the once tree-bordered footpaths across the roadway were strippe,. treeless, only a few naked trunks still standing. And suddenly the dislocation of time which had been dizzying him with illusions and delusions snapped into focus, and he was real, everything was real, incontrovertible fact. He was there. Only the trees were not there, and this comparatively trivial sign of destruction, for which he had not been prepared, caused him incommensurate grief. Hurriedly he crossed the road, entered the park gates, sat down on a bench in a deserted avenue, and wept.

Through Adler’s eyes we also encounter the latent antisemitism that simmers in some of the institutions. For some of his present colleagues made a career working in Hitler’s scientific research ‘institutes’. More implicit than in Laski’s Little Boy Lost, we encounter the dreaded question of who did what, supported whom, during the war, and whether or not it matters in the present. There is a particular poignant confrontation halfway through the book that in its simplicity, in its shortness, brings the whole question to the fore, but also shows how a society and its people cannot do otherwise than trying to move on from the past if they are to work in the present.

And that’s just it. The Exiles Return mixes a delicate understanding of a society seeking a balance between its past and its future with beautiful prose, by giving us the stories of a number of very different characters. As much as I feel this book need not have the author’s experience brought into it to see its quality, it is hard not to mention the fact that Elisabeth de Waal was herself an exile from Vienna, and that she, like her characters, returned to the city (albeit for a short while) in the fifties. Her understanding of the idea of exile, of war-torn societies, recovering ones, and of ‘the exiled’ shines through in this book.

If I have to mention one minor complaint about the book it is that not all of the five character’s stories tie in as neatly as one has almost come to expect from these kinds of stories. For me, personally, that did not matter much. Even though I enjoyed reading about the experiences of some characters more than others, the flow of the story was seamless, and the narrative wasn’t disrupted when it changed from one character to the other, as sometimes happens with multiple-character stories. I admit, I was very impressed with Elisabeth de Waal’s formerly unpublished novel, and I do hope her grandson’s fame will mean it receives some attention. As for his novel, I think having just read The Exiles Return might be the perfect moment to finally pick up The Hare with the Amber Eyes.

{In case you are wondering why I singled out two characters in particular, it is because I tried not to spoil some of the pivotal story elements that might be considered spoilers by some. There are questions and thoughts in regards to these storylines that I’d love to discuss further, so if you’ve read the book, do not be shy :)}

Other Opinions: Yours?

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7 thoughts on “The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal

  1. zibilee

    It sounds like the author really used some of her own feelings in crafting this novel, and that kind of authenticity always makes a better book, in my opinion. I would love to see what I think of this one, and your revealing and thoughtful review make me very curious about it!!

  2. buriedinprint

    Thoroughly enjoyed reading your thoughts about this one (about which I hadn’t heard); I especially like your perspective on how tightly the perspectives of the multiple characters do (and do not) mesh, as now that you mention it, that could certainly add to the sense of verisimilitude to have it somewhat looser, even though we might be inclined to *want* tighter construction in that way (as we do often want things to be simpler and tidier than they are). The way you describe this, I can certainly imagine enjoying it!

  3. winstonsdad

    I ve had this one on my radar for a while since reading hare with amber eyes and I think he mention this book in a interview ,be nice to add some more background to the family story via this book ,all the best stu

  4. Simon T

    My copy is waiting for me… I am even more excited about the Helen Hull, though. But I’ve found myself not in a fiction-reading mindset for the past couple of weeks, so am subsisting on non-fiction.

  5. Pingback: Review: The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal | Alex In Leeds

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