February 2014

Lucia Cowles

fiction

The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal

What does it mean to belong, to a place and to the people who live there? This is the driving question behind The Exiles Return, Elisabeth de Waal's novel of 1950s Vienna. The title explains the story's premise: refugees from the Anschluss -- Austria's political union with Nazi Germany during World War II -- return seeking to make the city their home.

It is a story Elisabeth de Waal knew well. She was born, in 1899, to a wealthy Jewish family that had settled in Vienna thirty years before. In 1938 she would return to the city to help her parents escape from Austria. After the war she battled the authorities in Vienna for a decade, trying to learn what had happened to her relatives, and to reclaim looted family art collections. Meanwhile, Elisabeth and her husband lived in Paris, Switzerland, then England and New York, where she wrote reviews for The Times Literary Supplement. Elisabeth corresponded extensively with Rainer Maria Rilke; she wrote five novels, two in English and three in German, all of them unpublished except for this one. 

The Exiles Return principally follows Professor Kuno Adler and Marie-Theres (called Resi), as they encounter post war Vienna. Adler and Marie-Theres do not know each other, though their stories unfold at the same time and occasionally share characters and settings. Both hail from the United States -- Adler, a research scientist, returns to Vienna after fifteen years of exile in New York City; and eighteen year old Marie-Theres, American-born daughter of a Viennese princess, travels to Vienna on an extended visit with her Austrian relatives. Together Adler and Resi paint a sophisticated picture of the city, and the various discontents, ambitions, and suspicions housed there.

The novel begins and ends with the death of Marie-Theres, a purported accidental self-shooting. The event, intended to provoke reader intrigue and then to culminate the story's action, is the story's weakest link. The plot loses suspense as it accelerates into Resi's final hours (we know what happens now), and the act itself has little established precedent in the characters as we have come to see them.

This one thin plot device hardly matters. The Exiles Return is an otherwise beautifully written book, made rich by detail and its author's scholarly life. The prose is spare and packed with meaning. De Waal writes in a third-person, free indirect style that stays finely tuned to the nuances of human behavior, and alive to characters' overlapping experience of imagination, memory, and the present. If Elisabeth de Waal has a distinctive style than it revolves around a close attention to feelings, impressions and moods: what the author herself describes as "essences." At a dinner party where she doesn't understand the language, Marie-Theres falls into a sort of fugue state of reverie.

Everything seemed to become hazy and insubstantial around her and for a moment she thought she was dreaming and would suddenly wake up in the little white room at home in Eden Rise or at Aunt Fini's with Hanni in the other bed. And then panic rising, tears overwhelming her, everyone seemed to stand up at the same time, in one concerted movement, tensions relaxed voices changed their resonance, they were all saying good night and goodbye, shaking hands, and discussing prosaically how to get home.

Likewise, when Kuno Adler first arrives in Vienna, he walks along the Mariahilfstrasse, caught in the "curious, ambivalent sensation" of déjà vu. Then he arrives at the Ring, an arc of civil buildings that include Parliament and the Natural History Museum.

There he was, and there it all was; though the once tree-bordered footpaths across the roadway were stripped, treeless, only a few naked trunks still standing. Otherwise it was all there. 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.

De Waal maps her characters' wandering inner lives -- their subtle emotional shifts, and oscillation between focus and reverie. The novel pairs this attention to the affective, intuitive side of human life, with an exhaustive attention to detail. The author's wide-ranging erudition -- philosophy, law and economics -- provides her characters', and her Vienna, with a deep political and historical grounding. She discusses "invisible currents of emotion," as matter-of-factly as architectural period and style. The result is a fictional world enriched with knowledge and alive to the vagaries of human experience.

The Exiles Return has been published on the heels of the success of The Hare with Amber Eyes, a family history written by Elisabeth de Waal's grandson, Edmund de Waal. When Edmund de Waal talks about his family's history, he talks about the ongoing process of restitution, of giving back what was taken during the War. Restitution involves material objects, and also stories. The Exiles Return is a novel deprived of an audience that has endured to find one. It is an artful story, the product of a life's worth of solitary work, and it very much deserves to be read.

The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal
Picador
ISBN: 978-1250045782
336 pages