Vienna, 1954: a middle-aged Jewish academic returns from exile and tries to pick up the traces of his previous life. A beautiful but troubled American girl is sent to visit her Austrian aristocratic family to connect with her roots. A decadent aesthete Greek-American millionaire scavenges among the war-ravaged remains of Vienna for his perfect pleasure palace. The Exiles Return is a novel that explores experiences of isolation and longing in which each character is searching for something just out of reach, in a world that has been totally transformed by the Second World War.
Persephone Books has posthumously published this novel in English by Elisabeth de Waal, a Jewish-Viennese émigré who wrote five novels in her lifetime (two in German, three in English) that were never published. The story explores the relationships between several Viennese émigrés who return to Vienna in 1954, but the book also serves as de Waal’s semi-autobiographical account of a returning émigré. In fact, in the preface de Waal’s grandson (the artist and memoirist Edmund de Waal) encourages us to read her novel with that semi-autobiographical element in mind. She returned to Vienna comparatively soon after the war, and so Adler’s (the returning academic) experience in particular are shaped by her own impressions (Edmund de Waal sees Adler as in some ways Elisabeth’s partial self-representation, as Elisabeth was also an academic). But her exploration goes beyond personal memoir: the novel offers a philosophical and psychological examination of the nature of being an exile, and of what we mean by ‘home’.
De Waal’s writing is crisp and engaging, and the novel is an enjoyable read. There is, however, something slightly unsatisfying about the conclusion of the various story threads. The narrative is book-ended by a mysterious death, but this dramatic event felt somewhat rushed. I wanted to know more about several of the richly drawn but less central characters, such as Lucas, the radical young student; and Adler’s unrepentant former-Nazi colleague. The late-occurring Adler romance is compelling, but again it felt under-developed. Surely an extra-marital romance between an older, Jewish man and a penniless Austrian princess twenty years his junior deserves a little more room in the novel than it is given? It is a shame that the book was not published in her lifetime, so that perhaps de Waal could have continued exploring these fascinating threads.
Minor criticisms aside, The Exiles Return is an evocative analysis of a fascinating place and time, and the star of the novel, really, is Vienna itself. It is an old friend to the central characters, with whom the returnees tentatively attempt to reacquaint themselves. The characters attempt to learn the city’s on-going eccentricities – a place that is difficult to pin down, that is continually undergoing transformation and that has complex nuances and subtleties. Consequently, the story works best if readers have also ‘met’ the city, and who understand its timeless charm – ideally the novel should be read while sitting in a coffee shop in old Vienna, soaking up the beauty of the city that de Waal once called home.
Published by Persephone Books, The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal is available to buy online here.