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This Novel Could Be the Next 'Suite Francaise'

Three Lions/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Three years ago, the sculptor Edmund de Waal scored a surprising literary success with The Hare with Amber Eyes, a family memoir that became a bestseller. In that book, de Waal traced the fortunes of his father's mother's family, the Ephrussis, an extremely wealthy and cultured Jewish dynasty with branches in Odessa, Paris, and Vienna. The Ephrussis were, among other things, great collectors of art; it was an inherited collection of netsuke, small Japanese figurines, that first sparked de Waal's interest in their story. But most of their artworks, along with their fortune, was lost at the time of the Anschluss, when Nazi Germany absorbed Austria in 1938.

Now the success of de Waal's memoir has enabled him to restore another part of the family legacy. The sculptor's grandmother, Elisabeth de Waal, was born Elisabeth Ephrussi in 1899, and she spent the first part of her life in splendor in Vienna. After marrying a Dutch husband, Elisabeth lived abroad, first in Paris, then moving to England to escape the German onslaught during World War II. All this time, her grandson reports, she maintained her interest in literature, writing and translating in several languages, and completing five novels, none of which ever found a publisher during her lifetime.

But thanks to Edmund's support and the curiosity aroused by The Hare with Amber Eyes, one of Elisabeth de Waal's novels has finally appeared, nearly sixty years after it was written. The Exiles Return1 is, as its title suggests, a story of lives fractured, like Elisabeth's own, by World War II. Set in Vienna in the early 1950s, while the city and the country were still under occupation by the Allied powers, the book draws on its author's own experience of the postwar city. Here, for instance, is how the train ride into Vienna appears to Kuno Adler, a Jewish scientist coming home after fifteen years in America:

Suddenly there was a proliferation of tracks, and the upper stories of town houses lining the street below glided by. Then the Western Station--or what used to be the Western Station. Formerly, there had been a long and high, cavernous, glazed-in hall into which the trains used to glide; it was old-fashioned, dingy, and yet somehow sumptuously dignified like the well-worn attire of a high-born elderly spinster who has clothed herself once and for all in her best and scorned to change her style. But now there was just—nothing: an open space where the bombed wreckage of the old station had been cleared away; stacks of building material, steel girders and concrete mixers for the new modern station under construction.

In this cityscape turned metaphor, the old luxuries and proprieties have been wiped away, but the new order has yet to emerge; what exists is an open space, in which no one is sure how to live. In Carol Reed's classic film The Third Man, which is set in just the same time and place as The Exiles Return, this disorientation is captured in compositions of shadows and strange angles, and in a story of desperation and moral corruption. De Waal's book, by contrast, is formally conservative, and the city's corruption is manifested in subtler ways, as it distorts the manners and values of those who come into contact with it.

Kuno Adler, whose story is one of three that weaves through the book before finally intersecting, is the novel's only Jewish character, and his story is in some ways the closest to de Waal's. It's not clear from the brief biographical introduction, written by Edmund de Waal, whether Elisabeth ever tried to resettle in Vienna herself, or just visited the city; but Adler's struggles represent her imaginings of what such a return would be like. Adler is an émigré who never adapted to life in America—a failure made all the more conspicuous by the great success of his wife, who started a corset business and made a fortune. The contrast shames him, as does his wife's newfound acquisitiveness, and he decides to try to regain what he lost before the war. Encouraged by a new Austrian law promising restitution to émigrés, he believes that he is going to be given the directorship of the research lab where he used to work—the job he would have had if his career had not been interrupted.

Of course, things don't go so smoothly. Adler's interview with the bureaucrat in charge of getting his job back is one of a series of excruciating encounters that dramatize the essential indifference and resentment of those who stayed at home towards those who had to flee. As it turns out, Adler does get a job at his old lab, but not as director; there is already a director, who doesn't want him back and makes his existence miserable. (In a melodramatic touch, this rival turns out actually to have been a Mengele-like doctor-torturer during the war.) When Adler visits his old friends, the Helblings, he has to listen to their self-pitying monologue:

"What dreadful years these had been. No one who had not been through them could have any idea. The first years of the war had not been too bad, although even when victories were being blared every day over the radio they had never believed the Germans would win; not after it had become obvious the invasion of England had failed. They had always listened to the BBC: it had been dangerous to do so, but they had listened all the same. The end had been so terrible: the bombing, the destruction! So unnecessary, wasn't it Hermann? The Germans were finished anyway—so why did the Americans have to bomb Vienna? And destroy the Opera House—the Opera House, I ask you?”

Despite all the frustrations and embarrassments he has to endure, however, Adler's story turns out surprisingly well: he even manages to find true love. The heart of the novel, however, lies with its other returning exiles. Theophil von Kanakis, a rich Viennese from a Greek family who grew even richer in America during the war, comes back home intent on a life of pleasure. A connoisseur of people no less than art, he fulfills his dream of finding an eighteenth-century townhouse and turning it into a sybaritic den, where young people come for a never-ending party.

One of those young people, fatefully, is Maria Theres, known as Resi. Born in America, she has come to her ancestral homeland for the first time, visiting the family her mother left behind. Resi knew that her mother was born a princess, but only now does she realize just what this means in the Old World, where titles and ranks and ancient ways of life still cling to relevance. Out of step in America, with its relentless busyness, Resi finds herself born for the lazy country life of the aristocracy: "How the hours passed she hardly knew. In the mornings she would lie in the grass where an angle of the castle wall made a square of shade for her head and her long bare legs were stretched out to the warm caress of the sun; lying with her eyes half-closed, she would watch the butterflies fluttering between the tall grasses."

The main interest of both these characters lies in the windows they open onto Austrian ways of life. Something of de Waal's own connoisseur relatives must have gone into the drawing of Kanakis, and she must have had her share of the country pleasures—hunting, mountain climbing—that she gives to Resi. However, it is not long before the reader realizes that each of these characters is borrowed, more or less wholesale, from the classic novels Elisabeth de Waal loved. Resi is Isabel Archer from Portrait of a Lady, the innocent American who must navigate the deep waters of European society; and Kanakis is the Baron de Charlus from In Search of Lost Time, a closeted gay aristocrat whose extreme refinement masks his sexual predatoriness.

Once these connections are made, just about everything that happens in The Exiles Return is easy to predict. Both Kanakis and Resi fall in love with the same young man, the faun-like Bimbo Grein, and the complications that ensue bring naive Resi under the power of corrupt Kanakis. When Henry James wrote this kind of story in the nineteenth century, it made sense as a parable of American-European relations; in the context of 1950s Vienna, with the country prostrate at the feet of its American conquerors, it feels rather antique. And there is, today, something quite unpleasant about the sinister-homosexual typecasting of Kanakis, whose house parties are like a spider's web designed to entrap desirable youths.

It is not surprising, then, that The Exiles Return failed to interest publishers at the time it was written. In literary terms, it is a competent but derivative work. But appearing now, as a historical document, it gains an additional interest, as Elisabeth de Waal's imaginative response to her own exile. The Adler sections, in particular, show how many internal and external obstacles a returning émigré had to overcome, in order to regain a place in Austrian society. This is not, perhaps, a new story, but in The Exiles Return it is told with sharpness and authenticity.

  1. The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal