Tuesday, 24 September 2013

The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal


The Exiles Return: endpapers taken from a roller-printed rayon furnishing fabric

I must be one of the few people who hasn't read The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, though one of my reasons for not having done so has to be that it was written this century and I've been reading a lot from the last one. When I was asked if I'd be interested in reviewing one of the most recent Persephones, though, the description made me leap at the chance. It's a previously unpublished novel about five people returning to Vienna in the early 1950s, and there was every indication that it was going to be one of those rather quiet, uneventful novels that I like so much and that Persephone Books do so well. The author is Elisabeth de Waal, grandmother of Edmund, and herself an exile from Vienna, which she left in 1939. This book is her "return" to the city where she grew up.

I wasn't disappointed in my expectations, unless it was because it seemed to be over so quickly. That's not to say there was anything rushed about it, just that I was so absorbed in the life of the characters that I wanted more of them. When Professor Kuno Adler decides to return to Vienna, his wife is appalled. She has made a success of their life in America and the promise of reinstatement to his old job has no absolutely appeal for her, so he goes alone. "Reinstatement" turns out to be a bit of a misnomer, and there is awkwardness with former friends who had stayed throughout the war, but there is some small pleasure in rediscovering the city, and the surrounding areas. Kanakis, on the other hand, wants to recreate the life he had before the war, and is looking for "a pavilion of graceful eighteenth century proportions...a little palais" such as he thinks he might have heard of once, and which just might have survived the conflict. While he's looking for his perfect house he meets the rather louche "Bimbo" Grein, a pleasure-loving but penniless young prince who will, sooner or later, be hanging out for a rich bride, and Bimbo's serious older sister Nina.

The remaining exile is the beautiful Resi, daughter of one of the Princesses Altmandorff, who has grown up in America but really doesn't fit in there. Her parents, unsure what they can do for the best, send her to stay with her aunt on the family estate, and the scene is set for the intertwining of the lives of all our characters. At first Resi is absolutely content at Wald; lazing in the garden, helping with the flowers, "she floated on the broad unruffled stream of life". The idyll is interrupted, though, by the arrival of cousins and friends, including Nina Grein, who unwittingly ousts her from the position she's happily fallen into as her aunt's companion, setting her adrift again.

The lives of these returning exiles become intertwined, providing the focus for the second half of the book. And it's here that I have some reservations about the overall shape, since it felt a little like two separate books stuck together. Professor Adler, who is in some ways the most interesting and fully-rounded character, fades into the background for a long section, so much so that I wondered whether he was ever going to reappear! Resi, on the other hand, is of interest mostly because she's a misfit - she's actually rather young and dull, and given to melodrama, and she didn't emerge sharply enough from the pages for me to feel much patience with her. However, the eventual contrast between two people searching for a place to feel at home, the faltering Resi, and the quiet Professor Adler, aware as he is of so much about the recent war that is unspoken, becomes a compelling study of identity.

In the end, I felt that this was very nearly a wonderful novel. But its minor flaws are more than compensated for by its interest as a remarkable piece of social history, one which offers a rare insight into postwar Vienna. It's certainly an excellent addition to the Persephone canon.

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