This review was originally written for another book review website but it never made it into print.
From all accounts, it would appear that Edmund de Waal, author of 2010’s surprise bestseller, The Hare With Amber Eyes, has a Midas touch. While researching that book and digging deeply into his family’s torturous past, he unearthed five unpublished manuscripts by his grandmother, Elisabeth, written while she was in exile from her home in Austria after the Anschluss of 1938. The Exiles Return, titled posthumously and finally published more than fifty years after it was written, is one of those manuscripts.
According to Edmund’s concise and insightful foreword, his grandmother Elisabeth was a brilliant polymath raised in a Jewish family of great wealth, with “a scholarly father with a wonderful library, and a socialite mother with an unparalleled dressing-room.” She was fluent in Dutch, French, and English, in addition to her native German, and she pursued courses at the University of Vienna in economics, philosophy, and law. (In 1924, she was one of the first women from the university to receive a doctorate in law.)
Photo from illustrated edition of The Hare With Amber Eyes
She also wrote poetry and, after being introduced to Rilke through an uncle, maintained a steady correspondence with him and was regularly offered his critique of her work. Elisabeth’s was a charmed life to be sure, but it was all to be lost when the Nazis rose to power and her family was scattered into exile.
Photo from illustrated edition of The Hare With Amber Eyes
Set in mid-1950s Vienna on the eve of the restoration of Austria’s post-war independence, The Exiles Return opens with a prelude in which a reporter and a cab driver debate the rumors clustering around the death of a young American girl found in the country house of a millionaire, Theophil Kanakis. Switching gears, de Waal then introduces the first of her many exiles. Fifty-year-old chemist Kuno Adler is returning to Vienna alone after an unsatisfactory attempt at living in New York City with his family. While his wife and daughters were able to quickly and successfully adapt to their new surroundings, Kuno was never able to find his footing. Leaving his wife without getting divorced, he returns to see what’s left of Vienna and what he can reestablish for himself in the time remaining to him.
Meanwhile, Theophil Kanakis, part of a “small and distinguished community of Greeks whose wealth had helped to finance Vienna’s expansion,” has returned to Vienna from America, where he added to his fortune by dealing in real estate. Kanakis is not only looking to put down new roots, but also to buy his way to the top of the social ladder, to surround himself with the fabulous and the beautiful, the influential and the titled. While shopping for precious collectibles for his soon-to-be new home, Kanakis crosses paths with a different sort of collectible: Prince Lorenzo Grein-Lauterbach, aka “Bimbo.” And Kanakis, who is gay, is instantly smitten with this charming and cruelly manipulative young man.
In the characters of Adler and Kanakis, de Waal paints compelling portraits of the psychology of loss and the condition of exile as a profound existential crisis. The complex drama of Adler’s plight – driven from his home by the Nazis to a new “home” that he can’t adapt to, only to return to find his original home and his place in it irreparably altered – is movingly captured in de Waal’s probing, polished prose. And the double exile of Kanakis, as both an Austrian and a Greek (and, perhaps, as a gay man) is handled with a similar insight and sensitivity, albeit with a different intent. For where Adler might serve as a stand-in of sorts for de Waal – as well as a harbinger of hard-won hope – Kanakis brings the story to that tragic denouement alluded to in the book’s prelude.
Enter the young American girl from the prelude, preternaturally beautiful eighteen-year- old Marie-Theres “Resi” Larsen. Resi’s parents, Valery and Peter, have also been driven out of Vienna by the Nazis, and they’ve settled somewhat comfortably in an East Coast suburb (though Valery, of noble birth, finds the upbeat, “class-free” culture around her completely vacuous.) As Resi’s mounting boredom, indifference to her surroundings, and apparent lack of interest in boys lead to troubling speculation about her future, Resi’s parents pack her off to Austria to spend time with relatives. Soon enough, she’s being courted by a number of men, all of whom she forcibly rebuffs until she’s introduced to Bimbo who is now firmly ensconced in Kanakis’s social world both as a conduit to the upper-class echelons and, it’s later inferred, as a private sexual delicacy.
Perhaps because of de Waal’s intricate plotting and masterful stacking of incident up to that point, or because Resi is so young and inexperienced in comparison to the book’s other main characters, the sections concerning Resi and her relatives and suitors feel a bit flat and uncharacteristically obvious. Kuno Adler’s story, which evolves into a moving, redemptive love affair with a younger co-worker at the old laboratory where he’s resumed his job, builds to a breakthrough but then suddenly drops off, adding to a rushed feeling as the book charges toward its conclusion. Knowing from the outset the general direction in which the story is heading, thanks to the prelude, doesn’t exactly help either. While it initially piques the reader’s interest, it saps a bit of the surprise from what should be a shocking ending.
But none of this ultimately dampens the experience of reading The Exile’s Return. It is a diamond in the rough – but a diamond all the same. Edmund de Waal has done a great service to his grandmother’s memory – and her unjustly neglected talent – by bringing this book to light. One wonders expectantly at what those four other manuscripts of hers might have in store.
Photo from The Exiles Return