Posthumously published in 2013, The Exiles Return is the first of Elisabeth de Waal's novels to be published by Persephone (the above image is a Picador edition). Grandmother of author Edmund de Waal, Elisabeth de Waal was born in 1899 as a member of the wealthy Ephrussi family, a banking dynasty. Her mother was a Baroness, and Elisabeth studied law, economics and philosophy and was a poet.
The Exiles Return is the story of five people who return to Vienna in the mid-1950s. Some are loosely connected, and some closely. The story begins with Dr. Kuno Adler, a Jewish research scientist who is returning to Europe for the first time after the war. Though his wife became a successful businesswoman in New York, he longs to return to Vienna and is able to return to his laboratory, albeit in a less prestigious position.
The second character is a wealthy Greek named Kanakis, who returns to Vienna in search of a little Vienna palais to enjoy the society life. He has money and influence, and surrounds himself with beautiful and interesting people, including the young and beautifully handsome Prince Lorenzo Grein-Lauterbach, nicknamed Bimbo. Now impoverished, he has returned with his older sister Nina, who works in the same laboratory as Dr. Adler.
|Endpaper from the Persephone edition of The Exiles Return|
Finally, the reader is also introduced to Marie-Theres (nicknamed Resi), an eighteen-year old Austo-American, whose parents fled before the war. Daughter of a princess, she has never really fit in to American life and her family thinks visiting her mother's family in Vienna will do her good (and possibly marry her off).
At first it seems that these disparate characters have nothing to do with one another, but eventually, their stories intertwine, at least somewhat. The end of the novel is not a surprise, as it begins with a dramatic event reported in the newspapers, so the story is not so much about what happens, but why. It's a fairly short book and I think having so many characters in so short a novel is a bit disappointing. This almost feels like a first draft, and as an unpublished manuscript, it may well be (there's even a note explaining that the first page of a particular chapter is missing.) Dr. Adler and Resi get the most attention, and I feel like the other characters were underdeveloped -- the Grein-Lauterbach siblings are really just secondary characters but Nina in particular could have been really interesting.
Vienna and Austria, however, get a lot of wonderful descriptions. Resi spends a summer in a country estate which sounds just heavenly, and then a season in Vienna, going to lectures, parties, and the opera. In 2018 I was able to spend my Thanksgiving weekend in Vienna, which was just as wonderful as you'd expect.
|St. Stephen's Cathedral. The Christmas markets had just opened that weekend.|
|The National Library of Austria, surely the inspiration for the library in Beauty and the Beast.|
|Belvedere Castle was a quick walk from my hotel, it's now a museum with artwork by Gustav Klimt.|
|The Ferris wheel at the Prater, made famous by Orson Wells in The Third Man.|
|And the pastries were to die for.|
I really should have brought this book with me and read it while I was there, but my book group was meeting the day after I returned so I was busy reading Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel -- a book about a pandemic! Who knew?
I'm counting this as my book set in Austria for the European Reading Challenge.