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Review: The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal

While amassing the family archives in preparation for writing The Hare with Amber Eyes (one of the bestselling books of the last decade for our store), Edmund de Waal discovered the manuscript of a novel by his grandmother, written in the late fifties but never published, and immediately recognized it as “a novel of great vividness and great tenderness, which at its heart depicts what it might mean to return from exile.” De Waal loved the book and persuaded Picador to publish it. The Exiles Return arrived in our store last week and we are proud to offer it as an exciting read for the post-holidays.

The novel concerns five people who grew up in Vienna before the war and have come back to the occupied city in 1954-55 to try to re-establish the lives they have lost. One is a Jewish research scientist who fled Vienna for America in 1938 and has returned to a research post in hopes of recreating his old life. He falls in love with his lab assistant, a woman of limited means but unlimited aristocratic pedigree. Another is a wealthy Greek who comes back to the city of his childhood and buys a small palais in an effort to create a life of 18th-century pleasure. He takes up with the young, gay and equally aristocratic and equally poor brother of the lab assistant. Finally, there is a beautiful 18-year old American girl whose parents fled Austria for America but have sent her back to rich relatives in Vienna in hopes she will find a satisfying life, something she seemed unable to achieve in America.

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The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal is available at Crawford Doyle Booksellers.

The intermingling of these characters forms the basis for the story as they try to cope with Austrians who did not leave during the war and seem to resent the intruders. They encounter an awesome level of snobbery among the aristocrats clinging to their fin-de-siècle post-war lives. Antisemitism, anti-Catholicism, and homophobia seem to motivate most of the people the exiles encounter– a little unusual for books written in the fifties. But the story is characteristic of the period in which it was written with a fast pace, melodramatic situations, and, for at least one of the exiles, a tragic ending. Anyone who has travelled to Vienna will recognize the Habsburg remnants of the city and its citizens — Baroque, melancholic, and festive — infusing this novel.

Elisabeth de Waal, the author, was a remarkable woman. Born in Vienna in 1899, she studied philosophy, law, and economics at the University of Vienna, earning her doctorate in 1923. A friend of Rilke, Elisabeth wrote poetry and five unpublished novels, lived in Paris, Switzerland, and London, raised a family, and died in 1991. The Exiles Return, we learn from her grandson’s foreword, contains many autobiographical elements, not the least of which was Elisabeth de Waal’s return to Vienna after the war to find and recover the looted familiar art collections and property seized in 1938. This is one case where the life of the author is as interesting as the life of her book.

John Doyle owns Crawford Doyle Booksellers with his wife, Judy Crawford.

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