Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Exiles Return - Elisabeth De Waal

When I read 'The Hare With Amber Eyes' Elisabeth De Waal was one of the characters I wanted to know The Hare With Amber Eyes' she must have been a remarkable character and certainly deserves some attention. Amongst everything else Elisabeth was also a writer, leaving behind five unpublished novels including this one, all in manuscript, and inherited by her grandson housed in an old carrier bag.
more about. Edmund De Waal's grandmother lived through interesting times. She fought for the chance of an education - successfully, she studied law, set off into Europe where she married outside of her own super rich Jewish circle, finally settled in England, extracted her father from Nazi Vienna, and in 1945 went back to see what could be salvaged - that much I remember from '

It seems that Elisabeth De Waal tried and failed to get her books published in her lifetime but kept on writing anyway. Edmund quotes Elisabeth on this:
 'Why am I making such a great effort and taxing my own endurance and energy to write this book that no one will read? Why do I have to write? Because I have always written, all my life, and have always striven to do so, and have always faltered on the way and hardly ever succeeded in getting published...What is lacking? I have a feeling for language...But I think I write in a rarified atmosphere, I lack the common touch, it is all too finely distilled. I deal in essences, the taste of which is too subtle to register on the tongue. It is the quintessence of experiences, not the experiences themselves...I distill too much.' 
I'm not convinced that this is a particularly well chosen quote for this book. I suspect the problem with it may have been the fairly sensationalist plot which includes homosexuality, suicide, adultery, many titled folk, and a young girl who is seduced and then abandoned by a princely but unprincipled lover. If Elisabeth wasn't such a good writer in other respects the last part of this book would be something of a mess as the plot, which I do not feel entirely hangs together - enjoyable as it is - takes over from her perceptive exploration of exile. 

Exile must have meant a lot of things to Elisabeth personally and she explores many of them here. There's exile from home, from class, from family, from church, and from status, nor does she forget to look at the children of those who make the choice to leave - the legacy, even of self imposed exile, is passed down the generations. The first exile we meet is Professor Adler, a Jewish scientist on his way back to Vienna after 15 years in America. His wife and daughters have done well in the U.S. and have no desire to return to Austria, but the professor has never felt at home there - shocked by the casual anti-Semitism he's met with in New York, uncomfortable with his wife's success, and simply missing home, he takes his chance at repatriation returning to a country that has promised reparation but neither knows what to do with, or particularly wants, this ageing man who has experience but no capital. 

This is the point when the occupying forces of the four powers are about to move out of Austria, Vienna is recovering and rebuilding, and after 15 years there is a post war generation taking possession of it's future without perhaps being over anxious to examine it's immediate past, it's also interesting that there are so many upwardly mobile young people in this book. Adler's return is a difficult transition, the few old acquaintances he has left have lived through there own difficult years which leave them slightly embittered towards those who got away - who had an easy war safe in a country of plenty. Initially Adler is paranoid and hard to like, but homecoming suits him, and in the end he gets his moment of catharsis in conversation with someone who admits to having been a Nazi.  

If Adler is our hero Resi is the heroine. Resi has been sent to her Austrian family from America - they have adjusted to life there, it suits them, but to Resi something is missing and she doesn't quite fit into the country that's been home almost all her life. In the Austrian countryside with her aristocratic though no longer wealthy family she finds peace and purpose and in Vienna her connections open doors to her. Elisabeth chose her own route, arguably the war, for all the loss and heartbreak it bought, also created opportunities for people like her who wanted to escape the constraints of the rarefied society they were born into - there is little of the sense of loss in this book that characterises 'The Hare With Amber Eyes' - instead it feels like someone making sense of a changed world. Resi however is a problem. She has neither the confidence, born of knowing precisely who you are and where you're from, or the ambition of her parents who fought to go their own way, to back her up so she's a little bit adrift in the world. 

Persephone have a talent for finding thought provoking books and this one is no exception, I'd even go as far as to say that it's almost the quintessential 'Persephone'. The success of 'The Hare With Amber Eyes' should guarantee a certain amount of publicity for 'The Exiles Return' (it's already been discussed on Radio 4's Front Row) which it deserves. Elisabeth has basically successfully distilled her experience to create a really interesting discussion about the experience of exile, and about Austria's past, present, and future as it was in 1955, and better late than never we can now all read it and engage with her. 


  1. I'm looking forward to reading this so thanks for the review. Another interesting choice from Persephone.

  2. It's a really interesting book Lyn, very readable, and a lot to say. It's really taken hold of my imagination and stuck with me.

  3. My copy is in the mail and I can't wait to read it! I have always been fascinated by the idea and experiences surrounding exile so I know I'll have a lot to say and to think about with this one.

  4. I look forward to your thoughts on this one Claire, I've hardly scratched the surface here - there's a lot to think about and if exile interests you I don't think you'll be disappointed. One thing I meant to talk about more was the time element - Elisabeth makes the point that with homesickness it's not just distance that separates you from 'Home'but often time as well, and although you can go back to a place you can't go back to the time.

  5. Everything I hear about this book is putting it towards the top of my shopping list for next time I get to visit Persephone