One of the most memorable characters in “The Hare With Amber Eyes,” Edmund de Waal’s award-winning account of the global peregrinations of his family’s collection of Japanese hand-carved figurines, is his paternal grandmother, Elisabeth de Waal. Born in 1899 into the Viennese branch of the Ephrussis, a Europe-wide Jewish family prominent in the banking sector, she experienced the disintegration of the Austro-Hungarian Empire following the First World War, and watched Nazi Germany annex Austria in the run-up to the Second. By then, she was married to Hendrik de Waal and living in London. After the war’s end, she tried, with middling success, to recover her family’s stolen property and assets in Vienna.
She also wrote. Her five novels remained unpublished in her lifetime (she died in 1991). “The Exiles Return,” which she penned in English (the language she spoke at home), was first published last year in the United Kingdom, and includes a foreword by her grandson.
In “The Hare With Amber Eyes,” Edmund de Waal described this novel as “unpublishable,” saying, “[t]he rawness of its emotion makes for uncomfortable reading.” This is doubly ironic. To begin with, “The Exiles Return” has now, deservedly, been published. Yet the story is, if anything, too mannered, what with its Viennese socialites’ polished savoir-faire. Elisabeth De Waal’s narration, which assumes the perspective of each of the major characters in turn, proves confident, thanks to her intimate familiarity with the subject matter and her eloquence, but lacks vigor and urgency.
“The Exiles Return” takes place in 1954-55, just before Austria regained independence. The story revolves around disparate characters trying to carve out a niche for themselves in postwar Vienna: Kuno Adler, a reticent Jewish research scientist who has left the stability and lucre of his job in America to come home, despite his wife’s refusal to accompany him; Theophil Kanakis, a rich member of Vienna’s prominent Greek community, who, also newly returned from America, takes advantage of the city’s economic plight to purchase property and antiques at bargain prices; and Marie-Theres, a frustratingly opaque American teen of Austrian patrician lineage visiting relatives. The story also involves an impecunious and predatory young aristocrat with whom Marie-Theres becomes romantically entangled, and a leftist commoner besotted with her.
Of these characters, Adler alone ignites. The author renders the scientist’s cautious yet determined attempts to embed himself in the new Austria with a keen perception likely honed during her postwar sojourns in the country. At one point, Adler regrets wondering whether an innocuous remark conceals anti-Semitism: “I must watch myself, Adler thought, not to be so oversensitive, so suspicious — though not to be gullible either — feel my way carefully.”
Yet he must also contend with the legacy of Nazism. At the institute where he is reinstated, Adler’s superior is an amoral scientist who performed medical experiments on concentration camp prisoners under the aegis of the Nazis, but was acquitted by a tribunal after the war. In a bone-chilling conversation about the man’s wartime exploits, Adler calmly informs him, “I am one of those, Dr. Krieger, whom you didn’t get rid of.”
Through Adler, we also gain insight into the author. De Waal witnessed most of her compatriots embrace Austria’s murderous son, Hitler, and turn on the Jewish community. Later, postwar Austrian governments granted many high-ranking local Nazis immunity from prosecution. To add insult to injury, the financial restitution de Waal secured from these governments was insufficient to cover her family’s losses.
She might have become vindictive, depicting unrepentant Austrians who grudgingly let Adler return only to rebuff his every effort to “once more . . . grow roots and become established in this country to which he wanted to belong.” Instead, she imagines an Austria in which Adler detects resentment toward returning exiles, but also finds love, social acceptance, and professional fulfillment. The beauty of this otherwise bland novel lies in its portrayal of a resurrected postwar Austria and an obdurately patriotic Austrian Jew complementing each other in an uneasy but heartening and seemingly durable relationship.