Sometimes it takes a while for a distinctive writer to find her readers.
Elisabeth de Waal’s novels were not published during her lifetime. She wrote “The Exiles Return” and “Milton Place” during the 1950s and ’60s. Both were rejected by publishers, and she put the manuscripts away.
If you have read Edmund de Waal’s elegant, moving family memoir “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” you will remember Elisabeth, his grandmother, as a woman of great intelligence and courage. Born in 1899 into a Jewish Viennese family of bankers and aristocrats, she earned a law and economics degree with highest honors; studied in the United States as a Rockefeller scholar at Columbia University; and corresponded with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, who encouraged and admired her poetry. When Nazi Germany invaded and annexed Austria in 1938, she went back to Vienna and got her father out of the country to England, where she was by then living with her husband and children. And in 1946, it was Elisabeth who returned to Vienna and discovered the miraculously hidden collection of Japanese netsuke that are the centerpiece of her grandson’s memoir (and the subject of a current show at New York’s Jewish Museum).
She never lived in Vienna again. “The Exiles Return” and “Milton Place,” published in 2014 and 2019 respectively, are both novels about dislocation — about being from and of a place that you can never fully get back to because it no longer fully exists.
“The Exiles Return” is about three people who have made their way back to Vienna after the war. There is a brilliant Jewish scientist, whose desire to resume his research career is viewed as an unwelcome embarrassment by government and university officials; they are required to reinstate him but wish he had stayed away. There is a rich émigré businessman who has come back to build an elegant lifestyle, aided by the local real estate and art dealers who are profiting from the misfortunes of others. And there is an 18-year-old American innocent, visiting her aristocratic Austrian relatives. As their stories intertwine, the novel unfolds under a double shadow — of the recent war, and of the violent death which we are told on the first page is going to occur.
“Milton Place” is something quite different: an English country house novel. And yet it, too, is haunted by the flavor of pre-war Vienna. Mr. Barlow, an Englishman in his 70s, receives a letter from Anita Seiler, the daughter of an Austrian woman he was once in love with. He invites Anita to visit him, and she becomes a fixture in the house, increasingly entangled with Mr. Barlow, his two adult daughters, and his attractive young grandson. Anita has been scarred by the war — she lost both her father and her teenage son, and her husband turned out to be a Nazi — but she is not just a package of traumas. She’s sympathetic and fallible, nuanced and complicated.
The same is true of all of Elisabeth de Waal’s characters. Their lives have often been shaped and distorted by political oppression and war. But her novels are not constrictedly political; they operate on a deeper level. They are concerned with the vivid subtleties of how personal relationships form, or dissolve — the impacts people are having on one another in the present day.
There is a fortuitous connection between Elisabeth’s rediscovered novels and her grandson’s memoir. In 2011, when Edmund de Waal was giving a lecture at Stanford about “The Hare with Amber Eyes,” a historian, Peter Stansky, told him about the manuscript of a novel by his grandmother. Edmund had his own typescript copy of “The Exiles Return,” and this conversation inspired him to approach Persephone Books, an English publisher that has kept alive the work of 20th-century women writers. But when that novel was published, and Edmund sent Stansky a copy, Stansky wrote back: No, this isn’t the book I was talking about. “Milton Place” was the manuscript he had read, and Persephone has now published it too.
It’s a lucky thing for readers that these novels have surfaced. They’re emotionally sophisticated, sensual, and gripping. They are compassionate and never judgmental. They are precise: the exact sound of an Austrian German accent, the details of an office in Vienna or an English country garden. Elisabeth de Waal’s gaze is fixed on her characters as individuals, yet the war is there in the corner of her eye. Things are never completely dark. But there is always some darkness, even in the light.
Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index” and “The News from Spain.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.