The Exiles Return is set in Occupied Vienna in 1954-5. It describes five people who grew up there before the war and have come back to see if they can re-establish the life they have lost.
The novel begins with Professor Kuno Adler, who is Jewish and fled Vienna after the Anschluss (the events of March 1938 when Hitler’s troops marched into Austria). He is returning from New York to try and take up his old life as a research scientist. We realise through his confrontation with officialdom and with the changed fabric of the city (the lime trees are there no longer, it is hard to know who behaved well during the war and who was a Nazi sympathiser) that a refugee who goes back has a very difficult time.
Next we are introduced to a wealthy Greek named Kanakis. Before the war his family had lived in great style with a coach and horses and many servants, and now the 40 year-old Kanakis has come back to try and buy an eighteenth-century hotel particular, a little palais, in which to live a life of eighteenth-century pleasure. He meets Prince Lorenzo Grein-Lauterbach (who owes more than a little to Tadzio in Death in Venice). Bimbo, as he is known – and the nickname is an accurate one – is a 24 year-old who, because his aristocratic, anti- Nazi parents were murdered by the Germans, was spirited away to the country during the war years and afterwards. He is penniless yet retains an overweening sense of entitlement. Kanakis and he develop a homosexual relationship (a brave thing to write about in the 1950s) and he is kept by his older lover. But he has a sister, Princess Nina, who works in a laboratory, the same one to which Adler returns. She lives modestly in the attic of her family’s former palais, is a devout Catholic, loyal to her brother and the memory of her parents, intelligent and hard-working, but, as she perceives it, is stocky and unattractive. Lastly, there is 18 year-old Marie-Theres, whose parents went to America just before the war; they, and her siblings, have become completely American, but Resi (as she is known, possibly with a deliberate echo of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew) has never fitted in and is déplacée. So she goes back to her Austrian aunt and uncle to see if she can make a life in the home country (from her parents point of view to see if she can be married off) yet here too she is an innocent abroad, unable, to put down roots. Her tragedy is at the core of this moving and evocative book, which explores a very complex and interesting question: if an exile returns, how should he or she behave morally? Some have moral fastidiousness (Adler, Nina), some are ruthlessly on the make (Kanakis, Bimbo), some have no moral code because they have never been educated to acquire one (Resi).
Each of the exiles describes an aspect of the author herself. Elisabeth de Waal was brought up in the Palais Ephrussi, so wonderfully evoked by her grandson Edmund de Waal in his bestselling The Hare with Amber Eyes. Her mother’s life was the one for which the ‘startlingly beautiful’, fictional Resi was bred and should have grown into. Elisabeth herself was much more like Princess Nina, ‘a serious young girl who was, as Edmund de Waal said recently in an interview with Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, ‘desperate to get from one side of the Ringstrasse in this crazily marble and gilt edifice to the other side where there was this fantastically exciting university full of philosophers and economists, and she did it through sheer dogged will power.’ Yet, although there are aspects of Resi and of Nina in Elisabeth, we can imagine that Professor Adler was the character with whom she identified most. And, although she obviously would have shrunk from identifying with Kanakis and Bimbo, she knew that they were in her family background and that even those two, the wealthy Greek playboy and the dissolute young aristocrat, had elements of what she might have been.
Elisabeth arrived in England in 1939 and became a wartime and post-war housewife, like so many of the women in Persephone books. We can imagine her struggling with How to Run your home without Help and Plats du Jour. She coached children in Latin, maintained a large correspondence, and wrote a few reviews for the TLS – but mostly what she did was write novels, two in German and three in English. The Exiles Return is the first to be published.
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