The Exiles Return is a first for Persephone Books. It’s the first previously unpublished manuscript that they’ve published. The author, Elisabeth de Waal, wrote it when she herself was living in exile, in England, where she had lived with her family since leaving Austria in 1939.
The exiles of the title have all returned to Vienna in the early 1950s, having escaped before the war. Kuno Adler, a chemistry professor, has been living in America with his wife & daughters. He feels a longing for home that brings him back to a Vienna that he struggles to recognize. Theophil Kanakis has also lived in America & is now extremely rich. He returns to Vienna determined to recreate something of the glorious past by restoring an 18th century house & filling it with antiques. On his return he meets beautiful but shallow Prince Lorenzo Grein, known as Bimbo, & begins a relationship with him. Bimbo & his older sister, Nina, lost their parents to the Nazis & spent the war in hiding in the country. Nina is about 30, a serious young woman who has spent the war years looking out for Bimbo. Now, she’s working as an assistant in the laboratory where Kuno Adler also works. Marie-Theres Larsen was born in Vienna but left as a child in the mid 1930s when her parents emigrated to America. Marie-Theres, known as Resi, is now 18 & she has always felt out of place in America. Her younger siblings were born there & have grown up as Americans. Resi’s parents are concerned about her lack of interest in anything America has to offer so they send her to Vienna to stay with her aunts, her mother’s sisters.
The Exiles Return is a fascinating exploration of what home means to different people. I was particularly drawn to Kuno Adler’s story. The opening chapters of the book describe his journey homeward. His uncertainties about his decision are beautifully articulated by his thoughts as he sits in the train taking him closer to Vienna. He has become estranged from his wife, Melanie, who has embraced America & its opportunities. Melanie is sure he will be disillusioned & his return is certainly not easy. Although Adler is entitled to return to his previous job as a research scientist at the same level, he finds that his welcome isn’t assured. He is resented by the new head of the laboratory who stayed in Austria during the war & worked for the Nazis.
The working conditions & equipment can’t compare with what he had in America. The younger staff see him as a dinosaur & everyone is apprehensive as to what attitude he will take. Will he expect to take over? Only the old caretaker, Grasboeck, greets him with pleasure. Nina Grein quietly begins helping him with his private research although he barely notices her. Professor Adler’s loneliness is increased as he realises that he doesn’t know his old friends any more. Those who stayed in Austria during the war, were they collaborators or cowards? Did they take advantage of those who had fled or been imprisoned? He begins taking long walks in the suburbs & countryside to try & reacquaint himself with his home.
Resi first goes to stay with her aunt, Countess Lensveldt, at her schloss in the country. Aunt Franzi is welcoming & Resi enjoys the slow life, talking to her cousin, Hanni. She also meets Lucas, a student lawyer whose family have been servants of the Lensveldts for generations. he has an ambivalent relationship with the family. He grew up playing with Hanni & her brother, Franz, but he’s not on the same social level. Lucas is immediately attracted to Resi & pursues her without much success. When summer ends, Hanni goes to Vienna to work as a secretary & Resi goes with her to attend classes at the university. The girls stay with their aunt Fini, a widowed Baroness who lives in a tiny flat with a single servant.
Kanakis creates a salon in his 18th century palais. He likes being surrounded by young people & Resi, Hanni & her fiance, Georg are invited to parties there through Hanni’s friendship with Bimbo. Resi becomes infatuated with Bimbo although he shows no interest in her & Lucas continues to pursue her. The tragedy described in the Prologue is inevitably drawing closer as the naïve Resi becomes more involved with Kanakis & his circle.
I enjoyed The Exiles Return very much. I found some characters more sympathetic than others & Professor Adler’s story in particular seemed to me to be closest to the author’s heart. Maybe because we experience so much of his life in Vienna through his thoughts & reactions. He was such a complex character, self-absorbed, lonely, trying to recreate something of his pre-war life while trying to adjust to the changes war has brought to his home. I also enjoyed the scenes at Schloss Wald as the Lensveldts continue to live the country life they’ve always known, secure in their social position & privilege. Lucas is a symbol of the changes to come with his assumption of equality with Hanni & Franz & his socialist politics. The time in which the novel is set is also crucial. This is the moment, ten years after the war has ended, when the Occupying Powers are about to leave & Austria will have a chance to rebuild. The first post-war generation are about to take up the reins & move the country into the future.
The Preface by Elisabeth’s grandson, Edmund de Waal, gives a portrait of Elisabeth & the determination she had to write whether her novels were published or not (she wrote five novels, none of them published in her lifetime). There is something of Elisabeth in all the characters of The Exiles Return, particularly Resi & Professor Adler. So many of her experiences of exile & return are explored in this fascinating novel. I’m so pleased to have had the chance to read it.