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A newly found masterpiece of 20th century European literature


The Exiles Return

By Elisabeth de Waal


319 pages, $26

By Michael D. Langan


You will leave behind everything you love/most dearly, and this is the arrow/the bow of exile first lets fly.

– Dante

“The Exiles Return” is, in a sense, a reverie about what it meant to return to postwar Vienna; a dream turned nightmare of a family wanting to recoup its wartime losses.

The city had been “demolished by war, the city an alien landscape of ruined castles, a fractured ruling class, and people picking up the pieces … a stunningly vivid postwar story of Austria’s fallen aristocrats, unrepentant Nazis, and a culture degraded by violence.”

Americans have some idea of what postwar Vienna was like when we view the 1949 film, “The Third Man,” the thriller starring Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles. Welles plays the corrupt Harry Lime. Vienna’s bombed-out buildings, the film’s theme played on a zither, and its noir atmosphere provide a suffocating sense of Vienna’s lost elegance.

By the time the U.N. sent me to Vienna after 9/11 to investigate financial issues related to al Qaida and the Taliban, the Ringstrasse, built 100 years earlier to reflect the Habsburg Empire, was still an extraordinary arc of ornate buildings.

This is where Elisabeth de Waal’s autobiographical novel, “The Exiles Return,” begins. According to her grandson, Edmund de Waal, his grandmother “… was born Elisabeth von Ephrussi in 1899, into a dynastic Jewish family that had adopted Vienna as its home 30 years before.”

The family lived in a large home within the Ring. Elisabeth’s “house” was ornate and gilded, “built by a rich and aspirational family of financiers … on a street known derisively as Zionstrasse, the street of Jews.”

Into this environment de Waal, an exile herself, sets her characters. They include Kuno Adler, a Jewish research scientist returned from America; Theophil Kanakis, a wealthy Greek looking for wartime plunder; Marie-Therese, an adolescent sent to Vienna by her parents to get her out of a funk; and Prince “Bimbo” Grein, a handsome fellow with a title devoid of currency.

Her writing, which she decried, is spot-on.

About it, she wrote, “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 ….I distill too much.”

But does she?

Consider her description of Dr. Adler’s analysis of the Austrian passport control officer as he returns to Vienna by train after a 15-year absence.

“Grey eyes, smiling. A good looking fellow. But it was the voice, the intonation that hit a nerve somewhere in Kuno Adler’s throat; no, below the throat, where breath and nourishment plunge into the depths of the body, a non-conscious, ungovernable nerve … It was the quality of that voice, of that accent, soft and yet rough … the soap-stone that is coarse-grained and spongy and slightly oily on the surface – An Austria voice. ‘Austrian passport control!’ ”

You can feel the fear well up in Dr. Adler’s being, latent there since an interrogation on the train years earlier, when the Nazis were in control.

De Waal’s novel, unpublished during her lifetime, was found by her grandson, Edmund De Waal, the author of “The Hare With Amber Eyes,” as he researched his own novel among family artifacts. Edmund de Waal is a potter and, importantly, a memoirist, who has written about post-World War I Paris in his own book.

So you can see why Elisabeth’s grandson got interested in her unpublished novel, which his father passed along to him as he searched in 2005 to discover the history behind a family collection of Japanese carvings that he had inherited. It was part of his story.

Edmund de Waal puts it perfectly: “What she wanted was to create novels of ideas: in her writing she tried to bring into balance the adamantine rigour of her academic life and the lyric imperative of her life as a writer of poetry and fiction.” (She was a friend of Rainer Maria Rilke and wrote for Le Figaro and the Times Literary Supplement.)

“The Exiles Return” is a novel about “the heartbreak of returning.” With great vividness she describes her going back to Vienna in 1938, weeks after the Anschluss, to save her parents in their need. Later she fought for a decade in a battle with Viennese authorities, “battling their intransigence, hostility and derision”, as she attempted to get back what was owned by the family.

When she died, Elisabeth “left a clutch of her school reports … an envelope stuffed with university essays, and some letters between her and a favorite uncle,” things her grandson referred to as things that mattered to her as she traveled in transit between countries.

De Waal wrote five unpublished novels, the first two in German and the last three in English. She took a doctorate in 1923, studying philosophy, law and economics at the University of Vienna. Later, she earned a Rockefeller Foundation fellowship at Columbia. She died in 1991.

“Why am I making such a great effort and taxing my own endurance and energy to write this book that no one will read...” Elisabeth asked.

Too late to know, “The Exiles Return”, a novel of five exiles returning home after fleeing Hitler, is a masterpiece of European literature.

Michael D. Langan split careers between education, government service and the private sector. He was the U. S. representative attached to a group of United Nations senior experts charged by Kofi Annan to monitor the activity of the Taliban and al Qaida.

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