New York Times Book Review // The Exiles Return by Elisabeth van de Waal

My review of Elisabeth van de Waal’s wonderful posthumous novel ran in the New York Times Book Review on 1/12/14.

Elisabeth de Waal’s posthumously published novel takes place in the aftermath of some of the 20th century’s greatest calamities, as it follows Austrian exiles returning to their homeland to encounter a dramatically altered physical and psychological landscape. By 1954, when the action of the novel begins, Vienna has witnessed not only the dissolution of the Austro-Hungarian Empire but the Anschluss and Hitler’s reign of terror against the Jewish population, as well as repeated bombings during World War II and simultaneous occupation by four victorious foreign powers. Written during the late 1950s, “The Exiles Return” has an immediacy that makes de Waal’s readers feel the experiences of its characters in a visceral way.

Eighteen-year-old Marie-Theres (Resi) Larsen is the American daughter of Austrian émigrés. Exceptionally moody and even downright hostile, she frustrates her parents with her behavior, but instead of sending her to a psychiatrist, they opt for a change of scenery, sending her back to Europe to live with some relatives. As she is torn between two worlds, her emotional difficulties only mount when she arrives in Vienna. There she attracts the attention of a wealthy businessman, Theophil Kanakis, who has come to the city for very different reasons, hoping to increase his fortune by cashing in on the depressed, postwar economy.

De Waal’s most vividly drawn character is Kuno Adler, a research scientist who, despite building a comfortable life for himself in Manhattan, has abandoned his wife and returned to his native Vienna in part to escape his adopted country’s ingrained anti-Semitism: “He had not been prepared for it in America, where, although there was no danger of physical extermination, there was an ever-present insidious consciousness of it, like a suppressed toothache which one could never quite forget.” But, of course, the city of his birth has changed a great deal during his 15-year absence.

De Waal brings these characters together in a tightly wound story of love, betrayal and class tension among Austria’s aristocratic, clerical and intellectual spheres. If the plot can seem a bit like a PBS costume drama waiting to happen, so does de Waal’s personal history. She was born in 1899 into what her grandson, Edmund de Waal (best known for his memoir, “The Hare With Amber Eyes”), calls in his foreword to the novel “a dynastic Jewish family that had adopted Vienna as its home.” Before World War II, she studied law, economics and philosophy; wrote poetry; and engaged in an extensive correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke. She would go on to write five unpublished novels and hold a fellowship at Columbia University, eventually settling in London. Clearly, she knew a little something about life as an exile, and she renders her characters’ inner lives — most notably Resi’s — with tremendous nuance.

Any story that takes place amid major historical events runs the risk of what you might call, thinking of James Cameron’s bloated 1997 movie, the Titanic effect. In many such novels, an all-too-real tragedy functions something like the static backdrop to an old cartoon, and the fictional characters never engage with it in any meaningful way. For the most part, “The Exiles Return” manages to sidestep that problem.

“Who speaks of victory?” Rilke wrote. “To endure is everything.” But that’s not entirely true. With the publication, after all these years, of “The Exiles Return,” we are allowed to hear a voice that has not only endured but, by the subtlety and fervor of its free expression, triumphed.