‘An ideal Persephone book’ – The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal

teredwElisabeth de Waal was the grandmother of bestselling writer Edmund de Waal (of The Hare with Amber Eyes fame). She wrote The Exiles Return in the late 1950s and it has remained unpublished until this edition (which comes with an introduction by her bestselling grandson). It begs the question, is this sixty-year-old unpublished novel only appearing now because of her grandson?

The answer is quite clearly no. Elisabeth de Waal’s writing has an intelligence and a political and philosophical curiosity that reflects a wider European tradition, Elias Canetti’s Auto de Fe or, closer to home, Iris Murdoch. Elisabeth de Waal has a considered exactitude in her writing many better known novelists would envy. She shares a cosmopolitanism with Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, whose work also mourns the loss of an Empire, which brings a weight of culture and heritage to her writing.

In 1953, as Austria prepares to regain its political independence, three exiles return. Professor Adler is glad to escape New York, and a wife who has seized its business opportunities, to rebuild the life he feels was stolen from him; Kanakis, a wealthy businessman, wants to recreate the cultured life he had always imagined for himself while Marie-Theres, the daughter of an Austrian émigré, is looking for somewhere she can feel at home. They find a Vienna that is familiar, “More shabbiness, some modernisation.” The Austro-Hungarian Empire has been erased from history; ex-Nazis are in positions of power while penniless aristocrats in their ruined castles place their hope in finding wealthy wives. The exiles are disorientated by the sense that the lives they lead are the second best alternative to a future that is now lost to them.

Elisabeth de Waal has the understanding that you also find in Elizabeth Taylor’s novels. She is interested in a character’s mixed ambitions and ambivalent motivations, the tangled roots of an individual unhappiness that is only partly the result of the restrictions society places on them. Adler’s dissatisfaction with his American life looks like a mid-life crisis, “what one had felt… to be full of promise for the future when one was still in one’s thirties, did not look the same in one’s fifties.” However, the origins of his behaviour lie in how the war has disrupted the path he had always planned for his life.

The Exiles Return has its faults. Some paragraphs seem to be first drafts that could have been revised while the structure, which follows each character by turn, slows down the narrative in, sometimes, dragging the plot back to track another character. However, it is a fascinating read, capturing the doubts and resigned determination of a country setting out to rebuild itself. It is much more than a rediscovered piece of the de Waal’s family history. Though, Edmund de Waal’s introduction is an elegant portrait of his grandmother, a woman “tough and self-examining, incapable of self-pity” (qualities that are as good a basis as any for a writer), and is a reason for buying this novel in itself.

The Exiles Return is an ideal Persephone book. It introduces a female voice (and perspective) that has been left absent from history, while quietly portraying individuals navigating deeper political currents in search of a sustaining happiness through a writing style made up of compassion, wit and grace.

Any Cop?: The Exiles Return describes the aftermath of war, portraying the inevitability of loneliness while demonstrating that love can always be found. A novel as moving, which feels as urgently contemporary, as this deserves to be discovered, even sixty years later.

James Doyle


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