If the name Elisabeth de Waal sounds familiar, then you probably read her grandson Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare with Amber Eyes, a memoir of their family, the Ephrussis, wealthy Viennese Jews by way of Odessa.
The Exiles Return, Elisabeth’s posthumously published novel, is not as engaging as The Hare With Amber Eyes, but its portrayal of post World War II Vienna and Elisabeth’s unique perspective make it a worthwhile read.
Elisabeth de Waal, born Elisabeth von Ephrussi, was raised in the grand and gilded Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse in Vienna. After studying law, philosophy, and economics at the University of Vienna, she moved abroad. She bravely returned to Austria shortly after the Anschluss (the act that allowed Germany to annex Vienna) to retrieve her parents who lingered too long in the mistaken belief that their status as prominent Austrian citizens overrode their Judaism. After the war, Elisabeth devoted over a decade attempting (with limited success) to reclaim her family’s looted art collection from the Austrian government.
In The Exiles Return, three characters return to 1954 Vienna. Although their circumstances are quite different, their lives ultimately intersect in (rather melodramatic) ways.
Kuno Adler, a Jewish research scientist, leaves his wife and daughters in Manhattan to return home as part of the repatriation program sponsored by the Austrian government. Theophil Kanakis, a wealthy member of Vienna’s Greek community, is looking for fun and bargain buys. And eighteen-year-old Marie-Theres Larsen is a bored American teenager on an attitude adjustment trip to her mother’s family.
Overall the novel is a bit stilted, but interestingly several “third rail” topics such as Nazi atrocities, homosexuality, abortion, and suicide are broached. While not shocking today, these would have been risqué in the 1950s when Elisabeth wrote the novel.
I appreciated this novel, but it is possibly more noteworthy for the writer than the writing.
WHAT OTHER REVIEWERS THINK
The Guardian (London): “This is a rewarding study of loss, and a fine snapshot of a city and society standing ravaged at a crossroads.”
WHO WROTE IT
Elisabeth de Waal was born in Vienna in 1899. She wrote five unpublished novels, two in German and three in English, including The Exiles Return. She was married to Dutchman Hendrik de Waal and lived in Tunbridge Wells. She died in 1991.