Edmund De Waal’s 2010 family memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes is one of my all-time favorite books, and it’s been a huge publishing success. De Waal is primarily a ceramicist (whose work is really lovely), but The Hare is such a huge phenomenon that he now has considerable literary influence as well.
Or at least, that’s how I interpret the U.S. publication of The Exiles Return, because this novel was written by his grandmother Elisabeth, whom we meet in The Hare. According to the introduction, Elisabeth De Waal wrote five novels (three in English, two in German) all of which went unpublished during her lifetime. So of course as I read, I was trying to evaluate the novel. Would it have reached the public today, without the boost from Edmund? Probably not. But was it worth reading? Yes, with qualifications. If you’re interested in Germany and Austria, in questions of belonging, in mid-European social history of the mid-twentieth century, absolutely. The Exiles Return doesn’t have the dense subtlety of The Hare with Amber Eyes but it does display the various Viennese constituencies who had a stake in the city’s future after World War II. The impoverished princeling, the scientist returning from America, the gay Greek millionaire, the deracinated teenager all rub shoulders and influence each other’s fates. They don’t feel schematic — Elisabeth De Waal is a capable enough writer to have invented and portrayed individuals each of whom gives us a window onto a different slice of Vienna.
But the most important character in the book is the city itself, which De Waal describes with delight and yearning. Here is a spring evening, from the point of view of the fifty-year-old Professor Kuno Adler, one of the returned exiles.
Best of all was the air that came wafting straight down from the western hills, from the Vienna woods, and over the vineyards and gardens on their slopes, bearing the fragrance of lime, chestnut blossom and may [hawthorn] but chiefly of that most nostalgic of Viennese scents, the ubiquitous lilac.
For it was May, and an evening in May, and the sunset had faded out of the sky, the stars were coming out, and every breath one drew was infused with scent. The Professor sat by his window and felt that he could neither work nor sleep.
In fact despite the contemporary plot and dialogue, The Exiles Return feels slightly akin to a fairy tale. Maybe that’s the result of the castles and the slightly Mephistophelean character Dr. Kanakis, as well as the sleeping beauty Resi. Or it resembles a bedtime story, told to herself by a woman far from home, who can never return.