The Exiles Return has been published as a beautiful Persephone Book, with smart dove-grey covers and a riotously colourful endpaper. Before this glorious incarnation, it existed for many years as a ‘yellowing typescript with some tippexed corrections’, one of the few things that Elisabeth de Waal held on to during her ‘life in transit between countries’, one of the few things eventually handed down to her grandson, celebrated author and potter Edmund de Waal.

In The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal told the astonishing and very moving story held in his collection of netsuke, which was also passed down through the generations. Now, in getting Persephone Books to publish this ‘yellowing typescript’, he has enabled this precious object to tell its own tale.

As I read The Exiles Return, I found it hard to forget this “thinginess” of the book. This is a little ironic, given that, according to Edmund de Waal, Elisabeth ‘didn’t really have much feel for the world of objects … she would have hated my fetishising of her books’. But it is hard to resist fetishising this book. Perhaps it is because the novel shares its Viennese setting with the heart of The Hare with Amber Eyes, where the story of the netsuke is so unbearably poignant. Perhaps it is because at the beginning of chapter seventeen a note acknowledges that ‘the first page of this chapter is missing from the original typescript’. Perhaps it is because the novel feels so very autobiographical – it is a story about exiles written by an exile, and it has spent many years as an object in exile. Elisabeth de Waal’s story lies both in the written words of the novel, and in the history of the typescript that can be read between the lines.

So it is fitting that one of the most resonant moments of The Exiles Return concerns another story contained in an object. Theophil Kanakis, a wealthy Greek returning to Vienna from exile, and one of the novel’s protagonists, has a meeting with an estate agent. He looks around the office, taking in the surroundings:

At last Kanakis’s eyes came to rest on the two dark, heavily-framed pictures hanging on the wall opposite his chair, and a faint smile creased his eyelids. ‘Do you really recognise those pictures?’ Dr Traumuller exclaimed, unable to bear this silent scrutiny any longer, and immediately cursing himself inwardly for this unwarranted suggestion. For a very unpleasant thought had entered his mind. What if Kanakis had returned to Vienna not to deal in real estate, but to recover some of the property which had been confiscated by the German Secret Police or their agents when the owners had been deported, ‘liquidated’ or had simply fled, abandoning all they possessed? A quick appraisal reassured him that nothing in this room could have belonged to the Kanakis family who, in fact, were not Jews, and should not have suffered confiscation, except perhaps by mistake.

Elisabeth de Waal sketches the story contained within these two pictures – a story of wrongful confiscation, profiteering, and one which continues to be written today, as people all over the world still endeavour to reclaim works of art taken from their families. It’s a story directly experienced by Elisabeth de Waal, who fought to recoup the many works of art, books and other valuable objects that were taken from her family. Sadly, her efforts met with little success.

This episode with the paintings is emblematic of the greater situation of the 1950s Vienna of The Exiles Return. A glance simply shows two pictures; an interrogatory look reveals a shameful past swept under the carpet. The carpet in The Exiles Return is bumpy, crammed with secrets threatening to come to light.

Professor Adler is another émigré protagonist. A Jew, he is returning to Vienna, having escaped to America before the war. Soon after arriving in Vienna, he meets the bureaucrat Sektionschef to discuss being reinstated in his old job. During their conversation, the following exchange takes place:

‘We are prepared to overlook the difference, to interpret according to the spirit, not the letter of the law – which killeth.’
‘A little joke, Herr Sektionschef? Rather a grim one.’
Then Sektionschef bit his lip. ‘I apologise.’ (How difficult all this is – things will slip out, one can’t be too careful.)’

‘Things will slip out.’ While everyone goes about their daily business trying to draw a line under the past, it trips them up again and again. Elisabeth de Waal explains that between those who remained in Vienna and those who fled and are now returning, there is a ‘tacit understanding that there had been tragedies and searing experiences in all their lives that could not be forgotten, but which they had survived and cauterised sufficiently to be able to sit together in a quiet room, drinking a companionable glass of excellent wine.’

Those ‘cauterised’ experiences, just beneath the surface, are always threatening disruption. Most chilling is when the new head of Professor Adler’s laboratory reveals himself to be a Nazi:

My colleagues and I had the opportunity of carrying out experiments, testing and researching with the only biological material that can yield convincing results in the field of medical science: not with rats and mice and rabbits – but with live human subjects … I have no regrets, except that in the foreseeable future such opportunities will probably not be available again … I can tell you for your comfort that our material – I mean my colleagues’ material – were not Jews. They were Gypsies.

Here is an explosion of all the unsaid, the atrocities carried out by the Nazis, ‘survived and cauterised’ by the remaining Viennese, but rearing its head and forcing a confrontation. Adler’s response is surprising:

It is a satisfaction to me to have met at least one self-confessed, unrepentant Nazi. There must be many of them. Where have they got to? They all seem to have disappeared. One goes about amongst people, wondering.

The pressure of the unsaid is so great that it is a relief to hear the truth, however harrowing that truth may be.

There are other exiles too. Teenager Marie-Therese, or ‘Resi’ as she is called, was born to an Austrian émigré in America and has come to stay with her aunt. Hers is an exile that has spread over a generation; she has only her mother’s stories and memories of a past Vienna. There is Prince ‘Bimbo’ Grein, a handsome young man with whom both Resi and Kanakis fall in love, and his older sister Princess Nina, who works at the same laboratory as Adler.

Elisabeth de Waal weaves a plot that twists the lives of these returning exiles together, by way of love, work, or society. Perhaps it is because The Exiles Return is such an autobiographical novel that she slips so skilfully between the consciousnesses of her various characters, following their different stories and flitting between their perspectives.

While the plot is engaging, The Exiles Return is most rewarding when understood as a meditation on exile and return, and an exploration of post-war Vienna. Much has been written about the terrible years building up to and during the war, yet Elisabeth de Waal is rare in portraying what happened next, in asking what it was like to come back – a ‘world of tomorrow’ after Stefan Zweig’s World of Yesterday. She captures the fragility of a city trying to rebuild itself on uncertain foundations, the difficulty of going about daily life without being able to look at anything too closely, the burden of the terrible unsaid. It is an important story and now, at last, it has been told.

Emily Rhodes tweets @EmilyBooksBlog and blogs at Emilybooks

Tags: Family, Fiction, historical fiction, Judaism, Memoir, Second world war