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The Exiles Return: A Novel Hardcover – January 7, 2014
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Readers of Edmund de Waal’s gripping Jewish family history, The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), will remember his brilliant, courageous grandmother, born Elisabeth von Ephrussi (1899–1991). A lawyer steeped in economics and philosophy, Elisabeth wrote poetry and, during the late 1950s, five novels, including this never-before-published, incisive, and tragic tale of bombarded and morally decimated postwar Vienna. In his foreword, Edmund explains that the novel is “profoundly autobiographical,” though Elisabeth cleverly covers her tracks. As the story begins, the paralyzed city is reluctantly repatriating Jewish exiles who fled the Nazis. Professor Kuno Adler returns to his old laboratory, where he confronts a “self-confessed, unrepentant Nazi.” Sent to stay with her aunt in the bucolic Austrian countryside, beautiful and diffident Marie-Theres, the American daughter of an exiled princess, is inextricably drawn into the decadent intrigues of Vienna’s elite. De Waal’s acid, eyewitness drama of malignant prejudice, innocence betrayed, the disintegration of the old order, and love transcendent has the same jolting immediacy as the novels of Iréne Némorisky as well as deeply archetypal dimensions. Another de Waal triumph of illumination. --Donna Seaman
“Elisabeth de Waal has assembled an unusual tableau -- evocative and altogether memorable....Here's hoping that The Exiles Return will now find the American audience that it deserves.” ―Erika Dreifus, The Washington Post
“There is a distinctly fin de siècle feel to Elisabeth de Waal's rediscovered novel about Viennese exiles, banished by war, streaming back to their native city in the mid-1950s. The Exiles Return captures the atmosphere of post-World War II Vienna, with its crumbling buildings, decaying aristocracy, mercantile fervor and ideological denial. But its restrained prose style and preoccupation with the gap between public morality and private behavior evoke even more strongly the novels of Henry James, Thomas Hardy, Gustave Flaubert, Leo Tolstoy and other 19th-century masters....The Exiles Return is both an oddity and the bittersweet legacy of a gifted writer, melding the narrative pleasures of fiction with a vivid historical snapshot.” ―Chicago Tribune
“The Exiles Return has an immediacy that makes de Waal's readers feel the experiences of its characters in a visceral way....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.” ―Andrew Ervin, The New York Times Book Review
“The Exiles Return is, in a sense, a reverie about what it meant to return to postwar Vienna; a dream turned nightmare of a family wanting to recoup its wartime losses….The Exiles Return, a novel of five exiles returning home after fleeing Hitler, is a masterpiece of European literature.” ―The Buffalo News
“[The Exiles Return] succeeds magnificiently on its own uncompromising terms...And in holding up a uniquely wrought mirror to [de Waal's] Vienna.” ―San Francisco Chronicle
“[An] incisive, and tragic tale of bombarded and morally decimated postwar Vienna....De Waal's acid, eyewitness drama of malignant prejudice, innocence betrayed, the disintegration of the old order, and love transcendent has the same jolting immediacy as the novels of Irene Nemirovsky as well as deeply archetypal dimensions.” ―Booklist
“Like Irène Némirovsky and Hans Keilson, de Waal bore witness to the tragedy of World War II; as her grandson recounts in his best-selling The Hare with Amber Eyes, their Jewish banking family's possessions were appropriated by the Germans when they marched in Austria…. Expect poignancy and an indelible sense of the time.” ―Barbara Hoffert, Library Journal (Barbara's Picks)
“An elegant, unpublished novel…This novel reveals [de Waal's] intelligence and articulateness as it evokes 1950s Vienna, haunted by the ghosts of its distant and more recent pasts…. Restrained yet incisive, this finely observed novel lacks a resounding conclusion but nevertheless offers European mood music of a particular and beguiling resonance.” ―Kirkus Reviews
“This is a rewarding study of loss, and a fine snapshot of a city and society standing ravaged at a crossroads.” ―The Guardian (London)
“[Elisabeth de Waal] captures the fragility of a city trying to rebuild itself on uncertain foundations....It is an important story and now, at last, it has been told.” ―The Spectator (London)
“The Exiles Return is a novel of great vividness and great tenderness, which at its heart depicts what it might mean to return from exile. Within its pages it reflects a truly ambitious writer and a woman of considerable courage.” ―from Edmund de Waal's Foreword
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Top Customer Reviews
"The Exiles Return" is the story, set in 1954 in post-war Vienna, of three returnees to the city from various forms of exile. Professor Kuno Adler - a Jewish scientist - had fled the city before WW2 with his family, to the safety of America. His wife and daughters had prospered there but Adler had never felt at home in New York. He returns to Vienna with the promise of reinstatement of his job and responsibility and with the hope of personal renewal. Marie-Theres Larsen, the daughter of a Viennese aristocratic mother and a Danish father, has been sent to live with her Austrian aunts to try to settle herself. She is 18 and is a beautiful but naive young woman. And Theophil Kanakis, a wealthy Greek-Austrian, has returned to Vienna with a lot of money and hopes to build himself a life filled with beauty and wit. The plot - what there is of it - is much less important than the character studies and the city of Vienna, which is as important to the story as those who live there.
The quote in the title of the review is what Professor Adler says to his boss at the scientific institute where he works. The man, Dr Kreiger, has tried to justify his work in concentration camps where he preformed experiments on inmates, all in the name of "science". He tells Adler that he had been "cleared" and that, anyway, he never experimented on Jews, "only on gypsies". When Krieger asks Adler - finally - why he came back, Adler answers with the quote above. It is one of the most moving - and least nuanced - statements in the book.
Professor Adler falls in love in his return to Vienna from exile. The other two main characters fall into an odd alliance, which ends in tragedy. Marie-Theres - called "Resi" as a nickname - is never really defined, past "beautiful" and "troubled". She falls in and out of situations of love and is really the object around which Kanakis and his friends revolve. She never became real or interesting to me from the reader's point-of-view. She was an "object" that many men wanted to possess.
"The Exiles Return" is a book that people interested in the war-time and post-war periods of Austria should read. It's a good read but one that is a bit empty at its core. I don't know whether Elisabeth de Waal was reticent as a writer or if the times the book was written called for reticence, but I'd advise reading it more as a historic document than as a study of character.
I suspect that these same social mores held this author back, and made it more difficult for her to publish this novel while she was alive.
I wish it had been four times as long, and that the author, apparently unpublished in her lifetime, had had someone encouraging her to make this a big long book, and not end it so quickly and suddenly. I'll look for more of her works.