The Exiles Return by Elisabeth de Waal is Persephone Book No 102 and was reprinted and added to the lovely list of dove grey books I lust after last year. It focuses on post war Vienna, more specifically those who return to Vienna after escaping the shortly before the Nazis arrived in the city in the late 1930s. The novel follows five ‘exiles’ in particular; Kuno Adler, a scientist returning to his former post; Theophil Kanakis, a rich man in his late forties of Greek descent who has spent the war years in America; ‘Bimbo’ a 24 year old aristocrat whose anti- Nazi parents were murdered, thus leaving him and his sister Princess Nina penniless, and Marie-Theres Larsen, a teenage girl whose parents also moved to America and raised her there, although she never quite seemed to fit in to the superficiality of American life her mother adores. The novel primarily follows the five of them, how their lives intertwine and how they adapt into life in post war Vienna
As I reflect on my reading now, I am finding it difficult to choose a character who I truly connected with, but then maybe this lack of connection ties in to the idea of exiles and their losing connection with their home country. Or I could be reading way too much in to this and I didn’t feel any connection due to my reading mood. Perhaps the character I felt the least interest in was Adler; my initial intrigue soon petered out after he had arrived back in Vienna and faced his work difficulties. The irony is his story provided one of the more memorable moments, when his superior at the lab admitted to sympathising with the Nazis and hinted at working with scientists who carried out experiments on gypsies. It was quite shocking to read the almost blasé way he discussed this and his feeble attempts to justify his actions to someone who had fled Vienna due to the imminent arrival of the Nazis.
The lives of all five characters interlink and cross paths throughout the novel, although the most interesting relationship is between Kanakis and Bimbo. When Kanakis first sees Bimbo he is spellbound by Bimbo’s beauty and the beauty of the figurine he is holding. And so begins a relationship that hints at homosexuality, something which certainly would have been shocking in the 1950s, arguably more shocking than the references to those in high profile jobs who openly helped the Nazis. Unfortunately their relationship has collateral damage in the form of Marie-Theres, climaxing in the novel’s dramatic ending, which is quickly swept under the carpet so as not to damage the newly built country alliances.
The Exiles Return was an enjoyable read and it was refreshing to read about an element of the war I know little about (not that I feel I know a vast amount about the Second World War). It has certainly made me eager to read more on this particular area and I think Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with the Amber Eyes would be a good place to start. Elisabeth de Waal’s writing is beautiful and the ending to The Exiles Returnwas definitely unexpected and quite moving. I can certainly recommend this novel, however it is not my favourite Persephone, which is a shame as I was looking forward to it.
Reading the Twentieth Century although this was tricky to pinpoint date wise as it was written in the late 1950s…I am going to cheat slightly and mark it as 1957 so I can add it to the list, even if the original date isn’t quite known. ;