The Exiles Return by Elisabeth De Waal

The First Woman Doctorate

Elisabeth De Waal was a poet, writer and the first women to gain a doctorate from the University of Vienna in 1923. Born in 1899 in Vienna, she was the eldest child of Viktor von Ephrussi and Baronness Emmy Schey von Kormola, her father and uncle sent from Odessa 30 years before, one to Paris the other to Vienna to create the family banking empire.

The Hare With the Amber Eyes Connection

030413_2049_TheHarewith1.jpgWe may not have known of her, were it not for her grandson Edmund De Waal, the ceramist, who inherited 264 Japanese netsuke, and decided to share the story of the passage of these miniature artisan objects in his excellent The Hare With Amber Eyes, which I read earlier this year and adored – a 5 star read for me.

He traced his family history through the voyages and resting places of those well-travelled netsuke, one of the more significant journey’s being his grandmother’s return visit to Vienna after the second world war, her return from exile, where she was able to reclaim the netsuke (and sadly little else) thanks to an amazing story of courage by the family’s maid.

An Old Manuscript Rescued

Hare Amber EyesHis father handed over the yellowing typescript along with school reports, essays, letters and a few diary entries, the things that had mattered to Elisabeth De Waal, that remarkably survived into the 21st century.

It was from this return journey that her inspiration came to write this novel, The Exiles Return where we enter the lives of three exiles, a Jewish laboratory professor, a Greek property developer and Resi, the daughter of a Viennese princess, who though born in America, seems ill-fitted to fulfill family ambitions, so spends a summer with her Aunt and cousins in Austria, a return to her roots.

Fifteen years after escape into exile Professor Adler returns to Vienna, Austria leaving behind a prestigious job and a reluctant, successful wife and daughter who have adapted to their New York life beyond the point of wanting to return, her financial independence empowering her with the will to resist him.

With a mix of hope and trepidation, Professor Adler fears what he might find yet desires to somehow recreate a still familiar past, to be back where he felt he belonged and re-establish a life. He looks up old friends and seeks reinstatement at the laboratory where he once worked, encountering that which looks familiar, though unavoidably changed by the past.

“They could exchange nothing but exclamations, well-worn phrases, just to express, however haltingly, feelings too deep for words.”

Exiles Return

The Exiles Return

Theophil Kanakis, descendant of a wealthy Greek family has returned to Vienna with the confidence and arrogance that plentiful money bring. He no longer desires financial success, he seeks pleasure and indulgence and the subtle manipulations inherent in ensuring he attains what he yearns for.

Once he is re-established in the manner he wishes, he begins to issue invitations to a widening circle of friends and through his friendship with the gallant pauper, Prince Bimbo Grein, a younger set begins to frequent his salons which he encourages, the setting in which all the characters in the novel are in some way connected.

In the scene where Kanakis seeks an audience with an Estate Agent and comments and his gaze alights on two dark, heavily framed pictures hanging on the wall, we obtain a glimpse into what it may have been like for Elisabeth De Waal to encounter appropriated chattels.

“They are in no way outstanding or really valuable – a minor nineteenth century artist. I just thought they furnished the room, gave it a certain cachet, within the limits of what I could afford. They did in fact belong to an acquaintance of your family, Baron E_. You might possibly have seen them at his house. Baron E_ unfortunately died abroad, in England, I believe. His heirs, after they had recovered what could be traced of his property, had it all sold at auction; having no use for this old-fashioned stuff in their modern homes, I suppose. I acquired the pictures quite openly, publicly and legally, you understand.”

Palais Ephrussi, Vienna Elisabeth's Childhood Home

Palais Ephrussi, Vienna
Elisabeth De Waal’s Childhood Home

None of the characters seem to be based directly on the experience of Elisabeth De Waal, who was shocked and saddened by what she found when she returned to Vienna, but there is little doubt that the story she has written was influenced by that return journey as she captured the experiences of her three protagonists.

I really enjoyed the book and wanted to know even more in particular of the experience of Professor Adler, perhaps the closest to how Elisabeth De Waal may have felt. It is a novel that is appreciated all the more for understanding the life of the author herself, and I enjoyed it having read Edmund De Waal’s history of the family and imagining what Elisabeth may herself have experienced. For the period in which it was written, I find it compelling and modern literature.

Not like The Hare With Amber Eyes, but an important part of that story and an excellent companion novel; what a privilege that we now have the opportunity to read her work and that she is finally receiving the recognition she so deserves as a writer.

Letters to Rainer Maria Rilke

RilkeSo now, what about that correspondence with Rainer Maria Rilke? Might there be a book in that? A sequel, Letters to a Young Female Poet perhaps?

“If your daily life seems poor, do not blame it; blame yourself, tell yourself that you are not poet enough to call forth its riches; for to the creator there is no poverty and no poor indifferent place.”

Rainer Maria Rilke, Letters to a Young Poet

Note: This book was kindly provided by the publisher, Persephone Books.

21 thoughts on “The Exiles Return by Elisabeth De Waal

  1. Nice review, Claire! I loved your review of ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’ and this looks like an excellent companion volume. I liked that line which describes Adler meeting his old friends and how they just exchanged exclamations or worn out phrases which had deeper meanings. Very beautiful. It is wonderful that you read the Persephone edition. I love Persephone books 🙂 That passage of Rainer Maria Rilke that you have quoted is very beautiful – it made me smile. Thanks for this beautiful review.


    • The way she writes about Adler is very evocative of how one might feel to return having lost everything, quite different to returning as a rich man or the niece of a noble family, it’s not really a subject I can even think of many stories about, returning soldiers yes, but returning victims of war not many come to mind.

      It is very interesting to know that she was in correspondence with Rilke, in fact both branches of the Ephrussi family (the Parisian & the Viennese) had interesting personal contacts with writers, artists and intellectuals in the early 1900’s. Have you read Rilke’s slim volume Letters to a Young Poet?


      • Interesting to know that the theme of Adler returning back after having lost everything is very unique. I haven’t read Rilke’s ‘Letters to a Young Poet’ yet, Claire. But I have read quotes from it and it seems to be a very beautiful book. I loved the passage from it that you have quoted. I also love another passage from it on patience. I want to read that book sometime soon. Have you read Rilke’s book?


        • I have and then I gave it to a young poet who spent a summer here in France, before he went back to finish his university degree, I couldn’t keep it, when someone like that was on their literary journey. 🙂


      • Nice to know that Claire 🙂 I think that young poet would have enjoyed the book and would have discovered many sentences which spoke to him.


  2. Thanks for another thoughtful and thought provoking review Claire. I have yet to read ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’, and am now even more intrigued after reading your account of the background to Elisabeth’s story and how it fits in with Edmund’s story too. And we even catch a glimpse of one of my all time favourite inspirational poets Rainer Maria Rilke, whose words I made much use of yesterday when creating a rather special Book of Hours to mark the occasion of my eldest daughter’s 23rd birthday.! And that Elisabeth’s novel has been published by Persephone only makes it all the more special. I love the books they produce, works of book making art!


    • You must read The Hare with Amber Eyes Edith, if you have an appreciation for the intellectuals of the early 1900’s, the artists, the collectors and the unique perspective of a family history written by a member of the family who sees the story through the locations of 264 objects of art. Have a reread of my review on here if you need any further convincing 🙂

      And then to learn about Elisabeth and discover her manuscript, I am just happy that it took me 2 years after publication to read Edmund’s book, so that I could read this one so soon after. And as you say, a delightful Persephone Book at that.


  3. I have to say I love your book reviews. I always want to read everything you write about. At this rate I’m going to need a new bookcase, soon 🙂


        • I’m done, looking very creative too, had to banish photo albums to a box 🙂 Thank goodness for e-books though!

          And I have family visiting tomorrow, so I will be encouraging them to take a book, I’m all for passing them on to be read and reread and reread.


        • Thank goodness for ebooks! Oh I agree totally about passing books on to be reread and reread. Have fun with your family 🙂


  4. Nice Claire! I just picked this up yesterday at WH Smith for only 9€. Actually I’ll be reading it this year with my book club. I wouldn’t have normally chosen this title but I’m excited about reading it now since I’ve read your post. Thanks for the encouragement! 🙂


      • Not yet. I’m saving it for next school year, unless I crack and decide to read it early. It does have wonderful reviews though. I just happened to see it on the reduced price table for 9€. Nice deal! We’ve also chosen The French Lieutenant’s Woman. We’ll be discussing it in September. I can’t wait because I’ve been meaning to get to this one for a long while now. Have you read it? I love John Fowles writing.


        • I read it a long time ago and also The Magus which was a little hard going as I recall.

          You’ve got an interesting selection of reads coming up! I have a book group meet next week and must finish Jonathan Coe’s The Rain Before It Falls before then. He came to our local bookshop a couple of weeks ago, it was an excellent evening.


  5. I’ve planned to read The Hare with Amber Eyes this summer (based on your recommendation) so will now have to add this one to the pile as well as it sounds great too. Thank you for another great, and well written, piece – I always love reading your blog.


  6. I’ve just bought this for a friend who had enjoyed ‘The Hare with the Amber Eyes’ and I’m hoping that when she’s read it she won’t mind my having a borrow!! Truly, I did buy it with her in mind not with me:)


  7. Another wonderful review, reminding me of your mention of The Hair with the Amber Eyes when we were away. Me, I’m slowly enjoying the Birds without Feathers, savouring the experiences of each chapter.


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