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.

The Hare with Amber Eyes, A Hidden Inheritance

The Hare with Amber Eyes

What a story this hare could have told should he have possessed the gift of speech. Instead we see him hunched there, ears pinned back, quivering, stunned by the journey he has taken, the events that have occurred around him, surprised to have survived when so many of his companion artifacts, the more sturdy furnishings, grand paintings and even other ceramics, did not.

The Hare With Amber Eyes is a Japanese netsuke, a miniature sculpture (though they can be wood or ivory) invented in the 17th century, not just as an objet d’art, but a functional kind of toggle to attach to the end of a cord for a pouch that a man might carry, since most of the garments they wore did not contain pockets (the two Japanese characters ne+tsuke mean “root” and “to attach”).

The hare is part of a collection of 264 netsuke purchased by the third son of an aspiring and ambitious Jewish family, Charles Ephrussi (son of Leon).

By 1860 the family had become the greatest grain-exporters in the world. In 1857 the two elder sons were sent out from Odessa to Vienna, the capital city of the sprawling Hapsburg Empire. They bought a huge house in the city centre, and for ten years this was the home to a shifting population of grandparents, children and grandchildren as the family moved backwards and forwards between the two cities. One of the sons, my great-great grandfather Ignace, was tasked with handling Ephrussi business in the Austro-Hungarian Empire from this Vienna base. Paris came next: Leon, the older son, was tasked with establishing the family and business there.

Hare Amber EyesBeing the third son, Charles was spared the obligation of being groomed for the financial sector in the family business (though it may well be he was not cut out for it either as de Waal speculates), preferring to frequent the cafes, salons and a certain boudoir of an older, married woman, attaching himself only ever temporarily to that which he admired – having already lived in three large cities, with his languages, wealth and a passionate interest in the arts, he had plenty of time to indulge his many passions.

It was through his pursuits in the arts, the start of his own collection, mingling with artists, other collectors and art dealers, writers about the arts, that he became interested in Japonisme, a rarity when it began appearing and so desirous. He would purchase a large collection of netsuke from the Parisian art dealer Philippe Sichel who travelled to Japan in 1874.

There is a wonderful connection to Proust throughout this part of the book, one that was a pleasure to discover, without the necessity of having read him, if anything it is an interesting introduction to that group of intellectuals of the 1880’s – 1900’s, Charles Ephrussi himself one of the models for Proust’s depiction of Swann in Swann’s Way.

The author of the book, Edmund de Waal is a descendant of the Ephrussi family and has inherited the 264 netsuke. He is a ceramic potter himself and spent two years studying in Japan, after many years as an apprentice in England. It was in Tokyo, while visiting his Uncle Iggie (another Ignace) that he first laid eyes and hands on the family netsuke that would eventually become his, learning a little of their journey from Paris to Vienna, London and back to Tokyo. Eventually he would spend five years researching what would become this incredible book.

He too, is the third son, though his is no longer a global banking family with the same expectations of its protege. Although he shares similar characteristics to his ancestors, those who did manage to escape the family business and were able to develop that appreciation and eye for a work of art, going beyond casual observation; it is as if he converses with these objects and reads them as if they have living, human qualities.

DeWaalThrough this book, he traces the history of these netsuke and his family, as they rise in ascendancy and are undone by the events leading up to the second world war. We come to know many of the family members and Edmund’s grandmother Elizabeth, a poet and a lawyer is a wonderful woman to learn about, the first woman to receive a doctorate from the University of Vienna and passionate about her poetry, she corresponds regularly with Rilke.

This book was so fascinating and so sensitively handled, it was with an almost palpable sadness that I finished it and felt bereft, wondering where on earth I could go to from here, reading-wise, after such a story.

And then I remembered it has been two years since publication and so I consoled myself with following the work of De Waal, who has been rather prolific since 2010 and I was not surprised to see his recent exhibition A Thousand Hours, showing works behind vitrines, evidence of the longer term effect of his immersion into all that research and study of netsuke and other artifacts his family had preserved.

I leave a link to him commenting on that most recent exhibition and a wonderful article in the Telegraph, in which I learn that De Waal has recently returned from a trip to Jingdezhen, home of the purest clay in China, where porcelain has been made for 1,000 years. This was a research trip for his next book and for a collaboration with the Chinese porcelain collections at the Fitzwilliams Museum for an upcoming exhibition:

De Waal is animated, inspired, gesticulating with his long fingered hands; there is a hum of creativity around him. You can almost see the words fizzing in his head, feel the ideas taking root, springing up out of nothing and arranging themselves in little groups, to form stories, dramas, like his pots.

The Netsukephotos of some of the Ephrussi collection + family pictures

Article Edmund de Waal on his new exhibition, A Thousand Hours by Jessamy Calkin

Video Watch Edmund De Waal transform clay into beautiful works of art