STODDARD MARTIN reads a redolent dramatized account of an Austrian family’s 20th century tribulations
Edmund de Waal had a succès d’estime a few years back with his family memoir The Hare with the Amber Eyes. His Ephrussi forbears, a grand European Jewish clan, produced among other exquisites a model for the protagonist of the overture volume of Proust’s epoch-making À la recherche du temps perdu. Fine manners and taste allied to great wealth characterized a type and an ethos summoned up with gentle, if perhaps not quite unintentionally polemical, nostalgia. The Palais Ephrussi had stood prominent among similar piles along the top-drawer Ringstrasse in pre-war Vienna. That the street was known as “Zionstrasse” among less privileged types was in retrospect a harbinger of catastrophe, as de Waal notes in his preface to The Exiles Return. Yet in the heyday of the Ephrussi and kind such insults were nobly ignored; and as late as the Anschluss in 1938, de Waal’s great-grandparents hung on, only to be rescued by an efficient daughter who had begun her own exile to the West fifteen years earlier as Rockefeller Foundation fellow in economics at Columbia University.
Elisabeth von Ephrussi became ‘de Waal’ upon marrying a Dutchman. Although trained as an economist, she had from an early age wanted to be a literary writer. She penned poems in her husband’s language, two novels in her native German and three in adopted English. Following her time in America, she lived in Paris, where she wrote for Le Figaro, and later in London, where she reviewed French novels for The TLS. A true cosmopolitan, she could recite swathes of Faust and of Rilke, her favourite poet, with whom she had corresponded. She owned an original copy of James Joyce’s Ulysses, published by Shakespeare and Company, and may even have read much of it – her grandson tells us its pages are cut up to 563. Above all, however, her master was Proust; and in The Exiles Return, a novel left unpublished at her death, we see a version of his milieu, if not style, filtered heavily through the anaesthetic of ‘the American century’ and transferred from belle époque Paris to a post-war Vienna, whose sombre atmosphere will forever be branded on the Anglo psyche by the Carol Reed/ Alexander Korda/ Orson Welles film of Graham Greene’s The Third Man.
As evocation of what once had been and would become of that city in the last days of Four Power occupation, de Waal’s novel penetrates further than the Greene spy scenario cared to. Because she had lived to adulthood amid its glories now flattened, she feels the place as insider as well as outsider, as victim as well as new dominator. Her exiles returning provide a three-way split of her psyche: a scientist/academic who fled with his wife to America, where she flourished but he felt alien; a Greco-Viennese magnate who also fled to America and flourished but now seeks to thrive again in a milieu where his people strode like colossi before calamity struck; the daughter of another noble émigré to America who has grown up in a plasticized suburb where she could never feel quite at home, thus is sent off to ‘find herself’ among relations of the surviving Austrian aristocracy. Action takes place for these three respectively in Third Man-ish mean streets and an un-renovated university laboratory; in art and antique shops and a rebuilt, if somewhat hidden, palace; in a down-at-heel country estate and a noble townhouse now turned into flats. The impact of American upon Old World values is pervasive, yet shallow; resistance of the latter to the former is deftly depicted; the mix of the two in a new order emergent is painted with subtle brushstrokes.
Gore Vidal once entitled a book Pink Triangle & Yellow Star to underline common interest between gays and Jews in the aftermath of persecution by Blackshirts. He relocated to Europe to ply a congenial lifestyle among the decadent aristos of, in his case, Italy. This very New York-ish new old alliance – gay, Jew and ancien régime – is a matrix into which de Waal places her personae, interweaving their destinies as they ply expatriate lives in a new (for them) old world. The scientist leaves his wife making a fortune in Manhattan as corsetière to the nouveau riche (she despises them with a verve resembling Leona Helmsley’s decades on) to find only begrudging welcome from the native academics at his old institute; he is restored to his former position, without recognition of his achievements in exile, solely as a result of imposed policy and finds contentment only via the affection of an aristocrat who, dispossessed, has buried herself in research and, being too grand to think in terms of rivalry, recognizes his genius without fear of being overshadowed by it. Her brother is a beautiful scamp who, penniless, becomes bisexual bait for the rich; he is taken up by de Waal’s second persona, the Greek collector, who wishes to create a salon for what remains of or can be made into a beau monde in the half-dead city. De Waal’s third and most intimate persona, the American girl sent to find herself in ancestral Austria, falls under the spell of the scamp and becomes pregnant by him. He refuses to marry her, being after wealth only; but she is offered salvation by engagement to the Greek, whose covert motive for taking her on is to increase his attraction via her beauty and pedigree and to exercize further power over the lothario-scamp, who turns out to be not only bait for his developing salon but also the object of his own rarefied erotic interest.
In this imbroglio, ethnic, class and sexual prejudices all play significant roles. There is something pot-boilerish to the ending: one senses a whiff of Hollywood – say, James M. Cain (Mildred Pierce comes to mind) – affecting the otherwise ambient scent of one of Louise de Vilmorin’s housebroken-ly Proustian efforts. That said (and one wonders if it may be an explanation for why the book was not published in the author’s lifetime), the ending does have portent. Not all is as it should be in this new-world-upon-old paradise. The gay-Jewish-aristo alliance is a ‘golden bowl’ with significant fissures, even cracks; and it is fortunate for the principals that American authorities are still in charge of their district, if only just. Along with carefully vetted police and under supervision of a mysteriously omniscient priest, they are able to cover up a tragedy which might lead to scandal, even reactionary sanctions, were the native authorities back in control, as they imminently will be.
Elements in The Exiles Return are strikingly of the 1950s and might alarm monitors of political correctness in our day. Homosexual intrigue as the cause of a naïve young woman’s demise is one. Depiction of the plutocratic Greek as all-manipulating is another: it could be seen as an anti-Semitic caricature had he been cast as a Jew, as he easily and possibly more credibly could have been. But Elisabeth de Waal was clearly driven by desire for recherche of her own Proustian province as much as of this new old world at large, and the picture she paints of post-war Vienna’s apparatchiks and ideologues, only partly de-nazified natives and nostalgists, is sketchy in comparison to her detailing of her own kind. Thus we must not rush to hail the book chiefly as the historical portrait it appears to be at first glance. As that, it is atmospheric, intriguing, suggestive and rich; but as novel of personality and development it has more insistent pull and intrinsic truth. This may be the chief reason that Edmund de Waal, with his family agenda, persuaded Persephone Books to release it for the first time. It is a credit to both that they have done so, and in an inexpensive, highly attractive edition.
Dr. STODDARD MARTIN is the author of numerous books on 19th and 20th century thought
The Exiles Return
Elisabeth de Waal, with a new Preface by Edmund de Waal. Persephone Books, 2013. £12