Coming Back

De Waal Family Archives
Elisabeth de Waal, Paris, 1926

About halfway through The Hare with Amber Eyes—Edmund de Waal’s best-selling history of his Jewish banking family, and of the art they collected and lost to the Nazis—we encounter his grandmother Elisabeth, a studious Viennese girl who has just turned seventeen and who, for the first time, is to have a dress made after a pattern of her own choosing. It is December 1916, soon after the death of the Emperor Franz Joseph. Watching expectantly are Elisabeth’s glamorous, dressy mother, her pretty younger sister, and her brother Iggie, who, at the age of ten, is obsessed with clothes and loves to watch his mother dress. Iggie later turns out to be gay and, in the 1930s, absconds to New York to become a fashion designer rather than take over the family business. After World War II he settles in Japan. It is he who tells Edmund the story:

In the dressing-room on the dressing-table is a book of swatches of fabric and Elisabeth comes up with an idea for a dress that has a spider’s-web pattern over the bodice.
Iggie is absolutely appalled. Seventy years later in Tokyo he recounts how there was complete silence when she described what she wanted: “She simply had no taste at all.”

It must have been strange being Elisabeth de Waal (née Ephrussi). Her family, Odessa grain merchants who established an international banking business in the mid-nineteenth century, seem to have been a highly visual bunch, according to Edmund, who is himself a prominent ceramicist. The Palais Ephrussi, on the Ringstrasse, was full of gilding, Old Masters, and objets d’art, including the collection of netsuke—miniature Japanese sculptures—around which The Hare with Amber Eyes is structured. The Paris cousin who had given the netsuke to Elisabeth’s parents, Charles Ephrussi, was a famous art historian and collector, an important client of most of the Impressionists, and a friend of Marcel Proust, who based the character of Charles Swann partly on him.

Everything in Elisabeth’s nature ran counter to these opulent tastes. Her grandson recalls that “she didn’t have much feel for the world of objects” and he reproduces a photograph of her as “a plain, fierce, focused, intellectual eighteen-year-old.” In a milieu where rich young women were barely educated past a level that would suffice to make them marriageable, Elisabeth’s precocious intelligence and seriousness set her apart. She excelled in school, and even demanded rabbinical training as a child. Her intellectual ambitions caused friction at home: her mother didn’t like her educated way of speaking and objected when a private tutor was hired; a cousin, the expressionist painter Marie-Louise von Motesiczky, was irritated by Elisabeth’s endless academic accolades.*

But Elisabeth’s father, Baron Viktor Ephrussi—who was happiest in his library and had wanted to be an academic rather than a banker—was proud of his daughter’s brains. She went on to study philosophy, law, and economics at the University of Vienna, where she was one of the first women to obtain a law doctorate. A lover of words rather than things, she adored poetry and idolized Rilke, with whom she corresponded for the last five years of his life. He was cautiously encouraging about the poems she sent. Her academic career took her to America and then to Paris, where she met her husband, Hendrik de Waal, an erratic Dutch businessman.

When the Ephrussis’ world came apart, during the anti-Semitic outrages that followed the Anschluss, Elisabeth took the considerable risk of returning to Vienna to help her parents flee to a family estate in Czechoslovakia. (The price of freedom was the confiscation of the Ephrussi bank and all the family’s wealth.) Nine months later, after the fall of Czechoslovakia and the suicide of her mother, she managed to get her father to England, where she had just moved with her family.

There she learned to cook for the first time in her life (a former family retainer would send her elaborate recipes with instructions like “the honored lady slowly tilts the frying pan”), taught Latin for housekeeping money, and began a gradual transformation into a middle-class English lady. She lived in Tunbridge Wells and contributed short reviews to the TLS, which seems to have used her mostly for books in Dutch or about the aftermath of war in Europe. Having become a Protestant when she married, she went to church each Sunday in a sensible coat. It is tempting to suppose that she found in dowdy, respectable midcentury Anglicanism the ultimate antidote to the glamour into which she had been born. And she wrote: five novels, two in German, three in English. None of them found a publisher.

The Exiles Return, now published for the first time, was written in the mid-1950s, after fraught years when Elisabeth had taken on the burden of seeking restitution of the Ephrussis’ property. The process was disheartening: materials and records were dispersed, bureaucrats were evasive, and Austria, which had welcomed Hitler, was in the process of deciding that it had been a victim of Nazism—the first country to be occupied—rather than a perpetrator of it. (“The entire nation should not be liable for damages to Jews,” the postwar president Karl Renner wrote.) Elisabeth traveled to Vienna soon after the war and for five years wrote letters from England pressing her family’s case. Sustained by lawyerly tenacity and a sense of outrage at the institutionalized injustice of it all, she managed to recover some property but the money that could be realized at depressed postwar prices was minimal.

The title of The Exiles Return—it’s hard not to hear, as with Finnegans Wake, the apostrophe that isn’t there—refers to three new arrivals in Vienna shortly before the end of the Allied occupation in 1955. There is Kuno Adler, a Jewish scientist who fled to New York just before the war with his wife and daughters. His career has bumped along ingloriously, while his wife has thrived, starting a successful business, adopting an American accent, and never letting him forget that she supports them. He has left her to return to Vienna, in the hope that he can slip back into the life he left behind.

Then there is Theophil Kanakis, who grew up in Vienna’s Greek community, went to America long before the war, and made a huge fortune. He has returned simply to enjoy himself—to collect beautiful things (houses, Louis Quinze antiques) and beautiful people (in particular a young prince, known as Bimbo, whose family was left penniless by the Nazis). Kanakis’s homosexuality—understood by some characters, not by others—partly precipitates the novel’s denouement, and it is treated with considerable subtlety. His mix of flamboyance and discretion feels true to the period, and whereas much of the novel feels as if it could have been written by Stefan Zweig in about 1920, the Kanakis sections feel distinctly postwar. At his parties we sense that the café society of Paris Match and La Dolce Vita is not far off.

The third of De Waal’s exiles has in fact never set foot in Vienna before. She is the beautiful young daughter of a Viennese princess who turned her back on aristocratic life, marrying a Danish chemist and emigrating to America. The daughter’s name is Marie-Theres, and the author makes sure we notice its Hapsburgian significance: the girl’s mother chose it because it “embodied everything she wished to remember of the old Austria, of her country’s and her family’s greatness.” Marie-Theres’s mother worries that her daughter has become withdrawn and uncommunicative, and hopes that a stay with her uncle and aunt at their country estate will do her good.

At the estate Marie-Theres gets to know her cousins and tolerates the attentions of a clever young man of lowly origin and socialist leanings. Then she moves to Vienna, gets swept up in the world of Kanakis, and falls hard for Bimbo. Until that point, the three strands of the novel proceed more or less independently, and Kuno Adler’s story never fully intersects with the other two. But we know from the very start of the novel that some kind of confluence will occur, and that things will end badly: a prologue tells how a young American society girl was fatally shot at the home of a millionaire called Kanakis.

Of the three characters Kuno Adler is the only real exile and it is he whose story most closely reflects De Waal’s anger at the small cruelties of postwar Vienna. After a meeting with an apologetic, embarrassed bureaucrat, he is reinstated at his old laboratory, but at a position no more senior than the one he occupied fifteen years before. He calls up old friends but feels that they don’t really want to see him, and he can’t bear the sense that he is pitied. At one dinner he wishes that he could speak to an old friend more freely than the presence of the man’s wife permits:

As the evening drew on, the initial nagging doubt stirred again at the back of Adler’s mind. Perhaps Hermann himself had said to his wife: don’t leave us, I don’t want to get involved in too many confidences. We don’t know what Kuno’s state of mind may be. He was always rather touchy, inclined to have grievances. He probably has some quite serious ones now which we might find very embarrassing. And he obviously wasn’t happy in America or he wouldn’t have come back. I doubt whether he is going to be happy here.

The scene is over in a couple of pages. A more developed and confident writer would have made more of it. Yet it is beautifully balanced—after all, at one level, the evening is a perfectly pleasant one—and, in its unemphatic way, it seems like a truthful snapshot: there must have been many evenings like this in postwar Vienna.

Eventually, things improve for Adler: his experience and quiet application earn him great respect at the lab. Gratifyingly, this upsets his unpleasant superior, who, we learn, has worked in a concentration camp experimenting on people. The superior confronts Adler, who shows new assertiveness in his response. In all facets of life he moves from disappointment—at not being able to regain what is lost—to optimism. He even finds love again. Returning to Vienna gives him a new lease on life, but not in the way he had expected. It is only by letting go of his deluded hope that he would simply be able to slip back into his old life that he manages to live again.

Adler’s experience is resolutely undramatic, and one suspects that Kanakis and Marie-Theres are in the novel partly to supply animation. We get set pieces—a mountain excursion, a ball, a night at the opera, during which we are prompted to ponder the possible correspondences between Eugene Onegin and the novel’s emerging love triangle. These scenes work well enough but, compared to Kanakis’s parties or Adler’s lonely peregrinations, they feel derivative of other writers—Zweig, Arthur Schnitzler (who was a distant cousin of Elisabeth de Waal’s), Joseph Roth. In its closing stages the book slides toward melodrama, and the final catastrophe requires Marie-Theres to shift with implausible alacrity from her usual impassivity to a neurotic mode reminiscent of Schnitzler’s Fräulein Else.

De Waal Family Archives
Elisabeth and her sister Gisela as children, Vienna

After Marie-Theres’s demise, an epilogue coolly describes the ceremonies that celebrated the end of the Allied occupation and the establishment of Austria’s independence. The juxtaposition seems ironic in intent and it is surely indebted to Zweig’s Beware of Pity, in which a young girl’s death coincides with the outbreak of World War I. But the symbolic aspect of things is not successfully handled. Does the demise of Marie-Theres mean the end of “the old Austria” that her name symbolized, or should we see Austria as a treacherous and inscrutable place that naive foreigners enter at their own risk? It’s anyone’s guess what point is being made, and De Waal does not seem to be in control of the ambiguity.

In The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal writes of The Exiles Return, “It is unpublished. And unpublishable, I think, as I appraise it in typescript, 261 pages with painstaking Tipp-Exed corrections. The rawness of its emotions makes for uncomfortable reading.” If the book is now publishable after all, clearly the main reason is that the extraordinary success of Edmund de Waal’s book assures at least some readership for his grandmother’s. It’s also possible that Elisabeth’s story, one that few people in the 1950s wanted to hear, is one that a contemporary readership is more open to. The recent sensation surrounding Irène Némirovksy’s posthumous novel Suite Française is a testament to our enduring fascination with this period, though Némirovksy, a prolific novelist throughout the 1930s, is a far more accomplished writer than De Waal.

Edmund de Waal, in an introduction to the novel, is careful not to claim too much for it, and also quotes a striking document that he found, in which Elisabeth considers why her literary efforts have failed:

I have always written, all my life, and have always striven to do so, and have always faltered on the way and hardly ever succeeded in getting published…. What is lacking? I have a feeling for language…. But I think I write in a rarified atmosphere, I lack the common touch, it is all too finely distilled. I deal in essences the taste of which is too subtle to register on the tongue. It is the quintessence of experiences, not the experiences themselves.

Such pitiless self-examination commands respect, but the verdict is only half right. The Exiles Return does not lack a common touch; its author has gone to considerable trouble to deck it out with melodramatic turns. But she is right that her interest in “essences” rather than “experiences” bleeds the novel of immediacy. Her descriptions often feel like placeholders: buildings have “ceremonious old-world dignity” or “imposing” façades. In a city as visually rich as Vienna, evocations like this are a missed opportunity. The book is full of adjectives that nudge us toward a judgment rather than stimulating our imagination. At times, one wonders if the published text is merely a first draft. Surely some of these things would have been smoothed out if the book had been published in Elisabeth de Waal’s lifetime. Then again, if she had been able to smooth them out before submitting the manuscript, perhaps the book would have been published.

In that sense, Iggie’s childhood assessment of his sister’s aesthetic cluelessness seems accurate. The book, by turns trenchant and slapdash, is the product of a fine mind oblivious to appearances. Indeed, its visual blandness can even be seen as a deliberate repudiation of the Ephrussi family. In the world of the novel, collecting and being pretty are not good things: Bimbo is unscrupulous, Kanakis cold, Marie-Theres vacant. By contrast, Adler’s new love, a brainy, sincere woman named Nina, broods on her unattractiveness and has a large nose that, we are told, distracts “the beholder from recognizing the beauty of her eyes and mouth.” Edmund de Waal’s introduction supposes that there is a “glimmer of projection” in Elisabeth’s portrayal of Marie-Theres, but there can be little doubt that her true sympathies are with Nina. In an unpleasant touch, when Marie-Theres meets her violent end, we are told that her “beautiful face was beautiful no longer.” Beauty cannot go unpunished.

The novel has one further, revealing flaw—a highly unstable handling of point of view. De Waal likes using a very close third person, sometimes heightened, in a Schnitzlerian style, by brief moments of first person. “How difficult all this is—things will slip out,” thinks the bureaucrat assigned to make excuses to Adler. But De Waal is not prepared to commit to this level of interiority and pulls back to a more nineteenth-century omniscience whenever it’s convenient. Thus we tend to enter scenes from the specific point of view of a single character, only to be knocked out of that perspective and into another character’s head.

Given that the first half of the book consists mostly of encounters between pairs of characters, this happens with frustrating regularity. This is not merely a technical incompetence but actually a symptom of a deeper confusion. In these interviews between exiles and natives, between those who have returned and those who never left, De Waal sees both sides and cannot decide which viewpoint to inhabit. The book, fascinating in its failure, is a testament to the dislocations it examines. It is a novel that doesn’t know where it belongs.

  1. *

    See Jill Lloyd, The Undiscovered Expressionist: A Life of Marie-Louise Von Motesiczky (Yale University Press, 2007).