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A Place Out of a Story Book

By (March 1, 2014) No Comment

the-exiles-return-elisabeth-de-waalThe Exiles Return
by Elisabeth de Waal
Picador, 2014

In the preface to Elizabeth de Waal’s posthumous novel, The Exiles Return, the author’s grandson, Edmund de Waal, best known for his award-winning memoir, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, remarks that at its heart the work is about “what it might mean to return from exile.” Indeed, while in part the novel depicts the post-war struggles facing her broken homeland of Austria, the subject of “repatriation” is its center of gravity, and de Waal offers us a vicarious experience of returning.

The notion of homecoming promises to mend the wounds of exile, the gnawing sense of betraying one’s native soil. Yet it paradoxically entails, to borrow the sentiment expressed in Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses, “looking forward by always looking back.” The home one longs for is not the distant land across an ocean; it is the homeland of childhood, of memory. Only by inhabiting the site of the past can one forget the intervening years spent in a strange land with strange manners, the shame of conforming. Returning from exile is thus an attempt to recover lost time.

By the spring of 1954, Austria, convalescing from the barbarities of the previous decade, was in its last year of occupation by the Allied powers. As the “denazification” took place, the country welcomed back those who had departed for personal and political reasons – émigrés and refugees alike. This is the period in which The Exiles Return is set, and among the exiles returning to Austria are the three major characters of the novel, which moves back and forth among their parallel storylines, intertwined at key moments in the text. Kuno Adler, a Jewish professor of medicine, Theophil Kanakis, a millionaire art collector, and a young and beautiful daughter of an Austrian princess, called Resi, share a common goal: each is seeking the impossible dream of the exiled, to partake in the Austria of the past. Yet, as we come to discover, in fixating on the past, the home they seek only drifts farther away.

Adler returns to recover his Viennese identity, after a lengthy exile in the United States. The train journey to Austria plays tricks on the professor’s memory as he forgets the intervening years spent in exile, forgets that he possesses the rights of an American citizen. Undergoing passport inspection evokes Adler’s anxiety of being banished or worse – recognized as “other” – in a country that has not only forced him into exile, but has also cast his identity as Austrian into doubt. The strict tone in which the officer utters the simple words, “Austrian passport control,”

… hit a nerve somewhere in Kuno Adler’s throat; no, below the throat, where breath and
nourishment plunge into the depths of the body, a non-conscious, ungovernable nerve, in
the solar plexus probably.

Readers who trace their descent from countries where nationality is interchangeable with ethnicity, where one’s potentially foreign roots are easily betrayed by ‘papers’ – if Adler still possesses his Austrian passport, it likely bears the mark of his ethnicity by the letter ‘J’ – will understand Adler’s angst as he crosses the border into Austrian territory. The anxiety-inducing account of this scene is mirrored by a staccato rhythm generated by short clauses, fragmented sentences:

Suddenly and unaccountably a wave of some unidentifiable emotion swept through Kuno Adler. Apprehension? But of what? It felt like a physical sickness, a mental darkness…he was an animal, tense, wary, charged with feeling, stripped of reason.

The novel’s portrayal of the dislocation of the character’s memory, along with his self-conscious reflections conveyed in free-indirect discourse reveal the influences of major 19th and 20th century authors, such as Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and particularly of Proust, whom, as Edmund de Waal notes, “she read… constantly.” Such influence is discernible in the novel’s stylistic adaptability, in the reader’s pleasure of following de Waal’s agile hand. Her work belongs not to the tradition of the plot-driven novels, suspenseful page-turners, but to the slower-paced narratives that seek to capture the introspective life of their characters, enabling the reader not only to understand, but to undergo by identification the particularities of repatriation.

Like Ader, Kanakis longs to return to the Austria of his childhood, yet the American millionaire’s object is to enact his childhood dream of living as a wealthy nobleman in Austria. Kanakis purchases the privilege at the cost of his morality; he finds the poverty in Austria auspicious and does not shrink from acquiring at a discount artifacts that once belonged to the dead. The items lost by their owners in the misfortune of the war are now “bargains,” and he believes he acts “judiciously” in taking “advantage of the reversals of fortune… that have befallen some people of substance during recent historical events.” The narrative adopts such haughty and ornate language to convey Kanakis’ pretension and aspirations to grandeur.

Resi too seeks to revisit the glamor of the gentry’s reign, lured by the romantic notion of being a princess in Vienna. However, as we learn in the prelude to the novel, which chronologically succeeds the rest of the events, her attempt to return proves fatal. She is reported to have died of “gunshot wounds” while “inexpertly handling a gun” at the home of her fiancé, and the mystery of her death lingers throughout the narrative. When, chapters later, Resi arrives at the estate of her aunt, “the castle of Wald in Upper Austria,” her appearance is reminiscent of the entrance of Isabel Archer of Henry James’ The Portrait of a Lady at the English estate of her uncle. Resi’s semblance to Isabel foreshadows her undoing by the object of her affection, despite the offers of love and wealth from her numerous suitors.

photo by Memorator

photo by Memorator

Like her literary precedent, Resi is already eluding an American wooer. Yet she lacks Isabel’s vitality, her desire to live and collect experiences, or as Ms. Archer often vows, to make something of her life. Not a great deal occurs during Resi’s stay at Wald, and this enables the author to enter into the atmosphere of her character’s consciousness, allowing the reader to undergo the heroine’s ennui through the drawn-out, if not tedious prose:

In the mornings she would lie in the grass where an angle of the castle wall made a square of shade for her head and her long bare legs were stretched out to the warm caress of the sun: lying with her eyes half-closed, she would watch the butterflies fluttering between the tall grasses, settling and spreading their wings on a patch of pink clover or balancing on the purple flower-head of a wild scabious.

Sharing Isabel’s quixotic attraction to remnants of the past, Resi romanticizes Vienna, which in her “imagination…seemed to be a place out of a story book,” and it is particularly this fixation that leads to her demise.

As Adler’s first impressions on returning to Austria painfully confirm, reality can rarely corroborate one’s vision of the past. The novel’s account of Adler’s first days in Vienna are punctuated by a stylistic particularity – the sentences are elongated by various clauses that emulate the professor’s chaotic impressions and fears, deferring the dreaded truth – that his Vienna is unrecoverable – until the very end:

Then, gritting his teeth, he went on, turning right, and turning left and right again, without looking at street names, without looking anywhere, sleepwalking as it were to reach the place where he would have to wake up and look and be sure.

Observing the main avenue, Adler notes that it was all there, “he was there. Only the trees were not there,” and this rather minute alteration – the first of several incongruities – painfully upsets the order of his memory and his perception of the passage of time. To return is evidently to encounter what Freud would call the ‘uncanny,’ the disturbing sensation of finding something simultaneously “familiar and frighteningly strange,” foreign and recognizable, as “one experiences in dreams.” Overcome with emotion, Adler “sat down on a bench in a deserted avenue, and wept.” Disheartening as we may find to identify with the character during such scenes, this vicarious experience can be painfully satisfying even for those readers who would not dare to return.

Unlike the perception of his compatriot, for Kanakis, the destruction of Vienna is quite minor, and he discovers that people have remained the same, that they still long for “pleasures of the senses,” are starved for luxury – a fact on which this Mephistophelian figure capitalizes, tempting his victims with earthly indulgences. While Kanakis succeeds in recovering the memory of the past, and his opulent gatherings restore the leisurely pursuits of 19th century nobility, de Waal’s interest in his story chiefly lies in what happens in between his major accomplishments, in the details of his sensations. Among the precious artifacts that Kanakis discovers in the rubble of post-war Austria is Prince Lorenzo Grein-Lauterbach, whom he longs to possess no less than the delicate statuette of a shepherdess in Grein’s hands. Kanakis’ reaction reminds us of the sensation that Dorian Gray of Oscar Wilde’s novel bestows upon his fortunate observers, that of amazement and near-petrification:

If there is such a thing as what is called in French a coup de foudre, an overwhelming emotional experience which originates entirely in the eyes, when what is seen carries the conviction of a revelation which no subsequent qualification or critical appraisal can refute or corrode, then this unexpected, and for him, unprecedented experience happened to Kanakis in the moment in which the apparition of the young man on the stairs impinged on his senses.

The malleability of her prose serves de Wall’s central purpose in the novel – representing the elusive psychic experiences of her various characters. Here the author dilates a moment in her character’s life, decelerating the progression of her storyline to convey “the invisible currents of emotion,” which the reader can sense moving sinuously along the winding discourse. Kanakis, who embodies a combination of Basil Hallward, the artist infatuated with Dorian, and Lord Henry, interested in corrupting his young and beautiful friend, is astounded by his first gaze on the marble statue that is the young Prince. Kanakis considers himself a “connoisseur… of material and workmanship” of artistic figures, composed of marble and canvas, as well as those of flesh and blood. He immediately longs to possess the “faunish” Prince as well as his statuette and comes to display a homosexual affection that remains a mere insinuation in Dorian Gray.

In addition to being a favorite of Kanakis, Grein captivates even the dispassionate Marie-Theres – a love that is symptomatic of her attraction to the courtly past. She is overcome not only by Grein’s flawless princely charm, but also by Kanakis’ lavish estate – the site of their encounters:

On entering the brightly-lit hall, with its golden sconces and shining marble floor, its scent of camellias and orange blossom from the little potted trees, it had seemed like a dream… Here [music] was muted, insinuating, whispering and confidential, secretly exciting.

These scenes transport the reader, along with Resi, to the previous century. And like the naïve character, absorbed by the indulgence of everything that surrounds Theophil Kanakis and the whirl of the decadent language the author expends on him, reflecting the old world glamor which is the subject of her novel, we are distracted from discovering Kanakis’ true motivations, delaying the revelation and heightening the surprise of the novel’s reversal.

However, de Waal does not seem to be interested in the development of the affair of Resi and Grein. Instead, she centralizes the intangible elements of their interactions, scenes in which we participate as readers of glances between the enamored Resi and the Prince, who fails to return her romantic overtures:

Several times Resi tried with inconspicuous gestures to attract his [Grein’s] attention, brushing against his hand as she smoothed her dress, bending forward so as to obscure his view…, and then quickly straightening up again and sitting back, apologizing with a smile for the unintentional inconvenience she had caused… But he did not respond to Resi’s obviously adoring glances…

Diverging from the other major characters of the novel, within a few months of his repatriation, Adler comes to accept the loss of irretrievable time and is fundamentally altered from the over-conscious exile originally encountered. His once persistent suspicion of external judgment diminishes, as does his former sensitivity “to what he… might have imagined to be slights and innuendos.” What is suggested by this near-magical metamorphosis is that Adler’s initial paranoia about “hypocrisy or deception” is merely a survival tool, a protective barrier that exiles cultivate in the unfamiliar, hostile environment of their borrowed homeland. The Jewish professor’s transformation of temperament is confirmed in the climactic scene of his narrative, wherein he confronts a “self-confessed… Nazi,” tried for “medical war crimes,” and asserts his right to Austria. This is mirrored by a stylistic change, marked by a simplification of the previously lengthy, circuitous prose.

It is a satisfaction to me to have met at least one self-confessed, unrepentant Nazi. There must be many of them. Where have they got to? They all seem to have disappeared. One goes about people, wondering… So I am pleased to have met one openly, face-to-face. I can only thank you for being so frank. I can also understand now why you asked me why I came back. I am one of those, Dr. Krieger, whom you didn’t get rid of.

Satisfying as the reader may find the notion that finding home heals self-consciousness and acute sensitivity of exile, this swift and uneventful resolution to Adler’s re-integration is problematic. Not only does the reader long to enter into more details of Adler’s experience, but the profound alteration of his character appears implausible, bereft of nuance. We expect a lingering dislocation to follow the character’s return as well as an extensive period of mourning for lost time and lost memories, yet Adler’s acceptance is arrived at rather unexpectedly. In De Waal’s imagination, recovering a homeland is possible, but it is clearly difficult to demonstrate the details of such an accomplishment, to chart a path home.

de_waalWhile Adler rediscovers a home in Austria, Resi is further exiled from the noble circle she longs to join.  Her affair with Grein comes to a tragic conclusion and, disgraced by her engagement in a premarital affair, she is forced to accept the marriage proposal of the much older Kanakis. As it turns out, Kanakis has performed the part of matchmaker between Resi and Grien – an affair that would ultimately damn the sinful soul of his Faustian victim and bring destruction upon his mistress. This Mephistopheles – a collector of priceless objects that cannot be maintained by the poverty-stricken Austrians – purchases Resi like the other artifacts on the black market. She must now take her place on his mantle as “an ornament,” reminiscent of the shepherdess in Grein’s hands on the first day of their encounter. However, Kanakis’ success is not long-lived, for as predicted in the prelude, Resi dies at his estate, and he loses this prized possession, like childhood dreams that wither when confronted with reality.

The narration of Resi’s death through the internal point of view reveals that, unlike its earlier depiction, her death is no accident, but can be attributed to the confrontation between her various suitors and the resulting corruption of her life. She has been manipulated, maneuvered like a pawn in a chess game. The true cause of her death is hidden for fear that a full investigation may put a strain on Austro-American relations and impede the signing of the treaty of Austria’s independence. But the author sacrifices Resi to reveal the brutality of the characters, the brutality of the political ideologies dividing Austria. Resi’s experience is not unlike that of the country from which she hails, a country whose history is shaped by its inability to resist the sway of more powerful forces.

Although the vicarious experience of returning that this novel offers is welcome, the events of the plot – romantic betrayal, manipulation, the sale of the innocent girl, her subsequent death – are somewhat contrived, overly dramatic. Yet, while the novel’s focus is the struggle to retrieve lost time and to represent the vulnerable condition of post-war Austria, its best pages are far narrower in scope. De Waal is most interested in what happens in between the major events of the plot: in the shame evident on Grein’s face when requesting Kanakis’ assistance, in the exchange of gazes between Resi, Grein, and Kanakis, while the motivations of their eyes are being decoded by a third party, and in Adler’s weeping for the trees. As cited in the preface by her grandson, the author explains this tendency as one of her faults as a writer, which she believes has kept her from being published, “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.” However, those of us deeply moved by authors such as Henry James, Oscar Wilde, and especially Marcel Proust, have come to love “the quintessence of experiences,” have grown sensitive to nuances of understatement that so beautifully complement winding, evocative prose. Such readers will enjoy de Waal’s propensity to centralize the flow of “invisible currents of emotion” between the characters, as well as the interplay of glances, read and misread by the initiated parties. They will relish the scene of Adler weeping on the main avenue of Vienna, wherein the missing trees exemplify all that has been lost for the exiled. The rest is silence, so to speak.

Jane Shmidt is a Ph.D. candidate of Comparative Literature at the CUNY Graduate Center. She teaches English and Russian literature at Hunter College and City College. She is working on a dissertation that examines the subject of lovesickness in medicine and literature.