by Daniel Brown

Edward de Waal’s award winning memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes, published about three years ago, traces the ownership of a large group of Japanese netsukes from its original owner, the author’s great-great uncle, to the author himself.  De Waal uses the history of these objects to explore and discover his own family history, and a fascinating one it turns out to be.  He comes from one of the great Jewish banking houses of Europe, the Ephrussis, whose bank starts in Odessa, Russia, and moves into western Europe via Vienna and Paris.  The Rothchilds are the most recent of these banking families.  De Waal recreates the same world about which Proust writes in Remembrance of Things Past, a period in Europe that lasted only from about 1860 until 1910 or so, when the Austrio-Hungarian Empire falls apart with the death of Emperor Franz Josef.

The Hapsburg Empire, over which the Emperor reigned, was a hodgepodge of Hungarians, Bulgars, Czeks, Jews, Turks, Slavs, and others; with Vienna as its capital, that city was one of the most cosmopolitan in the world, and Austria the first country to allow its Jews to be citizens.  The Ringstrasse was built at the same time period, and many of its mansions were commissioned by these great Jewish banking families.  Whether in Vienna or in Paris, the first son of such families was obliged to work in the family bank, while the second son was supposed to be a gentleman of leisure, who went into Society, collected art and antiquities, sometimes founded art magazines, and advanced the family interests socially: it was a period of tremendous assimilation at the top reaches of Society, although the Dreyfus case was just around the corner, presaging the anti-Semitism emerging all through Europe.  During the same period japonisme entered France, and serious art collectors were buying Japanese prints and lacquers, screens and netsukes, along with the new Impressionist paintings just emerging in France.  In fact, de Waal learns that of the two real figures upon who Proust models his lead characters, Charles Swann, is his own great-great uncle Charles, and that Proust himself was a close friend of this same relative’s.  The Hare is, obviously one of the netsukes.  But the family itself will fall apart entirely, and lose all its possessions, including its bank, after the Emperor dies, and virulent anti-Semitism is unleashed in Austria, awaiting Hitler’s Anshluss.

De Waal’s great grandmother, Elisabeth de Waal, manages to save remnants of this family and a few of its possessions, as she insisted on going to the University of Vienna to study law and economics right before the curtain falls.  Her return to Vienna after World War II is an act of extraordinary heroism and horror.  She did, however, write a number of novels during her marriage to the Dutch de Waal, with whom she lived in England, and her correspondence with the poet Rilke is one of the most famous in modern literature.

The novel, The Exiles Return, is a splendid overview of life in Vienna in around 1954-5, when Austria was still an occupied power, its glory gone, its empire over.  The heart of the novel is about a formerly noble Austrian family, living in its country house outside Vienna, with no money, and little but a pedigree which matters to less and less people.  One of the sisters of this house left for America with her commoner husband, and their daughter is sent to stay in the villa for a year to find herself.  She will get wrapped up in the lingering snobbery of the nobility, and its desperation in finding money to shore itself up: many are looking for rich Americans to marry.  She also is surrounded by a lingering demimondian sexual desire, which pervades the parties to which she is invited because of her family and her own beauty, both of which will be manipulated and, untimely, destroy her.

De Waal also has a Jewish man return to Vienna, a city he misses and love, giving up the New York he hates, to resume his scientific career, which is in ashes, like most of Austria.  His return is a fascinating part of the novel, and he will find new life and happiness with his lab assistant, who turns out to be a princess, of former times.  The extent of the corruption of the clergy, much of the nobility, and the sexual politics lingering from the inter-war period are brilliantly delineated; de Waal may understand some of what Henry James never did.

If the novel has a flaw, it’s that the book seems a little bit more journalistic than novelistic, more sociological than psychological, although the two overlap more as the tragic elements of her characters grows.  The Exiles Return covers territory rarely examined, that awkward period right after the war ends, and the American empire begins, as the European ones die out.  De Waal is superb in understanding the desperation of a failed nobility, but offers a ray of hope when the Jewish scientist falls in love with the Viennese princess: they represent Austria’s best hope.

Bearing in mind that she is writing about her own history, more or less, the act of writing this novel is a very courageous one, written by a woman whose professional achievements were in other fields, a woman whose own life survived because of her own rejection of the hot house existence she lived and saw through in Vienna in the first place.

One Response

  1. This ireview s so textually/contextually rich. I want to read this book, especially as so much in our current broad culture is focused on cusps – such as the so-popular Downton Abbey, Mad Men and so on. So this review offers up the post-WWII world of central Europe.

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