The Austrian Riveter: From THE EXILES RETURN by Edmund de Waal

This exclusive introduction for The Austrian Riveter by artist and author Edmund de Waal is based on his original preface to the novel The Exiles Return written by his grandmother Elisabeth de Waal, originally published in 2013 by Persephone Books London.

In November 2018 there was a family gathering in Vienna to celebrate the opening of an exhibition about the Ephrussi family in the Jewish Museum. Cousins came from America and Mexico and the UK. There was a grand party and press interviews in the Palais Ephrussi, our former family home, seized by the Nazis in 1938. The President of Austria made a moving speech about citizenship. My father, then aged 90, talked of his return, spoke of why this mattered to him, his memories of his grandfather dying a refugee. And I kept being asked about restitution. I repeated that this wasn’t about art, it is about what art carries.

And our return to Vienna brought more questions. I am half-English and a quarter Dutch and a quarter Austrian and completely European. Why should this Austrian part of my heritage be so profoundly unsettling, so unresolved? I keep the words of Jean Améry close to me: I do not have clarity today, and I hope that I never will. Clarification would amount to disposal, settlement of the case, which can then be placed in the files of history … nothing is resolved, nothing is settled, no remembering has become mere memory. For me my Austrian inheritance of stories from my great-uncle Iggie and my grandmother Elisabeth cannot be filed away.

I have read and re-read her novel, The Exiles Return. The yellowing typescript with some tippexed corrections was handed over to me by my father, along with a clutch of Elisabeth’s school reports from the Schottengymnasium in Vienna, and a manila envelope stuffed with essays on economics from her studies at the University. There were a few lambent pages of autobiography describing her childhood at the turn of the 20th century in the Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse – the carriage horses, the interminable teas with great-aunts – and a clutch of letters between her and a favourite uncle. There was scant else. My father had joked in the liminal moment as the files were passed across that I was now the keeper of the archive. In the many, many months that followed in archives and libraries, as I tramped streets in Vienna, Paris and Odessa, in search of the family story that had become so compulsive for me (which I first wrote about in The Hare With Amber Eyes), I realised that this archival penury made complete sense. My grandmother had spent her life in transit between countries: she kept only the things that mattered to her. And these pages did.

Elisabeth de Waal was Viennese and this is a novel about being Viennese. As such, it is a novel about exile and about return, about the push and pull of love, anger and despair about a place which is part of your identity, but which has also rejected you. The Exiles Return is alive to this complexity and it stands, in part, as a kind of autobiography in its mapping of these emotions. 

She was born Elisabeth von Ephrussi in 1899, into a complex dynastic Jewish family that had adopted Vienna as its home thirty years before. The house I was born in stood, and still stands, outwardly unaltered, on the corner of the Ring… she explains in a short fragment of writing about her early life. It was an extraordinary moment in an extraordinary place. Her home was the Palais Ephrussi, a vast slab of neo-classicism adorned with caryatids, on the newly constructed Ringstrasse, the arc of civic buildings and Imperial monuments erected to reflect the glory of the Habsburg Empire. The house, marble and gilded, was a calling card built by a vastly rich and aspirational family of financiers, one of many on the street known derisively in the city as Zionstrasse: the street of Jews. Elisabeth’s mother, a beautiful and appropriately titled Jewish baroness, had been born in the Palais Schey a few hundred yards away. Cousins lived next door. It was a safe – if complex – world in which to be born.

This fissile combination of money and status, the question of where you come from and where you belong, was part of the make-up of Vienna. As the capital city of the Empire, the streets were full of every nation and every ethnic group. From her bedroom window, looking through the branches of the lime trees to the University, Elisabeth could see and hear the marching bands of Imperial regiments from across a swathe of Europe.

As one of the protagonists of her novel, Professor Adler, reflects, in the sleepless hours before his return, ‘…  from all directions of the compass they had come, seeking their fortune – Czech and Pole and Croat, Magyar and Italian, and Jew of course, to mix and feed and enrich this German city, which through them became unique and truly imperial’. Elisabeth’s memories were of a polyglot upbringing in a polyglot city. And her writing was born from an ease with different languages. She could choose which language to write in, as much as read in:

I was born and lived in Vienna, so German was the language which surrounded me, the Austrian kind of German with its soft and sometimes raucous vowels and muted consonants, a speech that could be coarse but never cutting, but the literate language nevertheless. It was for me as I grew up, the language of Goethe and Schiller, later of Rilke and Thomas Mann, of Kant and Schopenhauer and the language in which Reinhardt’s plays were produced. But it was not the language of my small, immediate and intimate world as a child. That was English.

Like many of her generation she was captivated by the lyric poetry of Rilke, the great and radical poet of the day. In his poetry Rilke combined directness of expression with intense sensuousness. His poems are full of epiphanies, moments when things come alive. Elisabeth was introduced to Rilke by an uncle and started a correspondence of great significance to her, sending poems to be critiqued and receiving long and involving replies, often accompanied by copies of the poems he was writing. When you look at the collected letters of Rilke, you realise that many of his correspondents were young, poetic and titled. Elisabeth fitted this demographic. But this cache of letters, taken with her on all her lifetime of travels from Vienna to Paris to Switzerland and then into her new life in England, was intensely symbolic for her. It was a benediction for her as a writer from a writer.

Her languages gave her an expansiveness across literature that was breathcatching. After her marriage to my grandfather Hendrick de Waal, she learnt Dutch and they wrote poetry for each other in that language. When living in Paris in the 1930s, she wrote for Le Figaro. She wrote book reviews of French novels for the TLS in the 1950s. Her first two novels were written in German, and her last two in English.  No wonder I found her bookshelves so bewildering. When I was visiting her, as a student of English literature, conversation would swerve across genres and countries – a haphazard reference to Goethe would invoke the final scene from Faustus, learnt eighty years before. We talked of Rilke and Hugo von Hofmannstahl. And then of Joyce – and she produced her edition of Ulysses, bought from Shakespeare and Co in Paris, with its shimmering azure paper covers.  And Proust. She re-read Proust constantly. When I found her single page describing her ‘quintessences of experience’, I felt this could be someone describing Proust.

The Exiles Return is profoundly autobiographical. In the figure of Resi, the beautiful girl lost in the social milieu, there is the glimmer of projection. And in Professor Adler, the academic whose need to return to Vienna is at the heart of the book, and who has to evaluate where he belongs amongst those who stayed, I think there is a strong sense of an alternative life being lived out. There are compelling moments of Elisabeth’s experiences too in the encounter between the character of Kanakis and a lawyer he consults about a property purchase. You can hear the memory of her own later encounters with Austrian lawyers in an attempt to find and restitute the looted family art collections and property, seized at the Anschluss in 1938, in this passage:

Sitting in his office surrounded by recently acquired art, a lawyer reveals a tremor of anxiety. These paintings come from the ‘Art collection of a Baron E.’ – died abroad unfortunately, in England, I believe. After they had recovered what could be traced of his property, his heirs had it all sold at auction; I suppose they had no use for this old-fashioned stuff in their modern homes. I acquired the pictures in the auction rooms, as well as most of the things you see here; all quite openly, publicly and legally, you understand…

Above all the novel is about exile and the heartbreak of returning. This passage describes Adler’s return to Vienna:

Finally, there he was, on the Ring: the massive pile of the Natural History Museum on his right, the ramp of the Parliament building on his left, beyond it the spire of the Town Hall, and in front of him the railings of the Volksgarten and the Burgplatz. There he was, and there it all was; though the once tree-bordered footpaths across the roadway were stripped, treeless, only a few naked trunks still standing. Otherwise it was all there. And suddenly the dislocation of time which had been dizzying him with illusions and delusions snapped into focus, and he was real, everything was real, incontrovertible fate. He was there. Only the trees were not there, and this comparatively trivial sign of destruction, for which he had not been prepared, caused him incommensurate grief. Hurriedly he crossed the road, entered the park gates, sat down on a bench in a deserted avenue and wept.

This is a novel written by a truly ambitious writer. It has moments of great vividness and great tenderness within it. In its depiction of what it might mean to return from exile, it also reflects the life of a woman of considerable courage. Elisabeth, a Jewish academic, returned to Vienna weeks after the Anschluss in 1938 in order to save her parents in their moment of greatest need. She managed to get her father to England in 1939. And she returned immediately after the war to find out what had happened to her family. She fought for a decade to get justice for the wrongs that had been done, battling the intransigence, hostility and derision of the authorities in Vienna. And she did this without losing her extraordinary ability to live fully in the present and not be held hostage by the experience of exile.

Bringing this novel into print, so many decades after the events it alludes to, is a wonderful celebration of someone who read and wrote and lived with such fortitude. 

Edmund de Waal

Read The Austrian Riveter here or order your paper copy from here.

Buy books from The Austrian Riveter through the European Literature Network’s The Austrian Riveter page.

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