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The Exiles Return

by Elisabeth de Waal
Persephone book no:

101 102 103

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A Well Full of Leaves
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ISBN 9781903155929

Unpublished during Elisabeth de Waal's lifetime, The Exiles Return is set in Occupied Vienna in 1954-5. It describes five people who grew up there before the war and have come back to see if they can re-establish the life they have lost.  As Edmund de Waal writes in his Preface about his grandmother's highly autobiographical novel, she "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."

The novel begins with Professor Kuno Adler, who is Jewish and fled Vienna after the Anschluss (the events of March 1938 when Hitler’s troops marched into Austria). He is returning from New York to try and take up his old life as a research scientist. We realise through his confrontation with officialdom and with the changed fabric of the city (the lime trees are there no longer, it is hard to know who behaved well during the war and who was a Nazi sympathiser) that a refugee who goes back has a very difficult time.

Next we are introduced to a wealthy Greek named Kanakis. Before the war his family had lived in great style with a coach and horses and many servants, and now the 40 year-old Kanakis has come back to try and buy an eighteenth-century hotel particulier. He meets Prince Lorenzo Grein-Lauterbach (who owes more than a little to Tadzio in Death in Venice). Bimbo, as he is known – and the nickname is an accurate one – is a 24-year-old who, because his aristocratic, anti-Nazi parents were murdered by the Germans, was spirited away to the country during the war years and afterwards. Kanakis and he develop a gay relationship (a brave thing to write about in the 1950s) and he is kept by his older lover. But he has a sister, Princess Nina, who works in a laboratory, the same one to which Adler returns. She lives modestly in the attic of her family’s former palais, is a devout Catholic, loyal to her brother and the memory of her parents, intelligent and hard-working, but, as she perceives it, is stocky and unattractive.

Lastly, there is 18 year-old Marie-Theres, whose parents went to America just before the war; they, and her siblings, have become completely American, but Resi (as she is known, possibly with a deliberate echo of Henry James’s What Maisie Knew) has never fitted in and is déplacée. So she goes back to her Austrian aunt and uncle to see if she can make a life in the home country (from her parents point of view to see if she can be married off) yet here too she is an innocent abroad, unable to put down roots. Her tragedy is at the core of this moving and evocative book, which explores a very complex and interesting question: if an exile returns, how should he or she behave morally? 

Each of the exiles describes an aspect of the author herself. Elisabeth de Waal was brought up in the Palais Ephrussi, so wonderfully evoked by Edmund de Waal in The Hare with Amber Eyes. Her mother’s life was the one for which the ‘startlingly beautiful’, fictional Resi was bred and should have grown into. Elisabeth herself was much more like Princess Nina, ‘a serious young girl who was, as Edmund de Waal said in an interview with Mark Lawson on BBC Radio 4’s Front Row, ‘desperate to get from one side of the Ringstrasse in this crazily marble and gilt edifice to the other side where there was this fantastically exciting university full of philosophers and economists, and she did it through sheer dogged will power.’ Yet, although there are aspects of Resi and of Nina in Elisabeth, we can imagine that Professor Adler was the character with whom she identified most. 

Elisabeth arrived in England in 1939 and became a wartime and post-war housewife, like so many of the women in Persephone books. We can imagine her struggling with How To Run Your Home Without Help and Plats du Jour. She coached children in Latin, maintained a large correspondence, and wrote a few reviews for the TLS – but mostly what she did was write novels, two in German and three in English. The Exiles Return was the first to be published (followed by PB no. 131, Milton Place.)

A donation is made to the Refugee Centre for every copy of The Exiles Return sold.

Also available as a Persephone e-book.


Endpapers taken from a roller-printed rayon furnishing fabric designed by Jacqueline Groag for David Whitehead in 1953.

Picture Caption

Vienna in the 1950s

Read What Readers Say

Andrew Ervin, ‘New York Times’

‘The Exiles Return’ has an immediacy that makes de Waal’s readers feel the experiences of its characters in a visceral way.

Dovegreyreader (blogger)

‘The Exiles Return' hones in on what it means to lose, to remember, to ‘belong’, and to ‘re-belong’. Plenty happens and Elisabeth de Waal eventually weaves the plots together, cleverly. No reading of a Persephone book is complete without paying close attention to the textile endpapers, this one is a 1953 furnishing fabric designed by Jacqueline Groag – I find I use them as an integral part of the read because I know they are chosen with great care to be both contemporaneous, but, I feel sure, also expressive of the book itself.

James Smart, ‘The Guardian’

[A] dark, vivid novel… a rewarding study of loss, and a fine snapshot of a city and society standing ravaged at the crossroads.

Categories: Gay and Lesbian History Men (books about) Overseas Race

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