'The Hare with Amber Eyes', Edmund de Waal's celebrated work of family history, prepared the way for the publication of this fine European novel, which, unaccountably, had been languishing in the family archives for fifty years or more, having been turned down by many short-sighted publishers.
De Waal describes it as 'profoundly autobiographical', which perhaps helps explain its assured tone, its evocative descriptions, and its emotional resonance. Vivid memories of his book inevitable sets up expectations about his grandmother's novel. Will it be a family saga drawing on the Ephrussi archives? A tale of a great dynasty shattered by wars, its survivors struggling back to root among the ruins for the remains of what was once theirs? There are elements of this story in the novel, of course; but in fact it's more a concentrated study of three very different exiles returning to Vienna after the second world war. Among other things, they become defined by their search for love and sex, though at least two of them are not aware of this for some time after they arrive.
Waal thinks that at the heart of the novel is Professor Adler, with whom it starts. He returns from America, leaving his unsatisfactory family behind, to take up a post in the laboratory where he worked before the war, though now not as its director but as its second in command. He keeps himself detached at all levels of his life - which serves him well when he finally clashes with his new boss, who is a closeted Nazi (their much deferred ethical discussion is brilliantly done). He maintains his aloofness until he falls in love with his self-effacing assistant. Adler's story is brief but it is done with great clarity and authority.
The second exile is Resi, a naïve 19 year old ex-pat American sent by her parents to stay with her aunts and cousins in Vienna; the plan is to redirect her life and give her some new experiences. She is trusting, beautiful and impressionable, and she soon attracts the men. Three, in particular, decide her fate: Kanakis, the third exile, a rich, calculating, middle-aged, closeted gay; Lucas, a handsome descendant of a family servant, who is hopelessly in love with her; and Prince Grein, a beautiful faun-like but heartless boy whom she falls for and who leads her unwittingly to her (melodramatic) downfall. For me, the sacrificial Resi is at the heart of the book: it feels as if she is the character who is closest to the author.
Kanakis, the third exile, is the least developed of the three. He's a new breed, representing the power of money to buy up what's left of the old aristocracy. The fact that he's gay and powerfully attracted to the elusive Grein is interesting in a novel of this period, though it's dealt with by veiling too much and is handled with a tentativeness not apparent elsewhere - it's as if the author was nervous of straying into such 'dark' territory. Apart from the Nazi, he's the nearest the book has to a villain.
The lives of these three converge and weave, though it takes quite a while for the connections to emerge, and the Adler story never really integrates with the rest. There are many other vividly drawn characters - Resi's aunts, for instance, her parents, cousins and their boyfriends. The whole novel moves forward with great elegance and narrative assurance. It's profoundly European, dealing as much with the 'essences' of life as its contingencies.
Closing the book, I had the feeling that structurally it's a little awkward. It might have been better to have dealt with the three strands more separately, as linked novellas perhaps, starting with the Adler story to introduce the theme of the exiles' return and to set the scene, continuing with Resi's story, and then using the Kanakis/Grein liason as the subject of the third novella, revealing what was going on behind Resi's back and which ultimately led to her downfall. But we have the novel as it stands and we must be grateful for that.
Edmund de Waal in his preface says his grandmother wrote four other novels, all unpublished. If any of them are as good as this one, I hope Persephone Books will publish more of her work. She's an author - a real find - whom I definitely want to read more of.