One of the many memorable highlights of Port Eliot Festivals past for me has to be the event in 2011 with Edmund de Waal, talking about his book The Hare With Amber Eyes in the dovegreyreader tent. It was also the inaugural presentation of the first Knitsuke, a knitted hare with amber eyes (obviously) which eventually found its way into Edmund de Waal's studio. We all laughed and cried in equal measure on that hot summer's day because just occasionally everything aligns, a memorable event emerges and this was one of them.
I know I will never forget it.
If you follow that link above you will see that the book had left an enormous impression on me earlier in the year. I had been happily reading and following all the fascinating trails that the book opened up when suddenly this happened...
So, there I am having a lovely frolic of my own with this incredible book and I love that real sense of bonding when a book like this comes along, and I had picked it up again as usual when my leisurely rather languid and relaxed approach dissipated in an instant at this moment...
'The last door they reach is Emmy's dressing-room in the corner, the room with the vitrine containing the netsuke, and they sweep everything off the desk she uses as a dressing table...and they drag the desk out into the corridor.
They push Emmy and Viktor and Rudolph against the wall, and three of them heave the desk and send it crashing over the handrail until, with the sound of splintering wood and gilt and marquetry, it hits the stone flags of the courtyard below.
The desk... takes a long time to fall. The sounds ricochet off the glass roof. The broken drawers scatter letters across the courtyard.'
It was late at night as I was reading and I was stunned into a state of wakefulness that lasted well into the early hours...
The Nazis have arrived in Vienna and the persecution of the Jews is reaching its zenith. Frozen and rife with indecision about whether to flee and if so where to, Viktor and Emmy can only stand by and watch as Palais Ephrussi, the opulent family home on Vienna's grand and wealthy Ringstrasse is about to be ransacked. Except the Nazis know the value of this home when they see it, the contents will be catalogued and removed whilst Hitler decides which items he would like in his personal collection and which will go to museums.
'This is the strange undoing of a collection, of a house and of a family. It is the moment of fissure when grand things are taken and when family objects, known and handled and loved, become stuff.'
Prior to the talk I had asked Edmund de Waal if he would mind reading this episode aloud to the audience. We only had forty-five minutes and I wanted to start at the heart of the book and work around what I had seen as a pivotal moment in both the family's history, but also in Edmund de Waal's exploration of his family's past...
He has remained remarkable objective in my eyes as I've read, far more objective than I have felt but gradually words like 'terribly' and 'calumnies' and 'venemous diatribes' and 'appalling' seep into the narrative and at this point the book seems to enter a new and extremely moving final phase.
'I knew the story. I didn't feel the story until my third visit to Vienna when I was standing in the courtyard of the Palais...'
'Here in this house I am wrong-footed... I can't make people and places and things fit together any more. These stories unravel me....'
As Edmund finished reading there was a silence that didn't need to be filled. We all sat and choked back tears (well I did) as the full impact of that moment of crisis for his family descended on us, and astonishing and very moving discussions followed. Edmund had admitted us into the heart of his family's wartime plight and we trod gently and carefully with our questions which he answered with heartfelt emotion and honesty.
I make no apology for the repetition of the essence of that original post, mainly because I also wanted to remind myself of it, but also because, in the same way that we set the scene on that sweltering summer's day in 2011 for Edmund de Waal to talk about The Hare With Amber Eyes, it also sets the scene, albeit at a slant, for any reading of The Exiles Return.
The novel, having emerged from family archives and recently published for the first time by Persephone Books (I bought my copy) was written by Viktor and Emmy's daughter Elisabeth (Edmund de Waal's grandmother) who had grown up in the 'exceptionally privileged' world of Vienna and the Palais Ephrussi, studying philosophy, law and economics in the early 1920s before moving to Paris in the 1930s.
As Edmund de Waal explains in his introduction to the novel, Elisabeth returned to Vienna weeks after the Anschluss in 1938 in order to rescue her parents, managing to get her father to England in 1939 and returning after the war to trace the rest of her family. I doubt any greater life-experience could better inform a book like The Exiles Return.
Professor Kuno Adler decides to leave his safe job, and his brittle, brusque corsetier wife Melanie, along with the relative comfort and affluence of their life in the United States, to take up life again in his home city of Vienna.
Wealthy Greek entrepreneur and business man Theophile Kanakis heads for the broken city for his first visit soon after the end of the war seeking lucrative business opportunities. A descendant of the Greek community in Vienna, the city initially seems to be viewed through detached and dispassionate eyes. It requires rebuilding and he has the resources. But slowly the inner businessman is overtaken by the inner exile and gradually that need for 'belonging' emerges.
Prince Lorenzo Grein-Lauterbach (Bimbo to his friends) and his sister Nina, their aristocratic anti-Nazi parents murdered by the Germans, return from exile. Like chalk and cheese, one the playboy the other hard-working and self-effacing and both seeking their place in the new order.
Disaffected teenager Resi, the daughter of a refugee mother who had married an American and emigrated to the US, is sent to Vienna to stay with her aunt. This daughter of an exile experiences a return based on impressions mediated by her mother...'affinities she had inherited', and Resi must work out for herself her relationship to the city and its history.
These are the exiles of the title and the novel homes in with pinpoint accuracy on the loss of homeland and identity, the pain of departure and in many ways the greater pain of return, examining every aspect of what it means to lose, to remember, to 'belong', and to 're-belong'. Maybe the aim of the returner is to become anonymous, inconspicuous and unselfconscious, to blend and thus finally achieve assimiliation and as Professor Adler discovers to be...
'physically exhausted but spiritually free, lonely but at peace.'
Plenty happens and Elisabeth de Waal eventually weaves the plots together, cleverly offering stark contrasts between her characters, their lives and the receptions they receive. The irony of Professor Adler's luke-warm welcome, laced with resentment and obligation by those he approaches for reinstatement of his employment, compared to the effusive and sycophantic welcome proffered to the wealthy incomer Kanakis, make for fascinating compare-and-contrast reading.
No reading of a Persephone book is complete without paying close attention to the textile endpapers, this a furnishing fabric designed by Jacqueline Groag (1953)
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. This one is spiky and disjointed, in some places the colours blend whilst in others they offer stark contrast. There are arcs and geometric connections and juxtapositions...round pegs in square holes, arrows pointing this way and that. I could see rail tracks and compartments and so many other nuances that spoke of the book to me as I read, and I spent a lot of time doing my thinking as I gazed at them.
More soon about a story from the Persephone Book of Short Stories that I happened to reach in the volume during my read of The Exiles Return, and which arced across to the novel with ease, The Exile by Betty Miller (1935) and I have also retraced my steps to the W.G.Sebald shelf to revisit The Emigrants.
I have never forgotten the impact of The Emigrants either, and that resonated as I read The Exiles Return, the grainy pictures so intrinsic to Sebald's writing, coupled with that acute sense of loss and deprivation I experienced as I turned the final page following a detailed description of a photograph, and fully expecting to turn the page and see it..
'I frantically turn the page, desperate to see this picture, and it's not there.
I feel slightly cheated out of something that should have been mine, taunted by the blank pages and suddenly I am left with a strange mood that descends unbidden, a yearning for something denied, and in that instant I understand, completely and utterly, exactly what the emigrants themselves and this book have been trying to tell me.'