The Exiles Return has been published as a beautiful Persephone Book, with smart dove-grey covers and a riotously colourful endpaper. Before this glorious incarnation, it existed for many years as a ‘yellowing typescript with some tippexed corrections’, one of the few things that Elisabeth de Waal held on to during her ‘life in transit between countries’, one of the few things eventually handed down to her grandson, celebrated author and potter Edmund de Waal.
In The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal told the astonishing and very moving story held in his collection of netsuke, which was also passed down through the generations. Now, in getting Persephone Books to publish this ‘yellowing typescript’, he has enabled this precious object to tell its own tale.
As I read The Exiles Return, I found it hard to forget this “thinginess” of the book. This is a little ironic, given that, according to Edmund de Waal, Elisabeth ‘didn’t really have much feel for the world of objects … she would have hated my fetishising of her books’. But it is hard to resist fetishising this book. Perhaps it is because the novel shares its Viennese setting with the heart of The Hare with Amber Eyes, where the story of the netsuke is so unbearably poignant. Perhaps it is because at the beginning of chapter seventeen a note acknowledges that ‘the first page of this chapter is missing from the original typescript’. Perhaps it is because the novel feels so very autobiographical – it is a story about exiles written by an exile, and it has spent many years as an object in exile. Elisabeth de Waal’s story lies both in the written words of the novel, and in the history of the typescript that can be read between the lines.
So it is fitting that one of the most resonant moments of The Exiles Return concerns another story contained in an object.