Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Love and cynicism in a cautiously optimistic place

I have sprinted through two books in the last five days, and it feels good.

The Exiles Return is a book I first became aware of through Persephone but appears to have been published last year by Picador ("appears" = this library copy was published by Picador with a copyright date of 2013) (I am like Sherlock Holmes with the deduction). The Persephone description is really (too?) detailed, but what it shares with the Picador edition is its emphasis on the historical place of the book, the circumstances in which it was written and the historical situation it depicts.

This isn't all that surprising. Exiles is a posthumously published novel about 1950s Vienna, written by a woman with personal and family experience of that city at that time. Early in the book, a character returning to Vienna for the first time after the war arrives by train and is shocked by what he sees:
Formerly, there had been a long and high, cavernous, glazed-in hall into which the trains used to glide; it was old-fashioned, dingy, and yet somehow sumptuously dignified like the well-worn attire of a high-born elderly spinster who has clothed herself once and for all in her best and scorned to change her style. But now there was just -- nothing: an open space where the bombed wreckage of the old station had been cleared away; stacks of building material, steel girders and concrete mixers for the new modern station under construction. Adler experienced a violent sense of shock. It was his first actual contact with the fact to which he had hitherto not given much thought: that not everything would look the same -- or be the same -- as it had looked and been when he left it. I shall have to learn the lesson of the Western Station, he though, and this phrase, repeated silently many times in the coming months, summed up and symbolised for him the situations and experiences he would be having to deal with in the course of his attempt at repatriation.
 Given that it's Vienna, the baggage here isn't just the Second World War, but also Nazism and the Anschluss, as well as the end of Austria-Hungary. The descriptions and blurbs are right: the book does capture a uniquely complex time and place well. There are some passages and incidents -- like the one above -- that really bring the setting alive. Interestingly, I felt that the overtly "historical" aspect of the book slid to the background as it went on (although it never really goes away, of course; it's the setting and creates some of the conditions for the denouement). Again, I don't really like this kind of strawman hypothetical, but I think this is the difference between someone writing a novel about a situation they lived through rather than sitting down to write a historical novel about an Important Time: the latter sort of book would probably keep historically-significant set pieces at the center.

All that being said... and I am not confident of this judgment so let me know what you think if you've read this book... I'm not sure this is all that great a novel. I mean it's fine, I liked it. But the plotlines in the second half were a little meh for me, and I'm not sure Marie-Theres in particular ever really made all that much sense to me as a character. Maybe there's a reason why all the summaries of this book stress the historical side. Or maybe I just read it too fast. (Eee, that's a possibility this time! *flexes muscles*)

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