Sunday, October 14, 2012

Dear Author

Dear Edmund de Waal,

Elisabeth Ephrussi, your grandmother, is one of the most engaging characters in your memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes. I call her a character because though everything you have written about her is documented or attested, and therefore true, your compelling account of your grandmother's life reads like fiction.

I call her Elisabeth Ephrussi because in Chapter 22 of The Hare with Amber Eyes, the chapter entitled, “You must change your life,” after a line by Rilke, you describe her as a young woman as yet unmarried. In that chapter she comes vividly to life, the woman of that girl whose mother dresses several times a day, in perhaps three or four different costumes – not for the stage, but with a sense of theatricality nonetheless, preparing in her dressing room for her roles as Baroness Ephrussi in end-of-century Vienna. Woman of that girl. Which means focused where her mother was all dispersal of charm, purposeful where her mother was idle. Where her mother was fashionable, austere, and where her mother was uneducated: intellectual. Elisabeth was one of the first women to earn a doctorate from the University of Vienna, was she not?

But it is her writing friendship with the poet Rainer Maria Rilke that draws the reader in – that, and the picture with which you illustrate her qualities. Here is a self-possessed young woman, practically coifed and dressed for the work of scholar, a scholar perhaps not unlike her father once was. Her father: who lost his library but kept the key. A serious student then, but one with a sense of humor; indeed, in the photograph she seems to be suppressing a smile. And why the hint of irony? Because Elisabeth was no cold intellect, no clockwork soldier of the captive mind, for all the detachment she showed later on, when it was a matter of facing down danger. But that is getting ahead of the story – your story.

Here, in Chapter 22, when you show us how, as a young woman, she befriends the middle-aged poet, setting before us, as you do, a packet of twenty letters, all preserved in a single envelope, (placed there, in fact, by Rilke’s widow: the small archive of Rilke's correspondence with Elisabeth), you let us us know that Elisabeth was already an exceptional being.

Rilke knew it. Whether he esteemed her for her poetry, or for her poetic soul, is of no consequence. Nor, I think, did he continue to write her out of gratitude to her uncle Pips, who helped him when he was adrift in Germany during the First World War, and who later invited him to the family estate in Czechoslovakia, to Kövecses, of which he said, “This house is always open to you.”

(I don’t think the poet wrote to her out of gratitude or propriety at all. But what do you think? It is your story, and no doubt you have read the full correspondence.)  Yes, Rilke saw her, a young woman of unusual promise: a poet and a lawyer, or a lawyer and then a poet. It was as if she contained two spirits within her magnanimity, two entities ready to converse. But she preferred her dialogue with Rilke.

What I would very much like to ask you is this. Is the paragraph you quote from Rilke’s letter, in which he expresses confidence in Elisabeth's artistic abilities, as well as appreciation for her legal mind – is this paragraph typical of their correspondence? For if these words are typical, they show Rilke as an extraordinarily warm-hearted and gracious mentor, concerned, in an imaginative way, with the future of this young woman, whom he has never met, will never meet: a young woman who struck up a writing friendship with him. And we readers can’t but believe that she deserves every bit of the great poet’s empathy and eloquence.

But let us move on, for your grandmother’s story is so much larger than the story of a young woman who exchanged letters with a famous poet.

The rest of your account of her, from the time she becomes Elisabeth de Waal, is dispersed rather, along with your escalating tale of a family caught up in history's darkest nightmare. Now dissociated from the time when she appeared to us as a passionate young woman, her hopes and ambitions center stage, she seems to have slipped into the background of the family portrait, like her Uncle Charles, patron of the arts, who is represented by Renoir in his painterly record of that iconic gathering of impressionists, the Luncheon of the Boating Party. If we look carefully, you indicate, we can see Charles Ephrussi in the painting. As you say in the chapter about Paris in the 1880s, “He is the man at the very back…turning slightly away, seen glancingly.”

Likewise Elisabeth, in the background of things, elusive now as a resourceful mother, competently guiding her small family. Then suddenly it is time for her to perform a role, to rescue two people who have become frozen, as you put it, with panic and disbelief. In fact your dispassionate picture of the changes taking place in Vienna after the Anschluss, rendered with understatement, is riveting. We, the readers, feel frozen too. For you have made us see how it could feel to Viktor and Emmy Ephrussi, Baron and Baroness – Elisabeth’s parents, that everything is happening so fast, that everything is so suddenly changed. Why did nobody see the handwriting on the wall? you ask, just as your readers are wondering the same thing. And we begin to suspect that Elisabeth's parents failed to predict these events because they didn’t study, as we did, Hitler and the rise of Nazism.

Into this hell comes Elisabeth, leaving her children in the care of others. Like a legend she comes, striding onto the stage of history, risking her life to free Viktor and Emmy, to break the enchantment that has them in its thrall. Only you are too modest in the face of history's mindless momentum to call her a hero, or even brave. Instead you give us a summary of the deeds of Elisabeth. We see her marshaling her lawyerly competence, leveraging her wit, daring to impersonate an Austrian official to get through the red-tape: taking this risk to wrest her loved ones from the clutches of fate, to shepherd them to safety. And in this she succeeds.

And after the war, after the tears of things, as you call what must be a most bitter, wormwood-like regret for the lost objects of 100 years of family life– after all this, it is Elisabeth who takes the initiative, bearding the lion in its den. It is 1945 when she returns to Vienna to salvage what remains of her family’s life history.

In passing you mention that she once wrote a novel about the experience of her return to Vienna. You quote from the novel, which you consider too intense and raw to be publishable. And here is the first paragraph you quote from Elisabeth’s novel:

It was the voice, the intonation that hit a nerve somewhere in Kuno Adler’s throat; no, below the throat where breath and nourishment plunge into the depths of the body, a non-conscious, ungovernable nerve, in the solar plexus probably. It was the quality of that voice, and that accent, soft and yet rough, ingratiating and slightly vulgar, sensible to the ear as a certain kind of stone is to the touch–the soap-stone that is coarse-grained and spongy and slightly oily on the surface–an Austrian voice. “Austrian passport-control.”

You summarize the peregrinations of Elisabeth’s character, Kuno Adler – the professor who has returned, postwar, from America to Vienna – and quote from a climactic paragraph in which Adler experiences a feeling of his own reality from out of “the dislocation of time which had been dizzying him.”

And this is my question, and it is similar to the question I asked before about the passage from the letter written by Rilke. Are these paragraphs that you quote typical of Elisabeth’s writing? Or did you choose the very best paragraphs you could find, and print them as a tribute to her?

Because if this paragraph is typical, she may have written a fine novel.

Elsewhere you say that she once tried to write poetry again, but couldn’t.

Yet she wrote this story about her real adventure – and I imagine there are not many like it, written by such a person about a return that few could have experienced as she did.

I would like to read this novel written by the lawyerly poet, the daughter who faced personal danger in such a shrewd and dispassionate way to rescue her parents from evil. Her observations in this brief paragraph are hyper-detailed and psychologically accurate. Imagine being so cool as to be able to observe like that when reliving that terrible time, when facing officialdom. Imagine observing, when everyone else’s mind is a fog. One can’t help but suspect that if Elisabeth de Waal writes like that in this one paragraph, she writes like that elsewhere, perhaps in the novel as a whole.

And now I say “one suspects” because this is no longer my personal opinion. In fact I’m sure of it. There are others out there who think as I do. They want to read this novel. Am I right? And have they been asking you about it?

You remember that verse from your schooldays, I should think, that goes,

Full many a gem of purest ray serene
The dark unfathom'd caves of ocean bear

But this was not to be the fate of Elizabeth; she was not a flower born to blush unseen, or waste her sweetness on desert air. Already you have brought her vividly to life as a person, though necessarily, in the kind of story you tell, you animate her intermittently, as one of several important characters.

Shall we revisit, one last time, what you wrote about Elisabeth Ephrussi's unpublished novel, and how it affected you and informed your memoir?

You have described how your grandmother’s novel of return to Vienna casts light upon the shadowy status of postwar property rights in that city. Elisabeth Ephrussi’s strategy for raising this issue begins with a fictionalization of what must have been her personal experience of negotiating property losses with Vienna officialdom. Fiction may have enabled her to regard this painful matter from a distance, but Elisabeth Ephrussi’s fiction is no veil tossed over an ugly reality; rather, she uses her literary skill to analyze the subject, dramatizing the calculated hypocrisy of the Viennese in an encounter between Professor Adler and a prototypical postwar businessman, art collector Kanakis.

Kanakis is the type of man who would have become used to being interrogated on the matter of stolen property, and learned the rota of acceptable answers. It’s easy, too, to see, with the help of your grandmother’s novel, why an art collector would feel the need to specify that his stock of art objects was all purchased at auction: “quite openly, publicly, and legally,” as the formula states.

What prompts Kanakis to volunteer this information?  The collector notes that Professor Adler has spotted “two dark, heavily-framed pictures hanging on the wall.” The paintings, Kanakis explains, belonged to an acquaintance of Adler’s family: “Baron E. You might possibly have seen them at his house. Baron E. unfortunately died abroad, in England, I believe. His heirs, after they had recovered what could be traced of his property, had it all sold at auction…I acquired them in the auction rooms…” (p. 285)  

Underlying the careful disclaimer and the formal, quasi-legal language of the respectable fence, of course, is the trickiest, stickiest question of all: that of restitution. For Austria, as a society, is festering with guilt. Having failed to make reparation for crimes against humanity, the hard-working Austrian landsman and the worldly Viennese alike have retreated into an awkward posture of defensiveness and self-pity. Having failed to take the high road, the people have fallen back upon petty suspicions, even paranoia, regarding the few Jews who return to postwar Austria.

In your summary of your grandmother’s novel, you list the interrogatories – almost reproaches – lobbed at the Jewish professor, demanding an answer to one question. Why did he return? First, there is a casting of aspersions over the circumstances of his departure (as though it were not forced!) Why did he leave “a little early?” (“Early” in this context seems to mean ‘before they could kill him’.) Why did he resign before he was fired? And what were his reasons for being in Austria now? Did he want to take something from the people of the Austrian Republic? And finally, in back of these questions, that ace in the hole, self-pity, expressed in the underlying, disingenuous belief that the Austrians’ war was “worse” than the war of the handful of returning Jews.

As usual, your account of these fictional scenes mirroring Elisabeth Ephrussi’s efforts to restore lost property is measured and neutral. In this case, you are reasonable beyond reason. You seem to find it unnecessary to point out the vileness of this particular bit of Austrian sniveling.

Perhaps this is one way in which your grandmother’s novel helps you and your readers to see. To see how the self-pity of a defeated people ignores, for the moment, that standing behind the remnant of European Jewry that returned, standing in ghostly ranks that reach, it would seem, as far back as infinity, are the exterminated, the ones whose memory trace ridicules any claim, open or implicit, that the Austrians suffered more.

The novel discloses the practical, legal aspect of the return, the Realpolitik of owning and not owning Austrian property, of having been owned and disowned by Austrian culture and the state, of that loss of identity. All of the practical side of things is exposed and explained in detail. (What might the novel’s title be, I wonder?) Elisabeth Ephrussi has accurately represented the flimsy reality of restitution. Behind the question of restitution, however, there is still one more question. In fact, it is the real question, the ultimate question. To whom should Austria: this land, this culture, this Republic, rightfully belong?

Elisabeth Ephrussi provides one answer to this question in a scene in the novel in which she illustrates the scope of Kuno Adler’s losses through symbolism. It is a scene of the displacement of emotion, of misdirected grief. The scene takes place shortly after the professor’s arrival in Vienna.

From the novel you excerpt passages describing Adler’s self-guided tour of Vienna's blighted urban landscape, during which he mentally ticks off now each ruin, now each cherished surviving unit of architecture. More than any citizen of the Republic, Adler is, himself, like the city: the scope of his loss too vast to quantify.

It is in the scene of his first sighting of the Ringstrasse that Adler’s cognitive-emotional grasp of events is transformed from a sense of disorientation to the sense that he himself is real. Like the author who created him, the Adler character is remarkable for his self-possession. And there on the Ringstrasse, suddenly Adler is moved to tears, not by the ruined buildings, but by a “trivial sign of destruction” – the trees were not there. Just so, the author solves the artistic problem of naming the unnamable, of numbering losses too vast to be enumerated. And she does it through symbolism, metonymy, where a part stands for the whole. In a world of almost irreparable damage, let the trees, loyal sentries, stand for all of the losses. And just so, Elisabeth Ephrussi locates in the authenticity, in the basic goodness of Adler’s character, his ancient right to the deforested land, to the twisted, tormented gemütlichkeit, to the fragile Republic.  Restitution there may not be, but Elisabeth Ephrussi has, nevertheless, symbolically restored Vienna to its rightful owner.

In your memoir, you point out that, before she died, your grandmother destroyed her extensive correspondence with her own poetic, literary grandmother. The days of Rilke-fandom were long past, and, after the war, she never wrote poetry again. Once a girl who was both lawyer and poet, had she, touched by worlds of pain, moved beyond the wish for literary expression? It is possible.

And yet, in her novel there seems to be a happy compromise between fiction and the exploration and description of reality. The novel – it clearly seems to be the work of Elisabeth Ephrussi, the scholar, the lawyer; of Elisabeth de Waal, the woman who fooled Austrian officialdom, and risked her life to save her parents; and of Elisabeth de Waal, the woman who returned to Vienna after the war to salvage what she could of her family’s considerable possessions. To publish her novel, then, would be, as it appears, to honor her mature personality.
True, she was not an artist, like you. And you tell us that she didn’t have much of a feeling for your netsuke. Perhaps she had had enough of the textures and shapes and lines of materials during the many hours she spent, as a child, playing in her mother’s dressing room. You part with her rather formally at the end of her chapter, baffled, it seems, by her flat with its “great wall of books” and minimum of tchotchkes.

Like her grandson whose poetry she so mercilessly critiqued, though, Elisabeth could write. Perhaps her novel is best left a mystery. Perhaps she concluded as much. Or possibly, just possibly, it should be read by a wider public.


A Reader

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