on September 23, 2010
This is a mesmerising many-layered book. The fascinating narrative of the fabulously wealthy Jewish Ephrussi family moves through the decades from commercial Odessa to the Paris of the Impressionists and artistic salons to the brutal destruction of the Anschluss of 1938 in Vienna and a familial diaspora over three continents. Parallel to this, we follow with the author his own emotive journey to reclaim the lives lived in the vanished rooms of his forbears. This he does sensitively and successfully, imagining his way there through archives, letters and contemporary fiction. He visits all the great houses and, in Odessa, tasting the dust of the demolished palace rooms, he rejoices in the survival of the Ephrussi family emblem on a last remaining banister.
Such evocative writing and small discovered detail make this a story we want to follow with him and we find that this is not, after all, a tale of acquisition but of loss. The 264 tiny Japanese carvings (netsuke) bought in the 1870s in Paris are all that now remain of the family possessions. We also come to understand another loss: the Ephrussis no longer felt defined by their Jewish origins: artists and socialites passed through their grand salons. It is shocking to discover that even those who enjoyed their patronage were casually anti-Semitic. It is hard to read the vivid account of the abrupt violence of the Nazis as they took (almost) every precious possession from them, leaving them, in the end, only their Jewishness.
The netsuke are the beginning and happy ending of the story. Their exquisite detail is emblematic of this beautifully crafted book and its touching story of the individuals through whose hands they passed. One or other of them seems, like a rosary, to accompany the writer in his travels: a constant reminder to keep faith with his past.
on August 31, 2010
Imagine you are the descendant of one of those families of 19th-century Jewish financiers who spread around the major capitals of Europe to forge a continental empire. Along the way, the family comes to feature an art collector who served as a patron for the Impressionists and inspired Proust's Swann. A later generation includes one of the first women to attend university in the early twentieth century; she graduates as a lawyer, becomes a writer and corresponds with Rilke. Imagine that the family's wealth disappears in the blink of an eye when Germany annexes Austria. That is in a nutshell the story of the Ephrussi clan, which Edmund De Waal chronicles in "The Hare with Amber Eyes." That is only a peek at the material that the author had at his disposal, which should have made the work relatively simple to write. But the author set himself a challenge. He refused to produce a straightforward history: "It could write itself, I think, this kind of story. A few stitched-together wistful anecdotes, more about the Orient-Express, of course, a bit of wandering around Prague or somewhere equally photogenic, some clippings from Google on ballrooms in the Belle Epoque. It would come out as nostalgic. And thin."
Instead of a predictable tale from Mitteleuropa about lost grandeur, the author takes a (slightly Proustian) shortcut that leads to unexpected and sometimes deeply moving places. One of the illustrious ancestors collected tiny but incredibly intricate Japanese carvings called netsuke used in early modern Japan as toggles for purse strings. The book traces the story of these sculptures as they are passed down from one generation of Ephrussi to the next. Along the way, the author interrogates subtle ways in which the netsuke's meaning shifts when they move from Third Republic Paris to Harry Lime's Vienna and beyond. Through this device, De Waal manages to both narrate the story of the rise and fall of the Ephrussi and also sketch the myriad objects they owned and collected during their century and a half of eminence. The book manages to write an elegant history not just of people but also of the places they inhabited and the things they loved and touched. Nothing thin about that.
on October 4, 2010
There are men and women who write beautifully, every word inevitable, the paragraphs building into chapters, the chapters adding up to a great book, and we never suspect that their work is a phenomenal trick --- that they bled over every word, turned every sentence around a dozen times, missed meals with their children, sacrificing all to make their writing look effortless.
And then there are men and women who write beautifully because they're tuned to a different frequency and do everything beautifully. They may work to make their writing better, but they're starting at such a high level they really don't need to --- they're in humanity's elite.
Edward de Waal is in that second group. And so we start with an irony --- the author of the most exquisite memoir you're likely to read this year isn't a writer. He's a potter, said to be one of the best in England, and Professor of Ceramics at the University of Westminster.
You could say the eye that judges a pot is also a writer's eye.
And you could say a gifted Brit who studied English at Cambridge really should be able to write a compelling family story.
But none of that would explain the fierce attachment early readers of "The Hare with Amber Eyes" have for it, why they can't help talking about it, why they press copies on friends. Let me try. Start here: "The Hare with Amber Eyes" has, as they say in show biz, everything. The highest echelons of Society in pre-World War I Paris. Nazi thugs and Austrian collaborators. A gay heir who takes refuge in Japan. Style. Seduction. Rothschild-level wealth. Two centuries of anti-Semitism. And 264 pieces of netsuke, the pocket-sized ivory-or-wood sculpture first made in Japan in the 17th century.
It is on these netsuke that de Waal hangs his tale --- or, rather, searches for it. Decades after he apprenticed as a potter in Japan, he has returned to research his mentor. In the afternoons, he makes pots. And, one afternoon a week, he visits his great-uncle Iggie.
Iggie owns a large vitrine, in which he displays his netsuke collection. He has stories about that collection, but then he has so many tales about his family that de Waal delightedly spoons them up --- glorious anecdotes of hunting parties in Czechoslovakia, gypsies with dancing bears, his grandmother bringing special cakes from Vienna on the Orient Express. And then this:
"And Emmy pulling him from the window at breakfast to show him an autumnal tree outside the dining room window covered in goldfinches. And how when he knocked on the window and they flew, the tree was still blazing golden."
I shivered when I read that last sentence --- you don't often read a description of real-world magic expressed so magically. And so simply!
All week long, I open books, hoping for a line like that. Mostly, I get well-intentioned banality --- the world viewed through eyes dulled by experience. Bu de Waal is a visual artist; he lives to look, and look hard. And, like a detective, he'll keep looking until he's put the objects of his interest into a kind of order.
His interest: the collection of netsuke bought in 1870 in Paris by Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of his great-grandfather. Because his family is "staggeringly rich," Charles is able to exercise his considerable taste. No holding back with this collector --- in the best story about Charles, he buys a still life of asparagus from Manet at a price so over-the-top that the artist sends a unique thank-you: a painting of a single stalk of asparagus, with a note, "This seems to have slipped from the bundle."
Charles in Paris --- a city of salons, exquisite clothes, complicated relationships. The world of Proust. It's no surprise that Charles and Marcel were friends or that the novelist based a character on him.
"I have fallen for Charles," de Waal writes. Yes, he has, and it shows; there's more here about Charles than most readers will want. Feel free to skim. Skip, if you must. But don't, for the sake of your immortal soul, put the book down, for in 1899, Charles sends his first cousin in Vienna the netsuke as a wedding present and the book goes into a different gear.
In Vienna, de Waal writes, there were 145,000 Jews in 1899 --- 71 per cent of the city's financiers, 65 per cent of the lawyers, 59 per cent of the doctors, half the journalists. Why does he begin this chapter by telling us about the Jews when, as he notes, they were so assimilated? Oh, you know why; it just takes three-and-a-half decades for the anti-Semitism he chronicles to reach a boil.
I've studied World War I, as you have, but not from the point-of-view of a rich Jewish banker in Austria. I'm obsessed, as you may be, with the rise of the Nazis, but --- silly me --- I somehow thought that Jews who owned palaces were exempt. So you will encounter nail-biting terror here. And you'll be brought up short: How did a book about an collection of objects take such a radical turn? And how, amid the horror, did 264 pieces of netsuke survive intact?
England, Japan, Russia. The research unhinges de Waal: "I no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or if it is a book about small Japanese things." Curiously, that is to the book's advantage; it's really up to the reader to take what meaning he or she can from this story of objects gained, lost, found.
What are objects to us? Do they change when we hold them, display them, give them value? Do they "retain the pulse of their makeup?" If we didn't collect anything, how would we remember who we were?
Emund de Waal and his wife live with their three young children --- and the vitrine of netsuke. The kids sometimes play with the little pieces. "But there is no aesthetic life with small kids around," de Waal has told interviewers. "They want that plastic tiara, or Disney water pistol --- and you remember what it is to start accumulating things in your life." The implication is clear: Eventually those kids will understand and appreciate what it means to hold the objects of their ancestors.
My ancestors are dust. At most, there are a few photographs. So for me, the moral of this book is that everything matters but nothing lasts. Cherish beauty, but keep it private. And, if you are a Jew, always be prepared to pack and flee on an hour's notice.
Your take will be just as personal. And you might as well accept that going in --- this is not a book about Japanese art objects.
on September 24, 2010
This is a wonderful blending of history, biography with a sprinkling of art. The Ephrussi were a prominent Jewish family who originated from Odessa Russia. Part of the family emigrated to Paris and another part to Vienna. Along the way they collected beautiful things including a collection of Netsuke which are miniature decorative figures used to hold a money case in traditional Japanese dress.
The netsuke were originally collected by De Waal's great great uncle Charles and were one of the few treasures to escape Nazi theft. I learned so much history from this book especially the continued persecution of Judaism and Jewish people culminating in World War Two. De Waal describes how tactile the netsuke are. He often had one in his pocket on his journey around the globe researching his family. His great uncle told how he and his brother and sister would take them out of their case and play with them while their beautiful, glamorous mother dressed for a night out in Viennese society. De Waal writes beautifully. He brings the times and people alive along with the art they loved...and then lost.
By the way if anyone lives near or will be visiting the Los Angeles area there is an incredible collection of netsuke at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art housed in the Japanese Pavilion.
on November 16, 2011
My sister and I have different taste in most things. When I told her how much I enjoyed reading this book, she told me she couldn't get past the first chapter. She loves plot driven books and this isn't that. I on the other hand prefer atmospheric books with interesting characters, which is precisely what this is.
The author is not an historian and the less compelling parts of the book stem from news paper research and official documents. The book really came alive for me when the author drew from family correspondence and used his artist's eye to describe the objects, homes and daily lives of his relatives. The forces in the world that affect the Efrussi family, like the Dreyfus Affair, the Nazi occupation and World War Two, are dealt with in a serious, but secondary way. The art and intimacies of the family take center stage. This book took me to the salons of 19th century Paris, the palaces and dressing rooms of turn of the century Vienna and expatriate life in Japan. It is strikingly relevant at this moment in history to watch how possessions can fall away for various reasons, and leave memories and family mythologies in their place.
on January 15, 2011
In his Prologue, the author writes, "I really don't want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss." But for at least the first section of the book, he does exactly that. It comes across as one long name-dropping list of people and paintings. He also says that he doesn't want his book to seem thin, but it does. He tries to give depth and meaning to his research and to the netsuke, but it doesn't work; it's pretentious--a lot of dreamy interpretations that I just don't trust; he's trying too hard to be poetical and moving, to the point that the writing just becomes nonsensical sometimes. And he's trying too hard to get too much into the book, so that he doesn't do justice to any single element.
The section on Vienna becomes much more interesting, and the invasion by the Nazis is the most vivid and interesting part of the book--the one story out of the many stories here that really does deserve to be told, over and over, forever.
So, the book ends up being both too much and too little.
One of the results of his trying to cram too much in is that we never really get to know any of the people in any depth, so it's hard to care about them except, of course, as the victims of Hitler, but not as the individuals they were.
One of the many books he could have made is a nice photo album. He's continually telling us about works of art, netsuke, people, photos in his possession, and yet we don't SEE them. The few photos in the book are badly reproduced on porous paper.
on October 10, 2011
De Waal writes an account of the travels (and travails) of his family collection of Japanese netsuke, but below the surface is an unspoken and perhaps unconscious account of his own failed attempt to come to grips with the past century's anti-Semitism and his maternal grandmother's de facto conversion to Anglicanism. His grandmother's family, the Ephrussi, came to Vienna and then Paris by way of Odessa, ultimately from Berdichev. De Waal describes this family as "so perfectly assimilated they  disappeared into Vienna" [p. 153] and as so unused to synagogues that they don't know how to behave in one. At the same time he recognizes that they contributed large sums to Jewish organizations and responded favorably to individualized Jewish charity appeals. He also describes how Jews were assaulted in the streets decades before the Anschluss, how Jewish women could not be visited at home by married Gentile women, and how Jewish men were prohibited from holding office in the exclusive men's clubs to which they belonged. Something does not hold together in this description of the perfectly assimilated Jewish family.
In the only intra-family dispute that appears in the book, De Waal relates a description of an aunt who converted to Catholicism and married a non-Jew as a "witch"; there must be a reason he tells us this, but he refuses to ascribe any particular meaning to it. As to his grandmother, he tells us that she "felt completely confident of her Jewishness" [p. 224], but as soon as she moved from Vienna to Paris she deliberately invited the attentions of a non-Jewish Dutchman whom she thereafter married in an Anglican ceremony, started "talking about conversion" to the Church of England, and then attended an Anglican church. Ultimately her son, De Waal's father, is ordained as an Anglican minister. Again, something does not hold up here and no attempt is made to resolve these contradictions.
De Waal relates the increasing anti-Semitism of Paris starting with the Dreyfus affair as well as Vienna under its pre-Nazi anti-Semitic Mayor, and says it "makes me feel nauseated." [p. 92] At the same time when he sees the broken gate on the mausoleum of his ancestors in the Jewish section of the cemetery in Vienna, he weighs over in his mind "whether I should pay to get it fixed" [p. 152], but it is never clear that he does pay. Are these Jews his responsibility, or not? He never clearly resolves this question.
The netsuke were purchased as "outsider art" at a time when Japanese arts were new to Europe, by one of the foremost promoters of new art in late 19th century Paris, De Waal's first cousin 3 times removed, Charles Ephrussi. Ephrussi, the part-owner and editor of a famous arts journal, and one of the two models for Proust's Charles Swann, is portrayed by De Waal as the consummate assimilated insider, even though he did not move to Paris until he was long past the age at which he could have learned to speak Parisian French fluently. Moreover, he moved to Vienna from Odessa when he was eight, and it is also doubtful that he would ever have felt comfortable speaking Austrian German either. Ephrussi must have always felt himself an outsider at several levels, and indeed one of Proust's biographers says he was personally "uncouth" and "barbarous," but De Waal rejects these characterizations based on his readings of Charles' journal writings and book collection. De Waal, a potter, conveys a tactile sense of the netsuke, Charles' furniture and art, and the Parisian material environment generally, but never really comes to grips with Charles the man or his personality. Once Japanese arts have become so widespread that they are passe among the cognoscenti in France, Charles ships the netsuke off as a wedding present to his nephew Viktor in Vienna, who is so uninterested in them as an art form that he consigns them to his wife's dressing room. De Waal then surveys the material environment similarly in Vienna but, once again, we get no real sense of Viktor or his wife, the socialite Emmy Schey von Koromla.
We do get an extensive description of Charles' mistress, Louise Morpurgo, and we hear that Charles supported Renoir by having him paint Morpurgo's daughters, including the famous painting "Pink and Blue." In a brief phrase on page 282, we read that "Blue" in the picture, daughter Elisabeth, died in Auschwitz, but we do not learn that this was notwithstanding her conversion to Christianity. We are not told that Louise's daughter Irene also converted to Christianity and managed to escape Auschwitz only because of a name change. Louise's granddaughter Beatrice married Charles' grand-nephew Leon Reinach, grandson of Charles' sister Betty, and both of them, as well as their two children, died in Auschwitz. Again, we get only a brief mention on page 282. This is not a subject on which De Waal wishes to dwell.
Another subject that he really does not want to touch on is the fact that the family came to Odessa from Berdichev. Beyond having the second largest population of Jews in Russia at the time the Ephrussis left, Berdichev was a center of Jewish culture -- some of the most famous Jewish authors lived there, including Sholom Aleichem and Mendele Mocher Sforim. Making the journey to Berdichev, an orthodox Jewish shtetl yet at the same time a vibrant cultural center, is too far for him to go into his own genealogical past; he thinks briefly about it but then claims he simply does not have enough time.
Moreover, there is an untold story beyond Berdichev. There was no Jewish community there before 1721; the grandparents and perhaps the parents of the "Patriarch" of this story, Chaim Efrussi (who became "Charles Joachim Ephrussi"), had to have come to Berdichev from somewhere else. Scholar Anna Makolkin claims the family was Italian and Professor Patricia Herlihy claims they were Greek. The last name is clearly not Slavic or German. What is it? De Waal expresses no interest in this issue. Throughout history, emigrations to escape brutality and murder along with specific choices to maintain identity and not assimilate have been the key to Jewish survival. On the surface, De Waal appears interested only in the last century's irrational barriers to assimilation, with his father being a prime example of how those barriers have now been overcome. But in a strange parallel to the son's voyages of discovery, the clergyman father initially denies having much that is relevant in the way of keepsakes or artifacts, but throughout the book "finds" and then reveals more and more, to the point that the son almost becomes annoyed at these "new" discoveries. Whether consciously or unconsciously, the author is telling us that it is only through the passage of time that some version of the real truth can begin to be admitted. I think at some deeper level, he knows that there is much more to discuss here. I would like to hear that part of it, and perhaps he will become more brave in his next book.
A beautifully told personal story of an extended family, great commercial houses, religion, fine art, Japanese netsuke, imperial cities, and a most difficult century. It deserves, and would reward, a wide and intelligent readership.
Edmund de Waal is a master potter, but the artistic level of his work with words exceeds, I have no doubt, that of his work with clay.
on December 20, 2011
The Hare With Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal, is a stunning gem of a book. de Waal, himself an accomplished English ceramicist, set out to learn about a marvelous collection of Japanese miniature carvings, Netsuke, which he inherited. His journey took him from Odessa to Paris to Tokyo to Vienna and points in between as he unearthed pieces of history involving Jewish identity, his own family, Proust, the Nazi conquest of Europe, and expatriates living in Japan after WWII. The elegant, restrained writing is a pleasure to experience. deWaal doesn't overload or overwhelm the reader. Instead, he lets the story itself carry and entrance us.
Along the way we get to peek into some dark corners of history and meet some of deWaal's memorable family as he himself was meeting them for the first time. deWaal never loses sight of the Netsuke, or the grim history through which this entrancing collection has traveled, but throughout the book he anchors his tale to real people who lived, as we all do, in interesting times. This is transparent writing, in the sense that one is at times not even aware of it, which only shows how skillfully deWaal matches style with story, world history with the unfolding saga of his own remarkable ancestors, and all the while inviting the reader into what is simply a wonderful read. This is the kind of book that you begin by devouring, but read in smaller and smaller bits as you go, because you don't want it to end.
"How objects get handled, used and handed on is not just a mildly interesting question for me. It is my question," writes Edmund de Waal, a potter and a professor of ceramics. He doesn't mind, for instance, his creations leaving his studio; letting things go is his living, but it is what happens to all our things eventually. In _The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss_ (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), de Waal tells the astonishingly complicated and involving story of 264 netsuke, handled, let go, and handed on until he inherited them years ago. He inherited the netsuke (the hare of the title, and frogs, tigers, a couple making love, beggars, plums, and all the rest), and he inherited the responsibility of caring for them, but he felt, too, that he had a responsibility for the many people in his family who had owned the collection. Telling their story is part of that responsibility, and his book is part memoir, part history lesson, and part genealogical study. It is sweet and sad and compelling.
The netsuke originated in Japan in the 1700s, and were bought by De Waal's great-great-uncle in Paris, part of the fashion for things Japanese in the nineteenth century. Charles Ephrussi was serving as his family's representative in Paris, a Jewish family centered in Odessa on the Black Sea which had become hugely successful and wealthy as grain brokers and bankers. Charles shows up in the famous Renoir painting _The Luncheon of the Dinner Party_; he's the guy in anomalous formal dress with top hat. The netsuke were housed in a vitrine that was meant as a showcase but also was meant to be opened allowing the little figures to be picked up and handled. Charles was so hugely rich he was initially untroubled by the Parisian anti-Semitism of the time, but it was there. The diarist and collector Edmond de Goncourt was jealous of him, and was disgusted that the salons were "infested with Jews and Jewesses." Maybe it was during the Dreyfus Affair, in an attempt to show how French he was, that Charles's taste began to concentrate on contemporary French art. The netsuke became a wedding present to his cousin Viktor in Vienna. Viktor Ephrussi (the author's great-grandfather) married the Baroness Emmy Schey von Koromla in 1899. The netsuke were shipped to Vienna to be installed in the immense Palais Ephrussi, where Emmy kept them in the vitrine in her dressing room. Catastrophe came when Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. Viktor was forced to sign everything away in order to escape, an escape aided by the legal brilliance of the older daughter Elisabeth. Emmy discretely killed herself on the way, and Viktor managed to end his days in England with Elisabeth and her husband, the author's grandparents. The netsuke were furtively saved by Emmy's personal maid, returned to Elizabeth after the war, and further given to her brother, who bequeathed them to the man he had adopted as a son for legal reasons, who in turn bequeathed them to the author, who now keeps them in London.
It is quite the journey. The author has recapitulated much of it, visiting each house which the family used to own, with many reflections on the loss of status and the loss of property. "Two years of looking at the scribbles in the margins of books, the letters used as bookmarks, the photographs of nineteenth-century cousins, the Odessan patents of this and that, the envelopes at the backs of drawers with their few sad aerogrammes. Two years of tracing routes across cities, an old map in one hand, lost." It isn't all bleak; there are funny stories about eccentric aunts and uncles here, and some tales of real heroism. It is a moving and dramatic family memoir, alternating restrained expressions of feeling with objective history and geography. It also has much to tell about the meaning and power and endurance of beloved objects of art.