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The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance Paperback – August 2, 2011
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Amazon Best of the Month, September 2010: At the heart of Edmund de Waal's strange and graceful family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, is a one-of-a-kind inherited collection of ornamental Japanese carvings known as netsuke. The netsuke are tiny and tactile--they sit in the palm of your hand--and de Waal is drawn to them as "small, tough explosions of exactitude." He's also drawn to the story behind them, and for years he put aside his own work as a world-renowned potter and curator to uncover the rich and tragic family history of which the carvings are one of the few concrete legacies. De Waal's family was the Ephrussis, wealthy Jewish grain traders who branched out from Russia across the capitals of Europe before seeing their empire destroyed by the Nazis. Beginning with his art connoisseur ancestor Charles (a model for Proust's Swann), who acquired the netsuke during the European rage for Japonisme, de Waal traces the collection from Japan to Europe--where they were saved from the brutal bureaucracy of the Nazi Anschluss in the pockets of a family servant--and back to Japan and Europe again. Throughout, he writes with a tough, funny, and elegant attention to detail and personality that does full justice to the exactitude of the little carvings that first roused his curiosity. --Tom Nissley --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
From Publishers Weekly
In this family history, de Waal, a potter and curator of ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum, describes the experiences of his family, the Ephrussis, during the turmoil of the 20th century. Grain merchants in Odessa, various family members migrated to Vienna and Paris, becoming successful bankers. Secular Jews, they sought assimilation in a period of virulent anti-Semitism. In Paris, Charles Ephrussi purchased a large collection of Japanese netsuke, tiny hand-carved figures including a hare with amber eyes. The collection passed to Viktor Ephrussi in Vienna and became the family's greatest legacy. Loyal citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Vienna Ephrussis were devastated by the outcome of WWI and were later driven from their home by the imposition of Nazi rule over Austria. After WWII, they discovered that their maid, Anna, had preserved the netsuke collection, which Ignace Ephrussi inherited, and he settled in postwar Japan. Today, the netsuke reside with de Waal (descended from the family's Vienna branch) and serve as the embodiment of his family history. A somewhat rambling narrative with special appeal to art historians, this account is nonetheless rich in drama and valuable anecdote. 20 b&w illus.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top customer reviews
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.
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.
Not only is the Proustian manner in which the author's hidden family history is uncovered intriguing - the netsuke being the catalyst in de Waal's account, reminiscent of the opening of the ornamental party favor shell in Proust's Combray revealing a hidden world -- but the elegance of his writing, his virtuoso way with words, were a delight and, I admit, refreshing in these days of such mediocrity in the written word.
Of course, central to the book's appeal was the galvanizing nature of the story. It is one we have heard before -- the unspeakable criminal acts of terrorism and brutality perpetuated by the Nazi regime. But it's the author's unfolding of the devastating travails endured by his courtly family, all the intricate and painstaking details so beautifully rendered (a process perhaps akin for a master ceramist to forming a magnificent vessel), in short, the wrenchingly personal nature of the book that makes it so exceptional.
Finally, The Hare with Amber Eyes represents yet another testimony to the flawed nature of humankind that compels those in power the world over to commit brutal acts toward others. This gem of a book is an important reminder of our darker sides . May it also serve to inspire commitment, even if only in a small way, to do better as we proceed forward.