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Posts Tagged ‘Normandy’

I’ve had this book on my “to-read” list for over a year, and finally read it for Gibson’s Book Club. I’m very glad I did. The hare in the title is a netsuke, a small Japanese carving that attached to the end of a cord on a small pouch that men hung on their kimono sashes to serve as a sort of external pocket. And The Hare With Amber Eyes is about how the netsuke came into the author’s possession, and where it was before.

Edmund De Waal‘s great uncle Iggie owned a collection of 264 netsuke. De Waal, a world-reknowned ceramicist, studied in Japan, and often visited Iggie and his partner, Jiro, in Tokyo. He learned that the netsuke belonged to Iggie’s parents, Emmy and Viktor Ephrussi, and that Iggie and his siblings played with them as children. They had come to rest in their vitrine in Emmy’s dressing room because Viktor’s cousin Charles Ephrussi had given them to the couple as a wedding gift.

When The Hare With Amber Eyes opens, De Waal recalls learning after Iggie’s funeral that Jiro wants him to “look after the netsuke.” He tells readers that back home in London, he carried a netsuke of a medlar fruit around in his pocket. He thought about where it had come from. He wrote down “the bones” — what Iggie told him about the collection. And he realized he wanted to learn the rest of the story.

He knows “my family were Jewish . . . staggeringly rich, but I don’t really want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss.” Instead, he writes, “I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object I am rolling in my fingers – hard and tricky and Japanese – and where it has been…. I want to know what it has witnessed.” And a few paragraphs later, “I realize that I’ve been living with this netsuke business for too long. I can either anecdotalise it for the rest of my life – my odd inheritance from a beloved elderly relative — or go and find out what it means.”

And so he does. He really goes — to libraries and archives in London where he can hunt down clues. To Paris. Vienna. Tokyo. Odessa. And in the end, home. And what he learns is fascinating, heart breaking, incredible, and finally, life affirming.

At the book club (and in some reviews) some felt De Waal should have told a more complete story of his family, but he never meant to. Some audiences have asked whether the writing of the book led De Waal to epiphanies about his identity or caused him to pursue restitution — his family’s riches were confiscated by the Nazis. I think all of this misses the point. This a book about connections, between generations, between collectors and object, between what has survived and all that is lost.

De Waal’s approach is to chronicle his imposing relatives as a means of tracing the netsuke, because they connect him to the past. The family is part of his story, yes. The way Charles was cut out of Paris society after the Dreyfus affair (and snubbed by anti-Semite friends Renoir and Degas) the way they were robbed of everything, even their names, by the Nazis. The way Iggie, Elisabeth (De Waal’s grandmother) and their siblings were scattered around the world after the war. The way they became  “. . . a family that could not put itself back together.”

DeWaal writes, “I’m not entitled to nostalgia about all that lost wealth and glamour from a century ago.” He learns how the netsuke moved from 1880’s Paris to early 20th century Vienna to post-war England and Tokyo and now back to London. The family are certainly fascinating. Especially Charles, a friend of many of the Impressionists as well as Proust. And Iggie, the great-uncle who passes the netsuke on to De Waal and who ran away from Vienna and the family bank to be a fashion designer before serving in Normandy as an intelligence officer and becoming, after all, a very successful banker in post-war Japan.

Equally fascinating is the Viennese maid, known only as Anna to De Waal, who stayed with her mistress even after the Anchschluss, and even then played a key part in the story of the netsuke while the Nazis made her work in the Palais Ephrussi as its riches were plundered. And Elisabeth, De Waal’s indomitable grandmother, who got her parents safely out of Vienna, and “provided a kind of centre” for the family diaspora from her new home in England. The incomplete nature of their story is the story — this is a family whose story was fractured, repeatedly, by anti-Semitism in several generations.

Through discussions of literature, art, aesthetics, culture and society, De Waal traces the netuke’s path, as well as his family’s, and tells us what the rooms looked like where they were displayed, what the people who held them wore and talked about and what their lives and cities and world was like. But he doesn’t tell the entire story, and he can’t. He explains, “There are the places in memory you do not wish to go with others.” His grandmother, his great-uncle offered some remembrances, but De Waal notes, “I remember the hesitancies when talking to Iggie in old age; hesitancies that trembled into silences, silences that marked places of loss.” Elisabeth would not talk about Emmy.

“Stories and objects share something, a patina….Perhaps patina is a process of rubbing back so the essential is revealed . . . . But it also seems additive.” De Waal has added his patina to the story of the netsuke – he has revealed the humanity in the story of these collectible objects. He has added the staggering wealth and staggering loss, the disrupted lives, and the small moments when people — Proust and Renoir and children and Japanese cocktail party guests and faceless visitors to Charles’ salon or Iggie’s apartment — picked up the netsuke and rolled them, like he did, in their fingers.

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