Sunday, October 10, 2010

The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance - Edmund De Waal

This book turned up on my amazon recommends list a few days after my sister and I came into possession of a handful of okimono and netsuke that have made a journey through both sides of our family. De Waal’s book is about a huge collection – some 264 netsuke originally collected by Charles Ephrussi in Paris during the 1870’s when Japonisme is the cutting edge of fashion. Charles is fabulously wealthy, freed from taking a direct part in the family banking business, a patron of the arts, a scholar, and Jewish.

From Paris the netsuke journey to Vienna as a wedding present, at the same time moving from the salon to the boudoir and the heart of family life – and then comes the war and it seems likely that they will be lost altogether, but miraculously the collection is saved and hidden until it’s reunited with the authors grandmother. She takes them back to Tunbridge Wells before giving them to her brother who takes them to Tokyo. He leaves them first to his lover and then his great nephew – and now their story is continuing in another family home, this time in London with an artist rather than a patron as their owner.
Our pieces were collected by a great uncle who I’m pretty sure bought them as souvenirs from a trip to Japan in the 1880’s though when I examine my assumptions about our family history I’m not sure what’s fact and what’s myth. I do know he had quite a mixed bag of Japanese things, that he lost out in the depression, and that he died in 1936 leaving what he had left to his sister’s daughter. She was my father’s godmother and he got amongst other things this small collection of ivories. I remember seeing them when I was about 6 or 7 and being fascinated, as well as forbidden to go near them. An instruction I totally ignored – I also remember climbing on a chair to get to a desk to stand on tip toe to reach a top shelf and have another look... I think I got smacked for my troubles but it was worth it. Dad sold them to my maternal grandfather on the condition that they came back to my sister and I – something that looked unlikely to be remembered, but perhaps because most of them are damaged and none valuable nobody seemed bothered and we got them – they still hold their fascination for me.

Most the things I’ve collected through my life are important to me, but when I’m gone they won’t have much significance and I actively want my books which are by far the majority of my possessions to be spread far and wide. But the small accumulation of family things I have – all of which originated from the same great uncle - are mine on the understanding they stay in the family. There is an irony in all of this, but it’s a condition I’m prepared to accept and honour because the personal history they’ve accrued means something to me and will hopefully mean something to whoever gets them next.

‘The Hare With Amber Eyes’ is an intensely personal sort of memoir, just as personal as a treasured object handed on from one person to the next; it demanded and got an intensely personal response from me as a reader. There is a little bit of philosophy, a lot of memory, a painstaking reconstruction of the lives of long departed antecedents, and a good deal of sadness and anger in this account by a vicar’s son of his Jewish ancestors, and what they went through and lost. I feel like there are flaws in this book but no dishonesty and it totally got under my skin – there are places where I would like to argue with De Waal but he’s also given me far more than I imagined likely to think about as well as a hitherto unknown desire to read Proust.
Proust because Charles Ephrussi is one of the models for Charles Swann; De Waal makes him come alive as a charming man who collects netsuke with his mistress, a generous benefactor of the impressionists (who later turn on him over a love of symbolist painting and the Dreyfus affair), and in short someone who’s company I want to spend more time in.

The Vienna portion of the story is more fraught. I’m shamefully ignorant of what it meant to be Jewish in Austria at the turn of the century and found myself surprised that such a rich and well connected family managed to so misjudge the political situation – that in their world of international banking they had no inkling of what’s to come. My blood ran as cold as it was meant to when the Anschluss is described. When De Waal writes “‘Ein Volk, ein Reich, ein Führer’ and ‘Heil Hitler, Sieg Heil’” it echoes round my imagination as dark as you like, but I’m equally chilled by the admission that Anna – the servant who saves the netsuke for the children has almost vanished from history. She was always there but far enough beneath attention that her surname has vanished. What the family lose and how it’s lost is terrible, but I feel the general anger and sense of betrayal obscures how great a risk this woman took to save something for the children she must have loved.

But this is De Waal’s family and his story to tell as he chooses, so the narrative is richer for the very personal bias and pre occupations, and if sometimes it feels like a point is a little laboured or a supposition unsound I wouldn’t want it any other way.

I also think this is the most tremendous book about things and the allure they can exercise. The netsuke will undoubtedly be charming, amusing, desirable objects in themselves but I think De Waal holds them dear for the sake of his beloved great uncle, who would have loved them for the memories of playing with them in his mother’s dressing room. Anna must have had her memories of better times and past glories to sustain her through the indignities and hardships of war as she slept with them in her mattress. Emmy Ephrussi would surely have cherished them for their part in her family life long after her children grew out of playing with such toys, and Charles Ephrussi would have had recollections of Parisian afternoons in the back of discreet shops with his beautiful mistress every time he picked one up, which is perhaps why they had to go. How can you not be engaged by history like this?


  1. I met Edmund de Waal a couple of times when I was working at the V&A and he is a very interesting man indeed. I'd be fascinated to read this - not something I'd usually pick up, granted, but you have made it sound irresistible. How wonderful that you have some netsuke of your own - I don't really have any family treasures apart from rings, which I wear all the time to remember my grandmothers, and I know I will pass those on. My books, however, can go back to the second hand bookshops I found them in, to give another generation of avid book lovers the pleasure of turning them up for a song, as I did.

  2. Book Snob - I feel exactly the same about my books, and I can't think of a better fate for them than to be turned up by others who will share the joy of discovery that I had.

    This book really hit a nerve for me - in a good way, and I felt that De Waal's personality was very present - if you ever read it I'll be interested to see how your experiance of him matches up to the man in the book. I love his pots as well - I do slightly envy you your time at the V&A, the fun bits of the job must have been amazing:)