Tuesday, January 21, 2014

There must be a trace of their hands somewhere - on Edmund de Waal's The Hare with the Amber Eyes

Edmund de Waal is a high-end ceramicist and a descendant of the Ephrussi family, Jewish merchants and financiers who were never as rich as the Rothchilds, but were rich enough to marry Rothschilds.  De Waal wanted to trace the origin of a collection of netsuke he inherited, and the story led him to write an unusual memoir of his unusual family, The Hare with the Amber Eyes (2010).

I know that these netsuke were bought in Paris in the 1870s by a cousin of my great-grandfather called Charles Ephrussi.  I know that he gave them as a wedding-present to my great-grandfather Viktor von Ephrussi in Vienna at the turn of the century.  I know the story of Anna, my great-grandmother’s maid, very well.  And I know that they came with Iggie to Tokyo, of course, and were part of his life with Jiro.

Paris, Vienna, Tokyo, London.

At times, it seemed as if it were written for me.  The Paris of de Waal’s book, of Charles Ephrussi, is that of Marcel Proust, who borrowed some fragments of Ephrussi for Charles Swann (“Charles has become so real to me that I fear losing him into Proust studies,” 105).  Proust makes regular guest appearances, along with more writers (Huysmans, Goncourt, Zola) and every major Impressionist painter.  I had come across references to Charles Ephrussi many times while reading about Impressionist art.  How pleasant to be able to assemble the pieces.

Charles Ephrussi’s name appears not just in art journals and society pages, but in anti-Semitic writing:

The Ephrussi family comes up again and again.  It is as if a vitrine is opened and each of them is taken out and held up for abuse.  I knew in a very general way about French anti-Semitism, but it is this particularity that makes me feel nauseated.  (92)

And when the story moves to Vienna, well, we know and de Waal know what is coming.  De Waal never quite takes to Vienna, never can fathom the scale of his family’s life, their wealth or the size of the palace in which they live, or the catastrophes that crash into them, first a world war and then worse, much worse.  De Waal has a variety of rhetorical strategies at hand – social history, archival digging, personal story-telling.  For World War I, and again for the Nazi annexation of Austria, de Waal almost turns the book into a chronicle.  What would commentary add?

On 9th April Adolf Hitler returns to Vienna…

On 23rd April a boycott of Jewish shops is announced.  That same day the Gestapo arrive at Palais Ephrussi.  (247)

We know the netsuke escape the Nazis.  They return, by coincidence to Japan.  Civilization returns to the world, art returns.  The memoir is an artist’s firm defense of the value of art.

Christopher Benfey’s A Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan (2003), a history of artistic and intellectual exchanges between Boston and Japan, would make an outstanding companion to de Waal’s book.  It is possible that I am the only book blogger who has written about it.

Side note to Jenny at Shelf Love: the answer to your “why” questions is “W. G. Sebald.”  Search for “quiet.”

Title quotation from p. 47.


  1. Excellent, I was hoping you'd write about this one, because I've been curious about it for some time. I hope you write more, as this is quite interesting.

  2. I bought this when it came out - in hardback! - so convinced was I that it was one for me. For some reason it has been shelved, untouched, ever since. Thank you for a prod (a reflective, encouraging prod, but one nonetheless) towards finally reading the book.

    You've reminded me of all the reasons I was so attracted to the book in the first place.

  3. De Waal's book is terrific. Much better than whatever impression I have given of it, which by itself is probably a reason to write more about it.

    This was a hard piece to write, for good and bad reasons.

  4. This shows up on my Amazon wish list, so I must have crossed it at some point, but I don't remember when or where. I'll move it up in the queue.

  5. I've been looking forward to reading this ever since a colleague insisted it's better than The Lost (which as you know, I admired HUGELY). Your comments prompt me to get to it sooner rather than later -- thank you.

  6. In a sense the Ephrussis were lucky, as awful as that sounds. Lucky the family had moved around, lucky they were Austrian rather than Polish Jews. So de Waal's book does not lead to the death camps.

    Thus another reason Sebald's approach was so useful. De Waal was not writing a book about the Holocaust. A great deal of discretion and even indirection was necessary.

    Now, the other side is that it is clear that many people, led to this book by a prize or who knows what else, found it frustrating to the point of resentment. A strange phenomenon.