Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (©2010, Vintage 2011)
The Art Student read this a while back, and did a real-life approximation of live-tweeting it to me. That, plus hearing Edmund de Waal on a couple of podcasts, meant I felt no real need to read it for myself. When the Book Group chose it as our next title, though, I was happy enough, and took a paperback in my luggage to Turkey. Even when it went missing when left in a hotel holding room, I remained undeterred, but didn’t get a replacement copy until we were back in Sydney, and was only a third of the way into it when the Group met.
The Hare with Amber Eyes is the story of a collection of 264 netsuke (small Japanese carvings) that had been in the author’s family for 130 or so years – and it’s a partial history of the family itself, the Ephrussis, wealthy Jewish bankers of Paris and Vienna. At the meeting, I was still mixing with the Impressionists in Paris with the Dreyfuss affair looming, while the rest of the chaps had already dealt with the Nazis in Austria, moved on to post Hiroshima Japan and followed the netsuke to their current resting place. No one was particularly careful about spoilers, and I got the impression that the Parisian section, which I was enjoying, was comparatively forgettable.
In general our wives and female partners had been more taken with the book than we were, but along with our usual conversation about recent trips, family weddings, changes of employment, Abbotophobia and so on, we had some animated book talk. Were the netsuke just a device to hang a family history on? Is the project overwhelmed by the seriousness of the Nazi episode, so that we lose interest in the netsuke? Is the final third of the book a bit rushed as if, one chap said, the author’s wife said, ‘OK, Edmund, that’s enough. Time to wrap it up’? I was curious to know if the potter’s sensibility – the alertness to the feel and heft of things – that is such a strong feature of the first third persists all the way (and got a definite no).
At least two people said that the family story, especially the part to do with the Nazis, was uncannily close to their own, or their partner’s, including the survival of some small object as a link with the past, and details like the image of entwined initials in architectural ornamentation. I recognise from my own experience some of the thrill of finding records of one’s forebears in contemporary sources, though in comparison to de Waal’s great-great-uncle being a model for Proust’s Swann or appearing in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, a paragraph in the weekly Queenslander in 1881 (the same year as the Renoir painting) praising my great grandfather’s turnip crop is pretty tame.
A number of the finishers commented on the devastating reversals of fortune suffered by the family – a dramatic reminder that the comfortable middle-class Australian assumption that we determine our own lives is a delusion.
After the meeting:
The ‘spoilers’ didn’t spoil anything for me. On the contrary, they gave me some propositions to test against my own reading. For instance, the netsuke didn’t fade from my mind during the account of the Anschluss (the German annexation of Austria in 1938): all through the Nazi juggernaut, the tiny but momentous betrayals, the opportunism of non-Jewish neighbours, scholars, curators and art collectors, the cruel humiliations and the resonant use of the single word ‘Dachau’, the author’s silence about the tiny, much-loved netsuke worked for me like a solemn background hum or a detail, relatively insignificant in itself, that acted as a point of reference within the horrific bigger picture – a little like the red dress in Spielberg’s Schindler’s List. De Waal tells us that when he was researching the Nazi part of the story he didn’t weep until he saw the documents where his grandparents’ first names had been overstamped with the generic names given to all Jews by the Nazis. I didn’t weep until the netsuke reappeared. I certainly didn’t agree they were purely a literary device.
Anything after the graphic horrors of the Anschluss was going to seem anticlimactic, but I didn’t find the final third rushed. The book follows the netsuke from the aftermath of the war against the Nazis to the aftermath of the bombing of Tokyo. De Waal’s great-uncle Iggy, now the custodian of the netsuke, is neither part of the occupying army nor one of the derided visitors in search of ‘authentic’ keepsakes. He goes to Japan partly to take the netsuke home and lives there the rest of his life with his Japanese partner. It is here that de Waal first sees them and hears the family story about them. It is here that the book – at last – tells us a little of their history before they were bought by Charles Ephrussi, connoisseur, during the 19th century Parisian craze for all things Japanese. And even though they have been named and described repeatedly throughout the book, it is in this final section that they become most palpable though, frustratingly, never pictured. (I recommend the illustrated edition to anyone who hasn’t yet read the book. It costs a bit more but this is a text that cries out for illustrations, and not just of the netsuke.)
I still think the Paris section, with its glimpses of the art scene as a scarily familiar terrain of jealousies, dependencies, malice, fickleness and anti-Semitism along with all its brilliance, is among the book’s most interesting.
Incidentally, I happened to be reading the Anschluss section the evening I went to see The Dark Knight Rises: it made the comic-book seduction of Gotham City’s poor by Bane’s rhetoric seem shockingly plausible.