September 2010

Karen Rigby

nonfiction

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal

Ceramicist, author, and descendant of the Ephrussi, a Russian-Jewish family of financiers, Edmund De Waal is distinctly positioned to offer an unusual perspective on the lives of his forebears as well as on the nineteenth-century Parisian art world that was once enamored of Japonisme. De Waal's debut, The Hare with Amber Eyes, charts the course of 264 netsuke -- carvings that often depict animals and figures in everyday moments, sometimes with erotic humor -- and their succession of owners, the first of which was Charles Ephrussi. De Waal assembles the details of his cosmopolitan ancestor’s experiences through a constellation of published art criticism, family recollections, letters, and literature of the period, including novels by Proust. With careful rumination, he immerses himself in the particulars of being a collector, revealing eclectic, discerning tastes.

Charles was known for his patronage of the arts. He had conversed with painters including Manet, Moreau, and Degas, and in a piquant anecdote, is revealed to have been the man sporting a top hat in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. Such is the rarefied yet familiar ambience of this book; De Waal, however, seldom romanticizes the salons and soireés of the time, and ably weaves the glamour of the subject with harsher realities -- some of these famous artists had been anti-Semitic, a perspective that later reappears in different and increasingly more ominous guises.

Once Charles has given the netsuke away as a lavish wedding gift, Emmy, the eighteen-year-old bride, and later, her daughter Elisabeth, emerge as the next family members to serve as focal points for the reader. In these chapters set in Vienna, the miniatures figure less prominently as conversational curios. They remain more as a narrative touchstone for De Waal, having become playthings for Emmy’s children. In what is perhaps one of the most salient admissions, the author writes, “I stumble. I realise I do not understand what it means to be part of an assimilated, acculturated Jewish family.”

The Ephrussi emerge as a dynastic, storied family, but also as an enigma. For all that De Waal has discovered about them, they cannot be captured. Narration ebbs and flows around them. Readers learn about their households, their furnishings, and various key moments in their histories (which included correspondences with well-known personages such as Rainer Maria Rilke), but something is always at a remove. When the First World War arrives, fortunes are lost and the family disperses. The book’s final sections concern the Second World War and its aftermath. It concludes with the saving of the netsuke, their return to Japan with one of the Ephrussi sons, and their current place with De Waal. Without revealing the major turns, it is this portion which best exemplifies De Waal’s talents.

The Hare with Amber Eyes requires perseverance. It is deliberately measured in its pacing, and on a first reading, may seem frustratingly detailed in its descriptions. Upon closer reflection, however, the reasons for such attention to the listing of items -- to the reverence for objects, for personal libraries, for the anchors to seemingly extraordinary lives -- gather with forceful clarity when the Gestapo dismantle the Palais Ephrussi in Vienna. It is not one more act of war, or one more story to be gleaned as evidence for the destruction of an old-world existence. It can be read as all that, of course, but taken more simply, the moment unfolds as a series of “quiet devastations.” When various items are removed, they are stripped of their history and context as beloved gifts, and are thereby reduced. As brief as the passage is, it turns into a moving expression of loss that conveys an admirable restraint. By focusing on the artifacts rather than on their owners, the moment becomes the type of indirect, emotional crescendo that one might expect in the literary memoir or in the hands of an adept cinematographer. What remains unspoken about anger or injustice does not need to be, and is not, spelled out.

Although De Waal’s work is panoramic in its scope, with potential for commentary on everything from art to spheres of influence, from the strength of women during chaotic times to the ways in which survival sometimes depends on acts of erasure -- the burning of letters, the keeping of secrets -- it is told through the lens of something much smaller, and thus more intimate: the netsuke, like memories, are talismans to be turned over, studied, pocketed and polished. The Hare with Amber Eyes presents a specialized subject, but rewards those who are intrigued by generational stories as well as those who appreciate books that allow for the savoring of one word at a time.

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss by Edmund De Waal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux
ISBN: 0374105979
368 Pages