Edmund de Waal is a renowned ceramic artist who's work has been exhibited in Tate Britain and the Victoria and Albert Museum. He can trace his ancestry back to a wealthy Ukrainian family who made their fortune from grain exporting and later banking, and who had spacious and luxurious homes in Vienna, Tokyo and Paris. When Edmund inherited a collection of 264 tiny Japanese netsuke carvings from his Uncle Ignace, he felt prompted to investigate their place in the family history. The Hare With Amber Eyes is the result.
The book opens with De Waal studying in Tokyo in 1991 while on a two year scholarship, visiting his Uncle Iggie (Ignace) in his home in Tokyo, which he shares with Jiro, his partner of 41 years. Ignace has a wonderful collection of netsuke which has been in the family since the late 19th century. Three years later, Uncle Iggie dies, and Jiro writes and signs a document bequeathing the netsuke to Edmund once Jiro himself has gone.
When Edmund eventually owns the netsuke he finds himself greatly intrigued by the history of this remarkable collection, and realises that all he really knows are a few anecdotes, which become thinner in the telling. The only answer is to carry out a proper investigation into their story - and off he sets to visit the locations the netsuke have resided in and to investigate those who owned them before.
The Hare with Amber Eyes is a lovely book. I have read similar accounts of family history where too much is assumed, where scenes are guessed at, conversations created where none could possible be recalled, and personalities are elaborated until they are far too larger than life. Edmund de Waal seems to be a very careful writer. He has only written about what he knows and what he can prove from primary sources. This gives the book a far greater sense of authenticity than many others. In addition, as an artist himself and a creator of fine porcelain objects, he is well suited to trace the course through of these netsuke over the last 150 years - he is wholly equipped to understand the meaning of such things and is adept at communicating his love for them with his readers.
The book is nicely produced and is illustrated with in-text photographs of Edmund's family and the places they lived in. The only omission is pictures of the netsuke themselves. Fortunately a few images of his collection can easily be found online.
on 24 June 2010
This is a mesmerising many-layered book. The fascinating narrative of the fabulously wealthy Jewish Ephrussi family moves through the decades from commercial Odessa to the Paris of the Impressionists and artistic salons to the brutal destruction of the Anschluss of 1938 in Vienna and a familial diaspora over three continents. Parallel to this, we follow with the author his own emotive journey to reclaim the lives lived in the vanished rooms of his forbears. This he does sensitively and successfully, imagining his way there through archives, letters and contemporary fiction. He visits all the great houses and, in Odessa, tasting the dust of the demolished palace rooms, he rejoices in the survival of the Ephrussi family emblem on a last remaining banister.
Such evocative writing and small discovered detail make this a story we want to follow with him and we find that this is not, after all, a tale of acquisition but of loss. The 264 tiny Japanese carvings (netsuke) bought in the 1870s in Paris are all that now remain of the family possessions. We also come to understand another loss: the Ephrussis no longer felt defined by their Jewish origins: artists and socialites passed through their grand salons. It is shocking to discover that even those who enjoyed their patronage were casually anti-Semitic. It is hard to read the vivid account of the abrupt violence of the Nazis as they took (almost) every precious possession from them, leaving them, in the end, only their Jewishness.
The netsuke are the beginning and ending of the story. Their exquisite detail is emblematic of this beautifully crafted book and its touching story of the individuals through whose hands they passed. One or other of them seems, like a rosary, to accompany the writer in his travels: a constant reminder to keep faith with his past.
on 13 July 2010
I have been recommending this book to all my friends since I read it. It provides a fascinating insight into fin de siecle Paris and early 20th century Vienna while exploring the lives of members of the Ephrussi family. The plight of the Jews and their treatment at the hands of the Nazis suddenly becomes personal, because you feel you know these people. You also get an insight into the factors that lead to their persecution.
It's mesmerising to learn of the provenance of some of the world's most famous art works, while the constant presence of the collection of netsuke is a leitmotif that binds everything together. This books crosses generations and continents. It is an easy read, but also a work of profound content. The author has managed to balance the emotions aroused learning about his forebearers with a detachment that analyses the factors that lead to their downfall. I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in art, 19th and 20th century history or just enjoys family sagas.
on 9 March 2011
This is an extremely erudite book and cosily assumes a shared level of knowledge about art and European culture. If you know your Cassatt from your Pissarro this is probably right up your street but it left me feeling a bit of a numpty. It is littered with phrases from French and German that the reader is expected to nod their head at knowingly. The reviews are gushing, and largely deserved but I can't help but come over a little churlish.
Disappointingly, there are very few illustrations of the netsuke. You might assume by the title that they are the core of the book but they function largely as a device for de Waal to explore his illustrious family history which ranges across several continents. As a family memoir it works well but I felt a certain amount of unease, bordering on distaste, reading about the fabulous wealth and conspicuous consumption that the family - and de Waal -seemed to take in their stride. I am emphatically not signalling some kind of sub-text here. De Waal's dissection of the development (and language) of anti Semitism during this period is, for me, the most interesting - and disturbing -part of the book and his description of the family's art works and possessions being sequestered by the Nazis was horrifying and undeserved. Still, whilst reading the earlier sections I couldn't escape the reflection that my own ancestors, like many people, were barely surviving, illiterate and underfed in slums and cellars, while de Waal's were gaily cavorting with Proust, Renoir and most of the European Intelligentsia. The injustice of extreme wealth living side by side with severe poverty doesn't merit a mention. Class war anybody? Maybe a legacy of this inequality is my inadequacy when it comes making sense of this kind of passage about Charles Ephrussi and his secretary:
Laforgue wishes to be remembered to `our' room, signs off with `good wishes to the Monet -you know which'. His
summer with Charles was an encounter with impressionism, an encounter that would challenge him to find a new kind
of poetic language. He tries out a kind of prose-poem, calls it `Guitare', and dedicates it to Charles. But
surely these descriptions of Charles's study are prose-poems themselves: there are the mixtures of the exact
markings of colour `la tache colorée' - the yellow armchair, the red and blue jersey of Renoir's girl. The
letters, pell-mell with sensation, high on ideas, are close to Laforgue's description of impressionist style as
one in which spectator and spectacle are knitted together, `irrémédiablement mouvants, insaisissables et
I can't reproduce the italics here but they are scattered intrusively on virtually every page, sometimes it feels like every paragraph. Fortunately Google is a great leveller. I didn't even know a vitrine was a glass display cabinet. I thought it was some kind of toilet but figured out that wouldn't be the best place to store your valuables. You might find a map of Europe comes in handy too if you want to plot the location of the various palaces and country houses etc.
There is a layer (or patina as de Waal would say) of pretentiousness that becomes irritating and I found myself wincing every time he referred affectedly to his `vagabonding'. He protests his sincerity too much -or is perhaps forestalling criticism - with his agonising about how to tell the story, claiming that he doesn't want to reduce the lives of these people to some kind of twee anecdotes or sepia-tinged nostalgia. Better to have left out the navel-gazing and let the reader decide whether he had done them justice or not.
Aside from all that, the early part of the book is fairly heavy going. It started well though I was baffled by the handing over of the netsuke. One minute Jiro, his uncle Iggy's Japanese partner, is theatrically sealing a document saying that once he has gone then it will be de Waal's turn to look after the netsuke. Jiro doesn't seem to go anywhere but de Waal carries them off to London regardless and spends a lot of time fondling them in his trouser pocket. After that, the section about Charles Ephrussi in Fin-de-siècle Paris (oops, I mean end of century: his style is rubbing off on me!) is a bit drawn out, full of the kind of overblown passages quoted above.
It took quite a long time for the story to grip me and for me to warm to any of the characters. Eventually it fell into place, so it was worth persevering. It becomes more absorbing as it progresses and tension builds with the realisation of the horrors that are circling the family in Austria in the nineteen thirties. I found myself unable to avoid the temptation of flicking back to the Ephrussi family tree, anxious to establish if they would all get out in time. No such worries about the netsuke of course.
The story of the Ephrussi family encompasses a whole swathe of history, culture and geography but it's not an easy journey. Leave it on your coffee table if you want to impress people with your intellect and taste, but enjoy it as well. Despite my sniping I don't feel I can give it less than four stars. Three would suggest mediocrity and for all its shortcomings, that isn't one of them. I wish I could write half as fluently but it would have been better had he reined himself in a little.
on 2 February 2011
I really wanted to like this book and, as far as literary craftsmanship is concerned, I do. It is beautifully written. But I can't help feeling that there is something important missing. We read about the fabulous wealth (and it was really fabulous) of the Author's forebears (the Ephrussis) going back five generations. These were men - and a few women - who commissioned works of Art from such as Renoir and Manet; who lived in huge palaces in the centre of Paris or Vienna; who owned huge estates in the Czech countryside and homes in many different cities; and who assembled their massive wealth, not through invention or production, but through banking and brokerage in foodstuffs. In living as the Author describes none of them, I am certain, meant any harm to anyone. They saw themselves, surely, as model employers, as philanthropists. They floated above normal Viennese (and Parisian) society; they were hardly affected by the First World War; the slump and depression of the early 1930s didn't affect their standard of living much; only the Nazis were able to bring down their world of privilege after the Austrian Anschluss of late 1937. And, unforgiveably, this happened because they were Jewish, as it happened to so many at the time. But the consequences for this particular very rich family were not as serious as for many of their fellow Jews, since they were able to buy their exits from Nazi Austria, albeit at the expense of almost their entire fortune, and with a huge amount of very stressful anxiety (which circumstance, the Author indicates, sadly killed his Great Grandmother). But those members of the Family who ended up in England for the duration of the Second World War lived in more comfort than many of the English, in a villa in Tunbridge Wells. Distant connections and some friends had their lives ended, tragically, in Nazi death camps, but these cultivated, educated, privileged people survived, although in very reduced circumstances.
The account of events immediately after Anschluss are very interesting. At first the local Austrian Brownshirts trashed the Ephrussi Palace in what seems, from the descriptions in the book, as much like undirected class resentment as political violence and sequestration. Only when the Germans arrived did the systematic theft of the family's treasures take place. The poor (or poorer) people of Vienna wrought a sort of violent anti-capitalist vengeance before the serious work of the German SS commenced. All this was and is deplorable, of course. But, rather like the Bankers in our present society, I wonder if the Author's forebears had any idea of the resentment that they had stoked up against themselves with their fabulous and unreal standard of living.
So I read this book with great interest and enjoyed it for the most part. But from fairly early on I had an unworthy feeling that "they had it coming". Not the anti-Jewish persecutions - which, it surely goes without saying, were utterly barbaric and inexcusable - but a reckoning with and by the poor and the dispossessed, even if their poverty and dispossession was only relative. (I sincerely hope that no-one reads this as any sort of apology for or justification of, the atrocities of the Nazis' vile regime; I have simply tried to be scrupulous in my explanation of the uneasiness I felt at the story told in this book.)
And I was left with an interesting question. Just how civilised are (were) the very rich? Of course, they have all the hallmarks of civilisation - appreciation of high Art and Culture, a code of behaviour which appears to be the epitome of politeness, often a great philanthropy, a facility with languages, a wide reading, cleanliness, reliability, and (that elusive quality) character. But - you have to accept - the very rich are very rich because they are able to make a profit from the labour and from the needs of their fellow men. At what point on the sliding scale does "a fair profit" become rank exploitation?
It is always fruitless to say "this would have been a better book if . . ." but a little more empathy from the Author for the poor and the dispossessed who formed the foundations of the society in which the Ephrussis flourished so remarkably would have been welcome.
on 20 June 2010
I can't remember when the Economist last urged readers to "buy two copies" of a book, before this came along. I would recommend the same. The book starts out as a personal quest, a family history, and seamlessly incorporates the social, cultural and political history of 19th-century Paris and 20th-century Vienna, plus some deep thoughts on art and objects, the act of owning and losing, leaving and remembering. Sometimes people who don't write for a living outwrite all the other professionals, and Mr de Waal is one of them. Luminous, condensed, thoughtful prose. Wonderful!
The cover wasn't very enticing but it is nicely bound - it looks and feels better than the jpg image. However, there are not enough pictures (photos) to accompany the text. If you were to name your book "The Hare With Amber Eyes", and keep talking about netsuke for hundreds of pages, wouldn't the readers be entitled to look at at least SOME of them??? It helped that there was a picture accompanying the review in the Economist, so I had an idea of what they looked like from the start, but here in the book itself (I expected to find many, if not all, of the 264 netsuke in color inserts) there is not a single photograph. The eponymous hare, plus some additional photos, are featured in the paper strip wrapping the bottom 1/3 of the book (no proper dust jacket) - tiny, tiny(the size of a thumbnail). Black-and-white photos, mainly of family, are interspersed throughout but the absence of the netsuke is so frustrating. Otherwise, a quite perfect book.
on 27 May 2012
The actual book design has the air of an intriguing novel by a writer such as W G Sebald, with its strong design, unusual title, and indistinct photos. However, once I'd began reading, I soon began to feel that I should be reading something else, something better-written, something with more passion, a deeper sense of place and time, that gradually builds a solid presence over the bare facts. I continually hoped for an awareness of the work of the artists and poets such as Monet and Rilke. There should have been compelling portraits of family members, clearly interesting characters. Instead, the book turned out to be a long row of very nice-looking pots, but, sadly, all empty. The potter should stick to the wheel, rather than spinning yarns.
on 22 April 2011
For the first sixty or so pages of this book I felt distaste for the subject and for the bloodless style. The book had been highly recommended by somebody I wanted to please so I kept at it and gradually found myself becoming absorbed into the artistic worlds of Paris and Vienna. However, if I hadn't already read Proust and known a bit about art and about Paris and Vienna, particularly leading up to the Anschluss, I wouldn't have persisted.
There's a reason the Modernists revolted against the self-indulgence of the Belle Epoque - it was aesthetically as well as morally displeasing - and I was finding it so too. Also, I kept wishing for humour, irony, self-deprecation from the author....less detachment. I couldn't feel much for the Ephrussis - they remind me of the Bourbons (Marie Antoinette in particular) in that though I feel a painful indignation at the way they were treated, I don't actually like them.
I'm glad I read this book but I wouldn't recommend it ahead of George Clare's "Last Waltz in Vienna".
on 17 October 2010
This lovely story of Edmund de Waal's collection of netsuke - all that remains of the Ephrussi family's fabled possessions - and how and where these tiny objects travelled throughout the last 150 years left me moved, troubled and reflective. Of course the netsuke are the hook on which the real story is told. The minimalism of de Waal's work as a potter is echoed in his writing and the effect is to leave the reader to fill in the gaps in a way which renders the story much like the proverbial iceberg: with so much more going on unseen then is apparent from the surface, the cataclysmic upheavals of the 20th century told in miniature.
I did not miss having the netsuke being illustrated as de Waal's wonderful descriptions of them - tactile, sensuous, weighted - served as a second best only to having the pleasure of holding one myself, an ambition that this book has lit in me.
I can't imagine I shall read a more modest, engrossing and moving book for some time.
on 23 July 2011
The professional reviews and awards this book received makes it appear to be a must read.
It does have its moments however you have to plough through the first 150 pages before any of them become apparent.
I contemplated giving up on this book many times as it lacks any real sense of emotional connection and felt like a very dry history book on a not particularly interesting subject.
Once one has completed the first third of the book and go to Vienna it does come to life and is at times a facinating view of life for this family during extraordinary time.
In summary I don't think the good compensates for the bad, there are far better books to read.