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.
The Hare with Amber Eyes is a family history. The family in question is that of author Edmund De Waal's paternal grandmother, Elisabeth Ephrussi. It follows them from being successful wheat merchants in Russia in the early 19th century, through being fabulously wealthy bankers in fin de siècle Paris and Vienna, to a diaspora in the 1930s. While De Waal himself is currently a member of the penultimate generation of the family, his primary tale reaches its conclusion with his great uncle Iggie in post Second World War Japan.
De Waal ties the family's history together with a set of 264 netsuke, ornamental toggles for attaching bags to a belt, carved in wood or ivory. One of these is a hare with amber eyes.
Crucial to the family's story is their Jewishness, and it is in telling the story of the Jewish experience in the 19th and 20th century that the book is at its strongest. This is a book which repeats one of history's clearest lessons. The language used to abuse Jews in 19th century Paris is so obviously echoed by the populist xenophobes of 21st century, that the danger they present is inescapable. We don't need to imagine where their views might lead. We've seen it. We saw it in Dachau, Srebrenica, and Rwanda. The horror of the Jewish story has been documented many times, but De Waal brings it once more to raw and painful life by relating the personal impact on his own family.
The second way in which De Waal is successful is in writing a well structured story. This is a tale in three parts, with the optimistic first movement telling the story of the family's rise, but with the growing threat in the background. In the second an idyllic opening gives way to the breaking storm. The third act is a soothing conclusion. While it did take me some time to tune in to the book, by the end I found myself wanting to make time for it, drawn in by the unfolding narrative.
So far so good. However, I may be something of a Roundhead, but this felt to me as almost a pastiche of a book written by a privately educated arts graduate. The near self consciously elaborate prose constantly begs the question, "Beautifully written or pretentiously disappearing up its own fundament?". It is writing which finds too much meaning in inconsequential detail. "They can certainly be thought of as ornamental, even as a sort of enchantment.I wonder about the appropriateness of Charles' wedding present once it reaches Vienna". Seemingly beautiful sentences whose gilding hides an absence of meaning. I would describe the style as Baroque, using the word in a perjorative sense. One might admire a well crafted phrase or sentence, but viewed as a whole it is over elaborately ornate. There is a definite tendency, at its strongest in the early chapters, for De Waal to exercise his vocabulary in an intrusive way, sending this reader to the dictionary more frequently than I would've liked. Oh, and to save others looking it up, "flaneurial" means "at a strolling pace".
This is also an intensely materialistic book. At times it feels like a catalogue of obscene opulence with De Waal resorting to simply registering the possessions of his ancestors. Like a visit to Chatsworth House in Derbyshire one can appreciate the beauty at first, but after a while it simply becomes wealth without taste. As Clement Freud once filled time on Just a Minute with endless listing, so De Waal fills the page with his forbears' objets d'art. At one point I almost got the impression that the author viewed the loss of life in the holocaust as less of an issue than the loss of material wealth. Certainly the former is covered in a more perfunctory fashion than the latter.
Perhaps I am being unkind when I describe De Waal as a dreadful name dropper. Maybe he is merely faithfully reporting the circles in which his family, particularly his several times removed uncle Charles, lived, but it does have a flavour of "oh yes, my family knew Monet, Renoir, Proust, Freud &c".
The obsession with possessions and historical celebrity felt like a missed opportunity. there were people, members of the family, about whom I wanted to know more. His grandmother Elisabeth, who escaped the constraints of a patriarchal society to become an academic and lawyer would have been a much better subject than the dully acquisitive Charles. Her parents Viktor and Emmy and their complex marriage are characters Would have held more interest than another listing of fine furniture and paintings.
Finally, I can't leave the book without commenting on the title which seems symptomatic of much of the writing in its empty symbolism. It is a title chosen to create an interesting title, it says little about the book to which it is attached. The netsuke are only peripheral to the tale, and within the netsuke, the hare barely features. If he had wanted to use one of the netsuke as a title, he would've been more honest to call the book The Medlar, or The Tiger.
Three stars could be a little lacking in generosity for an intelligent book which eventually drew me in, but I had too many problems with both style and content to award more.
on 1 April 2012
This book, which was the winner of the Costa Biography Prize in 2010, got a lot of buzz towards the end of that year and the beginning of 2011
One thing I can say that really stood out in this book was the descriptions, especially the descriptions of places and objects. I could really imagine what the netsuke looked and felt like, and I came out of the book wanting to visit Vienna. The last time a book has made me want to visit a place was when I read The Historian back before I started this blog.
I did have a bit of an odd relationship with this book though. When I was actually reading it I found I was quite interested, but when I had put it down I was never really that bothered about picking it up again. At one point I was even on the brink of giving up on it, but with a little persuasion from my Mum, and he knowledge that I did find it interesting part of the time, kept me going. I am glad I did. While I didn't find the first part of the story that interesting I really raced though the last hundred or so pages because I was generally enjoying that section. I think just the period of time it was set in was interesting (during the second world war) or maybe it was just because I knew that period of history so I could put events into a more clear setting. I did like however the thread going through the book setting a sort of atmosphere for what was to come. I suppose that is history, but certainly it was a good idea to make that path clear.
One thing I would have really liked in this book though is more pictures of the Netsuke, however there is an illustrated edition which may work better.
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".