Customer Review

136 of 149 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Pretentious, Moi?, 9 Mar 2011
This review is from: The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (Paperback)
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
insaisissants'. (p70)

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.
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Showing 1-4 of 4 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 24 Nov 2011 21:46:35 GMT
griffin says:
Great review, thanks :)

Posted on 4 Feb 2012 16:49:14 GMT
One of the most interesting reviews I've read on Amazon. Many thanks for taking the time>

In reply to an earlier post on 4 Feb 2012 23:48:45 GMT
Tamara L says:
Thank you for your nice comment. It's so nice to be appreciated!

Posted on 2 Apr 2012 12:52:28 BDT
T. Evans says:
Couldn't agree more.

Yes, he does seem oblivious to the offensiveness of reeling out just how rich the family were and more time seems to be spent laboriously accounting for the Nazi appropriation of valuables from the Vienna mansion than what happened to his relatives as the Holocaust unfolded.
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