Edmund de Waal’s exceptional memoir has topped a personal “to read” list for a couple of years. It is, without a doubt, one of the most original and most unforgettable stories imaginable: a revelation of one family’s gilded history and loss as traced through a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke.
The author is one of the world’s most celebrated contemporary ceramicists, and “The Hare with the Amber Eyes” reflects his discerning eye and, most of all, his sense of touch. The small Japanese figures carved from ivory and boxwood are meant to be touched and handled. As he puts it:
. . . my job is to make things. How objects get handled, used and handed on is not just a mildly interesting question for me. It is my question. . . .
When he inherits the collection of netsuke he realizes:
How objects are handed on is all about story-telling. . . . There is no easy story in legacy. What is remembered and what is forgotten? . . . What is being passed on to me with all these small Japanese objects?
The author’s quest begins with his Russian-born Ephrussi ancestors. Jewish grain merchants and bankers, their wealth and influence was felt from Odessa to Paris, from London to Vienna. They lived like royalty: their home in Vienna was, indeed, an “implacably marble” palace on Vienna’s Ringstrasse. They were ”staggeringly” wealthy.
It was Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of the author’s great-grandfather, who acquired the netsuke. Bon-vivant aesthete Charles lived in Paris, where he wrote about art and collected it. An early patron and champion of Impressionists like Renoir – he is even present in Renoir’s masterful Luncheon of the Boating Party -- Degas, Morisot, Manet and Monet, he shared their enthusiasm for all things Japanese. He is one of the models for Marcel Proust’s Swann. He is the embodiment of Baudelaire’s “hero of modern life” – a flaneur, a dandy, and a collector. And, in the wake of the Dreyfus scandal, he was to find that:
Protecting your name and your family’s honor was increasingly difficult as a Jew in Paris.
In March of 1899, his cousin Victor – de Waal’s great-grandfather – married Baroness Emmy Schey von Koromla in Vienna.
Charles sends them something special, a spectacular something from Paris: a black vitrine with green velvet shelves, and a mirrored back that reflects 264 netsuke.
The netsuke reside in Emmy’s dressing room, where her children – including the author’s grandmother Elisabeth and his great-uncle Iggie -- play with them when they visit her as she is being dressed by her lady’s maid, Anna.
The netsuke are now part of a childhood, part of the children’s world of things. This world is made of things they can touch and things they cannot touch.
Anti-Semitism was on the rise in 20th –century Vienna. As Jews, the Ephrussi were visible targets, whose property was seized by Nazis. Their art was requisitioned. Their vast Palais Ephrussi was occupied, their very lives were threatened, yet they managed to get out of Austria.
The netsuke survived the war intact – “in December 1945, Anna (Emmy’s lady’s maid) gave Elisabeth 264 Japanese netsuke.” She had managed to hide the netsuke from the Nazis in her mattress. “Netsuke are small and hard,” de Waal writes. “They are hard to chip, hard to break: each one is made to be knocked around in the world. “ They are what is left of the Ephrussi family's once immeasurable financial and commercial empire.
The netsuke eventually pass to de Waal’s great-uncle Iggie, who spends most of his adult life in Tokyo – where the netsuke “became Japanese again” -- and who leaves the remarkable carved figures to the author.
de Waal isn’t sure what he is writing:
I no longer know if this is a book about my family, or memory, or myself, or . . . a book about small Japanese things.
“The Hare with Amber Eyes” is all of those things. It is as elegant as de Waal’s own ceramics and as captivating as a netsuke. It is filled with color and touch and grace. The hare, the rats, the wolves carved centuries ago in Japan lead the reader through de Waal’s very personal journey in search of his roots. While it is a journey through some of the most shameful chapters of modern European history, it is a journey of grace and survival.
"The Hare with Amber Eyes" is available at amazon.com and at New York bookstores.