“The Hare with Amber Eyes” (a personal view)

Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance – Edmund de Waal; Vintage Books, London, 2011

This is a history of a collection, rather than the individual items within it, which makes the title somewhat misleading (the hare is one of the netsuke in the collection). An entirely different book would have had him tracing each (or a selection) of the netsuke – their making, maker, where they came from; maybe other netsuke collections and collectors, etc. So is it family memoir, book of ideas, travel writing, or history, or a bit of all?

It won a biography award, which I think is a bit odd. Apparently, The Guardian credited de Waal with writing in a whole ‘new genre’, venturing to call it ‘a thing-book, perhaps, or a Wunderkammer – cabinet of marvels’. I don’t believe it does something completely new. In some senses it resembles the book I wrote about in my Art History Honours paper on collecting: Collector’s Progress, by Wilmarth Lewis. It also has similarities to Tim Bonyhady’s Good Living Street: The fortunes of my Viennese family (2011), but he’s Australian so The Guardian probably doesn’t know that book exists, or perhaps it didn’t when the review appeared. Another book it brings to mind is To have and to hold: An intimate history of collectors and collecting, by Philipp Blom (Penguin, 2002), which I also read for the Honours collecting paper. I think the difference is that, for some reason, de Waal’s book has struck a more popular chord than these others. I think the family memoir aspect is what gives it an edge, and no doubt helped by the fact that de Waal is one of the best-known potters in the UK (according to reviews).

But partly I agree that it is a ‘cabinet of marvels’ as it sparked all sorts of tangents into my book shelves or to the library – to Proust, and a book I own called Paintings in Proust, by Eric Karpeles. (The first collector of the netsuke, Charles Ephrussi, was an art writer/historian/collector who knew most of the artists in later nineteenth century Paris and Proust dedicated one of his books to him.) I went looking for Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party, as Ephrussi was the man in the top hat in the back.

Pierre Auguste Renoir, Luncheon of the Boating Party, 1880-81, The Phillips Collection

Charles Ephrussi — wealthy amateur art historian, collector, and editor of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts—appears wearing a top hat in the background. The younger man to whom Ephrussi appears to be speaking may be Jules Laforgue, his personal secretary and also a poet and critic.”

Charles Ephrussi: “He was one of the inspirations for the figure of Charles Swann in Marcel Proust‘s À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time; titled Remembrance of Things Past in the first translation).”

I read an article I had on Lafcadio Hearn as he was mentioned as living in Japan in the 1890s. I looked out The Banquet Years, another unread book, about this period in Paris, but decided not to pursue it at this time! It made me think about the art world in Paris in the later nineteenth century (one of my favourite periods of art history) – the Impressionists, the 1890s Symbolists (Gustave Moreau, et al) who Ephrussi started buying, much to Renoir’s disgust; and the neo-Rococo revival that was Art Nouveau. And just about Paris itself – Parc and Rue Monceau, and the Nissim de Camondo museum (another favourite!) – and another Jewish collecting family.[1] Surprisingly, it didn’t send me to Bernard Leach’s A Potter in Japan, another unread book on my shelf; surprising as de Waal mentions Leach and all the other Westerners who wrote books about Japan (p. 322). At this point he writes in similar terms to what I said in my MA about the ‘lure of the exotic’ – the Western desire to ‘Get to the Real Japan’ – ideally a place no Westerner has visited before (p. 321).

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Nissim de Camondo Museum, Rue Monceau, Paris

All these tangents meant the book took longer to read than I anticipated.

It is interesting to think about the book in light of the lecture I attended yesterday by UK historian Norman Davies about European history and how it differs whether you see it as a European or as a non-European. The Ephrussi family could really have been called ‘European’, as they were spread from Odessa to Paris and Vienna, holidaying in Switzerland and Hungary: “The family has a ‘nomadic lack of love of country’ and the cruelty of war seems particularly acute when it splits the Ephrussis along the lines of the countries in which they just happen to be living. ‘How many sides can one family be on at once?’ wonders de Waal.” (Emily Rhodes, Spectator book review). Identity is a big theme – de Waal traces Charles’s change in collecting tastes from the Japonisme and the Impressionists toward the French eighteenth century and Empire periods – “it was more than just a way of creating an ensemble in which to live…It was also a claim on an essential Frenchness, on belonging somewhere properly.” (p. 99).

What makes us who we are? Language is no doubt important, but these people were usually multi-lingual. Our tastes, opinions and beliefs, ‘lifestyle’, possessions? And memory… he tells of his grandmother, a keen letter-writer, burning her letters from her grandmother, and would not talk about her mother – these things were private. He muses: ‘’There is something about that burning of all those letters that gives me pause: why should everything be brought into the light? Why keep things, archive your intimacies?… Just because you have it does not mean you have to pass it on. Losing things can sometimes give you a space in which to live.” (p. 347) Food for thought for a family historian!

So what did I think about the book itself? I think he writes well; but the pace is slow until he gets to the Hitler years when it becomes gripping. There are times when you feel he has given enough descriptions of opulent rooms. Also I find I am ambivalent about including ‘himself tracing the family’ in it so much. I enjoyed it sometimes – particularly in his last chapter – and could certainly relate to it in terms of research and going off on tangents:

“My fingers are tacky from old papers and from dust. My father keeps finding things. How can he keep finding things in his tiny flat in his courtyard of retired clergymen? He has just found a diary in unreadable German from the 1870s that I need to get translated. A week goes by in an archive and all I have is a list of unread newspapers, a note to look up some correspondence, a question mark about Berlin. My studio is full of novels and books on Japonisme, and I miss my children, and I haven’t made any porcelain for months and months…

A few days in Odessa and now there are more questions than before. Where did Gorky buy his netsuke? What was the library like in Odessa in the 1870s? Berdichev was destroyed in the war, but perhaps I should go there too and see what it looks like. Conrad came from Berdichev: perhaps I should read Conrad. Did he write about dust? My tiger netsuke comes from Tamba, a village in the mountains west of Kyoto… Perhaps I should trace my tiger home. There must be a cultural history of dust. My notebook is made up of lists of lists…”

However, I also agree with The Observer book reviewer, Rachel Cooke (6 June 2010):

“De Waal has researched his story with obsessive diligence and he tells it with an imaginative commitment – searching, yet wide-eyed – sadly lacking in some of our more wizened biographers. He is wonderful on place, forever turning door knobs, real and imaginary, and inviting the reader in. But I could not understand, and became annoyed by, his conviction that he is not in the business of memorialising the diaspora. There is something precious about this, as though such territory is beneath him. “I don’t really want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss,” he says.[2]

The question is: do the netsuke enable him to resist such a tale? No. Their survival is wondrous, but I don’t think their presence turns The Hare with Amber Eyes from memoir into book of ideas, as de Waal seems to believe. Sometimes, they are more distraction than narrative thread and the need to return to them often bogs the author down; there are, after all, only so many ways to describe the feel of carved wood and only so many times such an image can be made to work as a symbol of patinated memory without the reader feeling that a point is being laboured. I loved the story of the Ephrussis, but I am mystified by de Waal’s insistence on gilding it with his own flimsy abstractions. There is no shame in telling people what happened to Jewish families in the last century. Such elegies, sepia or otherwise, grow every day more vital.” (my emphasis)

I too loved the story of the Ephrussis and I did think the netsuke collection was one way of linking the Paris, Vienna, Japan, England, Odessa threads together. However, I do think he sometimes labours his points. Nevertheless, it was a thoroughly enjoyable book for me, but may not be for everyone. I really would have appreciated the illustrated edition though, which only came out at the end of last year. There are pictures of some of the netsuke on de Waal’s website.

[1] One of Charles Ephrussi’s great-nephews married Beatrice Camondo and the family was killed in WW2.

[2] I don’t actually remember this! I wish she had given a page reference.

Photos taken at Villa Ephrussi Rothschild, near Nice, France in 2014.

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