The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund DeWaal. Pub Chatto and Windus (UK) 2010
That most erudite and elegant writer on things ceramic has penned a novel. Well, it’s not really a novel but then it’s not really a family history either, nor an exposition around objects. It is all of these and more – a sort-of meditation on exile and the responsibility of inheritance. The novel part is clear. While tracing a history of some of his family he obviously must imagine many instances – he was, after all, not there. The fleshing out around objects is the device used to tie that particular thread of family history together. The objects are netsuke; 264 miniature Japanese wood and ivory carvings, originally intended as toggles for purses and bags as part of traditional dress. They included a snarling tiger, a curled snake, a sleeping servant, a bundle of kindling, a naked woman with an octopus, beggars, couples making love, a tiny boy with a samurai sword, and a hare with amber eyes. None bigger than a matchbox, exquisitely crafted and highly collectible they are, in de Waal’s precise description, “small, tough explosions of exactitude”.
When DeWaal was a student of ceramics and language in Japan , a study that culminated in his erudite deconstruction of the Bernard Leach legend, he became acquainted with the collection. This belonged to his Great-Uncle Iggie who lived and worked in Tokyo for many years. However the collection was inherited by Iggie from family in Europe. On his relative’s death the collection ended up in DeWaal’s hands who, intrigued by their presence in a branch of his family, set out to discover what he could.
What he could makes fascinating reading and entails family as Jewish émigrés from the Ukraine as wealthy wheat brokers and later, bankers and becoming part of the Grand Epoch in Paris and Vienna in the mid-late 1800s. Rising in the Parisian social sphere the initial collector, Charles Ephrussi, acquired the netsuke in toto from a dealer as part of the fashion for Japonisme at the time. Charles was also patron and friend to many of the Impressionist painters of the time, Manet, Monet, Renoir, Morissot et al. The collection is something to be admired by an aesthetically refined elite.
The collection was sent to Vienna as a wedding present to a cousin, Viktor Ephrussi, in the 1890s whose new wife, Emmy, keeps them in her dressing room to be played with by her children as her maid, Anna, prepares her for an evening out as part of the Viennese beau monde. So, like many objects their role is mutable and it is this that seems to fascinate DeWaal. The mutability continues as the children grow up and leave, the first World War begins and ends and the second commences – Anschluss, Kristallnacht and the Nazi Gestapo arrive. The remaining two members of the Ephrussi family flee, leaving Anna the maid and their accumulated rich possessions behind. What then happens to the family becomes an engaging, and in places, gripping, part of the book but it is without the talisman netsuke.
Many years later in 1945, one of the children returns to what was the Ehrussi Palais, which has also gone through many changes during occupations, sacking and war, to find Anna the maid, as non-Jewish, still there. Anna had saved the netsuke collection from Nazi acquisition by secreting it, piece by piece in an apron pocket to be stored in her mattress. The returning child is Elizabeth, DeWaal’s grandmother now married to a Dutchman and living in England. The recovered collection becomes a remembrance of a life long gone. Her brother Iggie takes the collection to Japan where he lived for the rest of his life and the netsuke become Japanese once more. When Iggie dies he passes them on to his partner who leaves them to DeWaal at his own death.
This mutability is keystone to the book, as tracing a once powerful, wealthy family’s fortunes and misfortunes over about a hundred and fifty years also records an enthralling strand of European social history. DeWaal is strongest perhaps when dealing with objects and whose hands they have or may have passed through – the exchanges between art and life that imbue all objects of age with their enchantment and it is an engrossing read. Lives are made, and unmade, in the company of things.
The now familiar, elegant writing style pervades all as the tale unfolds with imaginative commitment to uncovering and reading the threads. Meticulously researched over years and based in fact it is as accurate as one could get when those of a particular branch of a family are long gone. I found myself wondering what happened in the end to Anna the maid, as she disappears after Elizabeth reconnects with her in Post-war Vienna. I found myself also wondering if the Ehrussis also knew the Gomperz, another influential Jewish family in Vienna during the period preceding the second World war. Lucie was the member who fled to London in 1938 with husband Hans Rie. Clearly they were also wealthy as they took their Ernst Plischke furniture, specially designed for their Viennese apartment, with them to London and Lucie Rie lived with it for the remainder of her life, there in Albion Mews. I may ask DeWaal about this if his book promotion visit, hoped for some time next year, eventuates. I feel sure, as humanitarian and potter, he would have researched these matters.
There are a variety of covers and it is now available in soft as well as the hard cover version I bought in America last year. I lent it to someone whose name I cannot recall so please return if you are reading this and have finished it. I’d like to read it again.
Most bookshops carry it.