The Ephrussis were a grand banking family, as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, who "burned like a comet" in nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna society. Yet by the end of World War II, almost the only thing remaining of their vast empire was a collection of 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox.
The renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal became the fifth generation to inherit this small and exquisite collection of netsuke. Entranced by their beauty and mystery, he determined to trace the story of his family through the story of the collection.
The netsuke—drunken monks, almost-ripe plums, snarling tigers—were gathered by Charles Ephrussi at the height of the Parisian rage for all things Japanese. Charles had shunned the place set aside for him in the family business to make a study of art, and of beautiful living. An early supporter of the Impressionists, he appears, oddly formal in a top hat, in Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. Marcel Proust studied Charles closely enough to use him as a model for the aesthete and lover Swann in Remembrance of Things Past.
Charles gave the carvings as a wedding gift to his cousin Viktor in Vienna; his children were allowed to play with one netsuke each while they watched their mother, the Baroness Emmy, dress for ball after ball. Her older daughter grew up to disdain fashionable society. Longing to write, she struck up a correspondence with Rilke, who encouraged her in her poetry.
The Anschluss changed their world beyond recognition. Ephrussi and his cosmopolitan family were imprisoned or scattered, and Hitler's theorist on the "Jewish question" appropriated their magnificent palace on the Ringstrasse. A library of priceless books and a collection of Old Master paintings were confiscated by the Nazis. But the netsuke were smuggled away by a loyal maid, Anna, and hidden in her straw mattress. Years after the war, she would find a way to return them to the family she'd served even in their exile.
In The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal unfolds the story of a remarkable family and a tumultuous century. Sweeping yet intimate, it is a highly original meditation on art, history, and family, as elegant and precise as the netsuke themselves.
|Publisher:||Farrar, Straus and Giroux|
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About the Author
Edmund de Waal's porcelain has been displayed in many museum collections around the world, and he has recently made an installation for the dome of the Victoria and Albert Museum. He was apprenticed as a potter, studied in Japan, and studied English at Cambridge. He is Professor of Ceramics at the University of Westminster and lives in London with his family.
Edmund de Waal is one of the world’s leading ceramic artists, and his porcelain is held in many major international collections. His bestselling memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, was shortlisted for numerous prizes and won the Costa Biography Award and the RSL Ondaatje Prize.
Read an Excerpt
The Hare with Amber Eyes 1. LE WEST END
One sunny April day I set out to find Charles. Rue de Monceau is a long Parisian street bisected by the grand boulevard Malesherbes that charges off towards the boulevard Pereire. It is a hill of golden stone houses, a series of hotels playing discreetly on neoclassical themes, each a minor Florentine palace with heavily rusticated ground floors and an array of heads, caryatids and cartouches. Number 81 rue de Monceau, the Hôtel Ephrussi, where my netsuke start their journey, is near the top of the hill. I pass the headquarters of Christian Lacroix and then, next door, there it is. It is now, rather crushingly, an office for medical insurance.
It is utterly beautiful. As a boy I used to draw buildings like this, spending afternoons carefully inking in shadows so that you could see the rise and fall of the depth of the windows and pillars. There is something musical in this kind of elevation. You take classical elements and try to bring them into rhythmic life: four Corinthian pilasters rising up to pace the façade, four massive stone urns on the parapet, five storeys high, eight windows wide. The street level is made up of great blocks of stone worked to look as if they have been weathered. I walk past a couple of times and, on the third, notice that there is the double back-to-back E of the Ephrussi family incorporated into the metal grilles over the street windows, the tendrils of the letters reaching into the spaces of the oval. It is barely there. I try to work out this rectitude and what it says about their confidence. I duck through the passageway to a courtyard, then through another arch to a stable block of red brick with servants’ quarters above; a pleasing diminuendo of materials and textures.
A delivery man carries boxes of Speedy-Go Pizza into the medical insurers. The door into the entrance hall is open. I walk into the hall, its staircase curling up like a coil of smoke through the whole house, black cast iron and gold filigree stretching up to a lantern at the top. There is a marble urn in a deep niche, chequerboard marble tiles. Executives are coming down the stairs, heels hard on marble, and I retreat in embarrassment. How can I start to explain this idiotic quest? I stand in the street and watch the house and take some photographs, apologetic Parisians ducking past me. House-watching is an art. You have to develop a way of seeing how a building sits in its landscape or streetscape. You have to discover how much room it takes up in the world, how much of the world it displaces. Number 81, for instance, is a house that cannily disappears into its neighbours: there are other houses that are grander, some are plainer, but few are more discreet.
I look up at the second-floor windows where Charles had his suite of rooms, some of which looked across the street to the more robustly classical house opposite, some across the courtyard into a busy roofscape of urns and gables and chimneypots. He had an antechamber, two salons – one of which he turned into his study – a dining-room, two bedrooms and a ‘petite’. I try to work it out; he and his older brother Ignace must have had neighbouring apartments on this floor, their elder brother Jules and their widowed mother Mina below, with the higher ceilings and grander windows and the balconies on which, on this April morning, there are now some rather leggy red geraniums in plastic pots. The courtyard of the house was glazed, according to the city records, though all that glass is long gone. And there were five horses and three carriages in these stables which are now a perfect bijou house. I wonder if that number of horses was appropriate for a large and social family wanting to make the right kind of impression.
It is a huge house, but the three brothers must have met every day on those black-and-gold winding stairs, or heard each other as the noise of the carriage being readied in the courtyard echoed from the glazed canopy. Or encountered friends going past their door on the way up to an apartment above. They must have developed a way of not seeing each other, and not hearing each other, too: to live so close to your family takes some doing, I think, reflecting on my own brothers. They must have got on well. Perhaps they had no choice in the matter. Paris was work, after all.
The Hôtel Ephrussi was a family house, but it was also the Parisian headquarters of a family in its ascendancy. It had its counterpart in Vienna, the vast Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse. Both the Parisian and Viennese buildings share a sense of drama, of a public face to the world. They were both built in 1871 in new and fashionable areas: the rue de Monceau and the Ringstrasse were so of-the-minute that they were unfinished, untidy, loud and dusty building sites. They were still spaces that were inventing themselves, competitive with the older parts of town with their narrower streets, and spikily arriviste.
If this particular house in this particular streetscape seems a little stagey, it is because it is a staging of intent. These houses in Paris and Vienna were part of a family plan: the Ephrussi family was ‘doing a Rothschild’. Just as the Rothschilds had sent their sons and daughters out from Frankfurt at the start of the nineteenth century to colonise European capital cities, so the Abraham of my family, Charles Joachim Ephrussi, had masterminded this expansion from Odessa in the 1850s. A true patriarch, he had two sons from his first marriage, Ignace and Léon. And then when he remarried at fifty he had continued producing children: two more sons, Michel and Maurice, and two daughters, Thérèse and Marie. All of these six children were to be deployed as financiers or married into suitable Jewish dynasties.
Odessa was a city within the Pale of Settlement, the area on the western borders of imperial Russia in which Jews were allowed to live. It was famous for its rabbinical schools and synagogues, rich in literature and music, a magnet for the impoverished Jewish shtetls of Galicia. It was also a city that doubled its population of Jews and Greeks and Russians every decade, a polyglot city full of speculation and traders, the docks full of intrigues and spies, a city on the make. Charles Joachim Ephrussi had transformed a small grain-trading business into a huge enterprise by cornering the market in buying wheat. He bought the grain from the middlemen who transported it on carts along the heavily rutted roads from the rich black soil of the Ukrainian wheat fields, the greatest wheat fields in the world, into the port of Odessa. Here the grain was stored in his warehouses before being exported across the Black Sea, up the Danube, across the Mediterranean.
By 1860 the family had become the greatest grain-exporters in the world. In Paris, James de Rothschild was known as the le Roi des Juifs, the King of the Jews. The Ephrussi were les Rois de Blé, the Kings of Grain. They were Jews with their own coat of arms: an ear of corn and a heraldic boat with three masts and full sails. Their motto, Quod honestum, unfurled below the ship: We are above reproach. You can trust us.
The masterplan was to build on this network of contacts and finance huge capital projects: bridges across the Danube, railways across Russia and across France, docks and canals. Ephrussi et Cie would change from being a very successful commodity trading house into an international finance house. It would become a bank. And each helpful deal struck with a government, each venture with an impoverished archduke, each client drawn into serious obligation with the family would be a step towards even greater respectability, a step further from those wagons of wheat creaking in from the Ukraine.
In 1857 the two elder sons and their families were sent out from Odessa to Vienna, the capital city of the sprawling Hapsburg Empire. They bought a huge house in the city centre, and for ten years this was home to a shifting population of grandparents, children and grandchildren as the family moved backwards and forwards between the two cities. One of the sons, my great-great-grandfather Ignace, was tasked with handling Ephrussi business in the Austro-Hungarian Empire from this Vienna base. Paris came next: Léon, the older son, was tasked with establishing the family and business here.
I’m standing outside Léon’s outpost on a honey-coloured hill in the 8th arrondissement. Actually I am leaning against the house opposite and thinking of that fiercely hot summer of 1871 when they arrived from Vienna to this newly built, golden mansion. It was a city still in trauma. The siege by the Prussian army had only ended a few months before with the defeat of France and the declaration of the German Empire in the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. The new Third Republic was shaky, assailed by communards on the street and by factionalism in government.
The Hôtel Ephrussi in the rue de Monceau
Their house may have been finished, but all the neighbouring buildings were still under construction. The plasterers had only just left, the gilders were lying uncomfortably on the shallow stairs burnishing the finials on the handrail. Furniture, pictures, crates of crockery are shifted slowly up to their apartments. There is noise inside and noise outside, and all the windows are open onto the street. Léon is unwell with a heart complaint. And the family have a terrible start to their life in this beautiful street. Betty, the youngest of Léon and Mina’s four children, married to a young Jewish banker of unimpeachable suitability, dies within weeks of giving birth to a daughter, Fanny. They have to build a family tomb in the Jewish section of the cemetery in Montmartre in their newly adopted city. It is Gothic, large enough for the whole clan, a way of making it clear that they are staying here, whatever is going to happen. I finally find it. The gates are gone and it has caught drifts of autumn’s chestnut leaves.
This hill was the perfect setting for the Ephrussi family. Just as the Ringstrasse in Vienna, where the other half of the family lives, was acerbically known as ‘Zionstrasse’, so Jewish money was a key denominator of life here in the rue de Monceau. The area was developed in the 1860s by Isaac and Emile Pereire, two Sephardic brothers who had made their fortunes as financiers, railroad-builders and property magnates, creating colossal developments of hotels and department stores. They acquired the plaine Monceau, a large nondescript area that was originally beyond the city limits, and set to work developing houses for the burgeoning financial and commercial elite, an appropriate landscape for the newly arrived Jewish families from Russia and the Levant. These streets became a virtual colony, a complex of intermarriage, obligation and religious sympathy.
The Pereires relandscaped the existing eighteenth-century park in order to improve the views of the new houses around it. New cast-iron gates with gilded emblems of the Pereires’ activities now led into it. There was an attempt to call the area around the parc Monceau Le West End. If you are asked where the boulevard Malesherbes leads, a contemporary journalist wrote, ‘answer boldly: to Le West End…One could give it a French name, but that would be vulgar; an English name was far more fashionable.’ This was the park in which, according to a waspish journalist, you could watch ‘the great dames of the noble Faubourg…the female “illustrations” of “La Haute Finance” and “La Haute Colonie Israélite” promenade’. The park had sinuous paths and flowerbeds in the new English style with displays of colourful annuals that had to be constantly renewed, far removed from the grey, clipped formalities of the Tuileries.
As I walk down the hill from the Hôtel Ephrussi at what I consider to be a good flaneurial pace, slower than usual, weaving from one side of the road to the other to check on details of the mouldings of windows, I’m conscious that many of the houses I pass have these stories of reinvention embedded in them. Almost everyone who built them started somewhere else.
Ten houses down from the Ephrussi household, at number 61, is the house of Abraham de Camondo, with his brother Nissim at 63 and their sister Rebecca over the street at number 60. The Camondos, Jewish financiers like the Ephrussi, had come to Paris from Constantinople by way of Venice. The banker Henri Cernuschi, a plutocratic supporter of the Paris Commune, had come to Paris from Italy and lived in chilly magnificence with his Japanese treasures on the edge of the park. At number 55 is the Hôtel Cattaui, home to a family of Jewish bankers from Egypt. At number 43 is the palace of Adolphe de Rothschild, acquired from Eugène Pereire and rebuilt with a glass-roofed exhibition room for his Renaissance art collection.
But nothing compares to the mansion built by the chocolate magnate Émile-Justin Menier. It was a building so splendidly excessive, so eclectic in its garnished decorations, glimpsed above its high walls, that Zola’s description of it as ‘an opulent bastard of every style’ still seems about right. In his dark novel of 1872, La curée, Saccard – a rapacious Jewish property magnate – lives here on the rue de Monceau. You feel this street as the family move in: it is a street of Jews, a street full of people on display in their lavish golden houses. Monceau is slang in Paris for nouveau riche, newly arrived.
This is the world in which my netsuke first settled. On this street down the hill I feel this play between discretion and opulence, a sort of breathing-in and breathing-out of invisibility and visibility.
Charles Ephrussi was twenty-one when he came to live here. Paris was being planted with trees, and wide pavements were taking the place of the cramped interstices of the old city. There had been fifteen years of constant demolition and rebuilding under the direction of Baron Haussmann, the civic planner. He had razed medieval streets and created new parks and new boulevards. Vistas were opened up with extraordinary velocity.
If you want to taste this moment, taste the dust sweeping along the newly paved avenues and across the bridges, look at two paintings of Gustave Caillebotte. Caillebotte, a few months older than Charles, lived around the corner from the Ephrussi family in another grand hotel. You see in his Le pont de l’Europe a young man, well dressed in his grey overcoat and black top hat, maybe the artist, walking over the bridge along the generous pavement. He is two steps ahead of a young woman in a dress of sedate frills carrying a parasol. The sun is out. There is the glare of newly dressed stone. A dog passes by. A workman leans over the bridge. It is like the start of the world: a litany of perfect movements and shadows. Everyone, including the dog, knows what they are doing.
Gustave Caillebotte, Le pont de l’Europe, 1876
The streets of Paris have a calmness to them: clean stone façades, rhythmic detailing of balconies, newly planted lime trees appear in his painting Jeune homme à sa fenêtre, shown in the second Impressionist exhibition in 1876. Here Caillebotte’s brother stands at the open window of their family apartment looking out onto the intersection of the rue de Monceau’s neighbouring streets. He stands with his hands in his pockets, well dressed and self-assured, with his life before him and a plush armchair behind him.
Everything is possible.
This could be the young Charles. He was born in Odessa and spends the first ten years of his life in a yellow-stuccoed palais on the edge of a dusty square fringed with chestnut trees. If he climbs to the attics of the house he can see all the way across the masts of the ships in the port to the sea. His grandfather occupies a whole floor and all the space. The bank is next door. He cannot move along the promenade without someone stopping his grandfather or father or uncles to ask them for information, a favour, a kopek, something. He learns, without knowing it, that to move in public means a series of encounters and avoidances; how to give money to beggars and pedlars, how to greet acquaintances without stopping.
Then Charles moves to Vienna, living there for the next decade with his parents, his siblings, his uncle Ignace and glacial aunt Émilie, and his three cousins – Stefan (haughty), Anna (acerbic) and the little boy Viktor. A tutor comes each morning. They learn their languages: Latin, Greek, German and English. They are always to speak French at home, and are allowed to use Russian amongst themselves, but must not be caught speaking the Yiddish that they picked up in the courtyards in Odessa. All these cousins can start a sentence in one language and finish it in another. They need these languages, as the family travels to Odessa, to St Petersburg, to Berlin and Frankfurt and Paris. They also need these languages as they are denominators of class. With languages, you can move from one social situation to another. With languages, you are at home anywhere.
They visit Breughel’s Hunters in the Snow with its patchwork of dogs busy on the ridge. They open the cabinets of drawings in the Albertina, the watercolours by Dürer of the trembling hare, the outstretched wing of a lapidary bird. They learn to ride in the Prater. The boys are taught to fence and all the cousins take dance lessons. All the cousins dance well. Charles, at eighteen, has a family nickname, le Polonais, the Pole, the waltzing boy.
It is in Vienna that the oldest boys, Jules, Ignace and Stefan, are taken to the offices off the Ringstrasse on the Schottenbastei. It is a forbidding building. This is where the Ephrussi conduct business. The boys are told to sit quietly as shipments of grain are discussed and percentages on stock are queried. There are new possibilities in oil in Baku and gold near Lake Baikal. Clerks scurry. This is where they are blooded in the sheer scale of what will be theirs, taught the catechism of profit from the endless columns in the ledgers.
This is when Charles sits with his youngest cousin Viktor and draws Laocoön and the snakes, the statue he loved in Odessa, making the coils extra specially tight around muscly shoulders to impress the boy. It takes a long time to draw each of those snakes well. He sketches what he has seen in the Albertina. He sketches the servants. And he talks to his parents’ friends about their pictures. It is always pleasing to have your paintings discussed by such a knowledgeable young man.
And then at last there is the long-planned move to Paris. Charles is good-looking, slightly built with a neatly trimmed dark beard, which has a haze of red in particular lights. He has an Ephrussi nose, large and beaked, and the high forehead of all the cousins. His eyes are dark grey and alive, and he is charming. You see how well dressed he is, with his cravat beautifully folded, and then you hear him talk: he is as good a talker as a dancer.
Charles is free to do what he wants.
I want to think this is because he was the youngest son and the third son and, as in all good children’s stories, it is always the third son who gets to leave home and go adventuring – pure projection, as I am a third son. But I suspect that the family know this boy is not cut out for the life of the Bourse. His uncles Michel and Maurice have moved to Paris: perhaps there were enough sons for the offices of Ephrussi et Cie at 45 rue de l’Arcade not to miss this pleasant bookish one, with his habit of withdrawing when money comes up and that aptitude for losing himself in conversation.
Charles has his new apartment in the family house, gilded and clean, and empty. He has somewhere to come back to, a new house on a newly paved Parisian hill. He has languages, he has money and he has time. So now he sets off wandering. Like a well-brought-up young man, Charles goes south. He goes to Italy. Copyright © 2010 by Edmund de Waal
All rights reserved
Originally published in 2010 by Chatto & Windus, Great Britain,
as The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance
Published in the United States by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Table of Contents
Family Tree xii
Part 1 Paris 1871-1899
1 Le West End 21
2 Un lit de parade 33
3 'A mahout to guide her' 38
4 'So light, so soft to the touch' 44
5 A box of children's sweets 55
6 A fox with inlaid eyes, in wood 62
7 The yellow armchair 67
8 Monsieur Elstir's asparagus 72
9 Even Ephrussi fell for it 82
10 My small profits 90
11 A very brilliant five o'clock' 97
Part 2 Vienna 1899-1938
12 Die potemkinsche Stadt 111
13 Zionstrasse 121
14 History as it happens 126
15 'A large square box such as children draw' 138
16 'Liberty Hall' 145
17 The sweet young thing 154
18 Once upon a time 165
19 Types of the Old City 169
20 Heil Wien! Heil Berlin! 178
21 Literally zero 202
22 You must change your life 212
23 Eldorado 5-0050 222
Part 3 Vienna, Kövecses, Tunbridge Wells, Vienna 1938-1947
24 'An ideal spot for mass marches' 237
25 A never-to-be-repeated opportunity' 248
26 'Good for a single journey' 260
27 The tears of things 269
28 Anna's pocket 277
29 'All quite openly, publicly and legally' 284
Part 4 Tokyo 1947-2001
30 Takenoko 293
31 Kodachrome 301
32 Where did you get them? 312
33 The real Japan 319
34 On polish 327
Coda Tokyo, Odessa, London 2001-2009
35 Jiro 333
36 An astrolabe, a menzula, a globe 336
37 Yellow/Gold/Red 345
Reading Group Guide
1. Charles, like the rest of Paris, became swept up in the fad of "japonisme", which led to the original purchase of the netsuke. What did these objects represent to their collectors in the Belle Epoque?
2. In addition to his passion for Durer and the Old Masters and Japanese art, Charles radically embraced the Impressionists. What did he love about that new style? Which of these art spheres seems most quintessentially "Charles"?
3. Did you develop any new impressions of the major French art figuresDegas, Renoir, Proustin light of their interaction with Charles?
4. How did the relationship between collector, patron, and artist evolve from Charles's Paris to Viktor's Vienna to Iggie's Tokyo? Where does Edmund fall in these roles?
5. The word "insatiability" was used by anti-Semites as a way to propagandize against Jewish families' material success. Why does this word become such a slur? How might the term apply more positively to collectors of things and stories?
6. Why did Charles give away his beloved netsuke to Viktor and Emmy?
7. Edmund remarks on the coldness and lack of texture in the Palais at Vienna. What do the differences between Charles's salon in Paris and Viktor's grand Palais say about the two men?
8. Do you agree with Edmund's assessment that the netsuke need not go back to Japan; that their travels and stories have given them an identity of their own?
9. Are stories more important than objects in a family legacy? How are they related?
10. The Ephrussi patriarch Charles Joachim had a vision for his family, but it was dependent upon the future generations' aptitude and willingness. How do the Ephrussi childrens' responses to their "calling" vary? How does Edmund's book fit into the Ephrussi legacy?
11. You've likely read many accounts of Nazi raid and Jewish persecution at the start of the occupation, but did anything surprise you or stand out in this account of the takeover of the Palais?
12. Viktor and Emmy received vague warnings about the coming threats and were encouraged to flee their home. Would you have been able to walk away from such history and treasures without knowing what was ahead?
13. Viktor essentially sacrificed the Ephrussi dynasty for the sake of his new home country, Austria. Do you think anti-Semetic pressure drove him to become a perfectly loyal citizen, or did Viktor's allegiance represent his true feeling?
14. Edmund originally thought that all the Ephrussi "vagabonding" stemmed from a desire to develop culturally and grow from the provincialism of Odessa. But he realized that Odessa itself was a very culturally rich city. Why do you think it was so important for the Ephrussis to send tendrils of their families to different cities?
15. Why do you think Iggie renounced his American citizenship, a purely symbolic act?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
As someone who rarely (if ever) reads non-fiction, I found myself sucked into Hare with Amber Eyes. Literary and artistic allusions abound - the narrator's grandmother had an ongoing correspondence with poet Rainer Maria Rilke, his great grand uncle was the model for Proust's Swann and one of the first backers of the Impressionists, etc. Highly recommended.
In The Hare With Amber Eyes, Edmund De Waal narrates the rise and fall of his maternal family over decades and countries. His mother was one of the members of the Ephrussi family. The Ephrussi were Russian grain traders who became wealthy and branched into banking and art collections. They owned grand mansions and banks in Paris, Vienna and later lived in Japan. The book starts with the story of the French branch. Charles Ephrussi was an art collector, dandy and ladies' man, living with the rest of the family in a mansion in Paris and seen in all the best circles. One of his early collections was a set of 274 netsuke; the Japanese ivory miniatures carved to illustrate animals, daily life memorabilia such as logs or a sheaf of grain, and the inhabitants of the country. He later gave this stunning collection as a wedding gift to a couple in his family from the Austrian branch, and the netsuke moved to Vienna for their next home. In Vienna, Viktor and Emmy Ephrussi lived the life of fabulously wealthy Austrians; days filled with social visits and clubs and business relationships; the nights filled with society dinners and balls. The children of this couple were entranced with the netsuke, which lived in Emmy's dressing room and which the children were allowed to play with as they watched their mother dress for evenings out. But this fabled existence was shattered by the German invasion and conquer of Austria in World War II. In a manner of days, the entire Ephrussi fortune was distributed to various German strongholds as the family was forced to sign over everything and finally managed to flee the country. Imagine the surprise after the war when one of the children returned and found that the netsuke had miraculously survived. The next home for the collection was in Japan, where they had been created. Iggie, who had become a fashion designer after fighting with the Americans in the war, settled in Japan and lived there for many decades. His nephew, Edmund De Waal, visited him there and had a close relationship with him. De Waal, a potter who lived in England, appreciated the artistry of the netsuke and Iggie left the collection to him. The netsuke now reside in England with De Waal. De Waal has written a splendid history of his family, using art to tie together the generations and the various branches of this illustrious family in various countries. The chapter in which the family is made destitute by the Nazis brings home the horror of that time in a way that dry history books cannot. This book is recommended for art lovers, for history lovers, and for anyone interested in a marvelous read.
A fascinating story of the history of one very successful Jewish family from about mid 1800's to post WWII, including their experience with Nazism, related by following the movement of their art works in this time period.
While this starts really slow, towards the end, the lessons in history are phenomenal. This book brought a lot of memories back to me about my childhood.
With painstaking research, the author reconstructs the lives of his extended family from 1872 to 2009, providing vignettes from Paris, Vienna, Tokyo and other sites. It chronicles the decline of a once influential, wealthy family that lost nearly all its wealth as the Nazis occupied Austria and France. This story is beautifully told and makes history come alive. The Nazis' confiscation of all property and possessions of the Jews is told in chilling detail. We should never forget the extreme cruelty and avidity of the Nazis.
A touching tribute to the power of some possessions to evoke history. Pursuing the story of the netsuke that he had inherited, Edmund de Waal vividly brings his family history to life. And what a history it is ! He comes from a formerly uber wealthy banking family comparable to the Rothschilds. If you like Paris and Vienna, the Belle Epoque, Proust, the Impressionists, WW II history - this is the book for you. Loved it !
A wonderful book by a talented writer. Part family memoir, part holocaust narrative, de Waal's meditations on the nature of our relationships with objects is fascinating -- what they displace in the world, what we choose to hold, to touch, how their loss affects us, and how they stand as metaphors for how we live. The narrative is framed by de Waal's quest to understand how a collection of netsuke's (the small, intricately carved Japanese objects used to weight the end of obis -- kimono belts), which he now owns, came into the family possession. De Waal, who is an acclaimed potter, comes from an intriguing family. The once-fabulously wealthy began as grain merchants in Odessa and rose to international prominence as bankers at the center of the art world of Belle Epoque Paris (hobnobbing with Proust, Degas, Renoir and other such luminaries) and Vienna just prior to World War II. The author writes about their lives with imagination and elegance. His description of the moments when Vienna fell and the Palais Ephrussi, the family home (albeit an unusually grand one), was overrun by Gestapo is both heartbreaking and horrifying. The last section of the book, dealing with the author's uncle in Japan is less evocative, and perhaps this is merely because it can't help but pale in comparison to the previous sections. Then, too, de Waal has a moment of odd crankiness when he snaps at a friend who questions his determination to keep the museum-worthy collection rather than return it to Japan. He states he has every right to keep the netsukes. "No, I answer. Objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost. People have always given gifts. It is how you tell their stories that matters." Is this true? I don't think so, not entirely. The first part is undeniable, but the second -- that it is only the stories that matter -- I cannot agree with. I think of the sacred objects that have been stolen from First Nations people, for example, and I believe they should be returned. The fact people have always stolen, bartered or given them away is not moral justification. I do, as a writer, understand the power of stories, but cannot use this power to negate my responsibilities, not even if Renoir painted my ancestors, not even if Proust wrote about them. Still, even with this criticism, it is a thought-provoking and interesting read. Highly recommended.
Overall the book is fascinating, particularly in its graphic and horrible descriptions of the Nazi takeover in Vienna. I know a good deal about this, and this is the most accurate description I have read. I also thought that the sections on Charles in Paris were fascinating, and how he had the intelligence to buy up so many impressionists when they could be bought for so little. My only negatives were a little more on dresses and styles than I cared about. But overall the music was a very interesting read.
If you like history and art - in a biographical format, this is the book for you.
The crafting of this family history is unique and subtle. It took me a while to understand what Edmund was up to, following an object and the people who owned it through time, poetic impressions bringing those people to life, each miniature biography a literary netsuke, the book itself a vitrine holding the family of netsuke's together in "vibrating silence". It's really a beautiful and exquisitely crafted work of literature. The book assumes a strong background in art, but if your willing to skip unfamiliar terms and people (or look them up) the story still holds, you may even feel as if you have briefly entered the rarefied world of fin de siècle Vienna or Paris in the 1870-80s.
I expected to really love this book from the description of it that I first read. Unfortunately it did not live up to my expectations. Edmund DeWaal charts his family's history by following a collection of netsuke, those small, intricate carvings used by Japanese men on the sash on their kimono. His family started as grain sellers in Russia and as their fortunes grew they moved to Vienna and then Paris. In Paris his great-great-uncle (or possibly even more greats than that) became an art collector and writer. A collection of netsuke was purchased by him from a Paris dealer during the height of the japonisme fever. At the turn of the 20th century he sent them to his favourite nephew and his wife as a wedding present. For over 40 years they stayed in Vienna even when the family had to flee during the Second World War. A devoted servant took them under the noses of the Nazis and hid them in her mattress. After the war was over she returned them to the author's grandmother. The grandmother's brother, Iggie, then took them back to Japan when he moved there as a businessman. When Iggie died he left the collection to the author.I enjoyed the last half of the book more than the first half. I understand the author's motivation to trace the netsuke from the first time they entered his family's ownership because that is probably how he first heard the stories. However, for me, all of the information about his great-great-uncle in Paris (down to the colour of his carpet) did not grab me. I wanted to hear about the netsuke but they are hardly mentioned in the Paris part of the book. Even in the Vienna portion there was a lot more information about his great-grandmother's clothes than the netsuke. And although there are pictures sprinkled throughout the book there are none of the netsuke themselves.There is no doubt that this family had some very interesting members and their enormous wealth gave them advantages that ordinary citizens of Paris and Vienna would not have had. I found some of that worthwhile to learn but the author seemed to dwell on the wrong people as far as I was concerned. I would have liked to have learned more about his grandmother, Elizabeth, who went to University and became a lawyer at a time when women were seldom educated at all. His own father hardly gets mentioned and yet he became an Anglican minister and held some high offices.Perhaps I had the wrong motivation for reading this book. I expected to find out more about the history of the netsuke. If I had gone into it with the expectation of learning about a Jewish family's experiences during the last 200 years then I would have gotten more than I was expecting.
carved of wood or ivory, most were the size of a walnut A Hidden InheritanceAntiques are often more valuable when their provenance can be determined, and the more details regarding ownership and travel, the better. Thus, the extensive history of the tiny netsuke described in this memoir makes them essentially priceless. Purchased in Paris in the 1870¿s, the travels of these tiny figurines reveal a much bigger and more important story than one could imagine. In fact, the general history of WWII and the days leading to it, across the European continent, are a part of their history.This `art memoir¿ combines a narrative of both the personalities of the owners and world history into the netsuke origins (see photo). Edmund de Waal, who began to research their origins in 1991, is an esteemed porcelain artist on his own, and his perspective on the netsuke is more insightful due to his own artistic vision and relation to the family. It¿s both personal and historical.The collection was held by his uncle in Tokyo, and had been passed down from their original purchaser, Charles Ephrussi, in the 1870s. Charles Ephrussi was the ultimate collector. Wealthy beyond imagination, he left Paris for Italy and made extravagant purchases for his Paris apartment. He hung out with Proust, Renoir, and Degas, and was part of the high society in Paris that revered all things related to art and literature. De Waal uses impeccable research to discuss the catalogues of possessions that Ephrussi owned and the family dynamics in that opulent age. However, one detail made all the difference. Ephrussi was Jewish. Thus, while he died before the worst came, his family suffered greatly and the netsuke made their own significant journey.The book examines what happened in Vienna to the Ephrussi family in 1938, when Hitler¿s power was at its height and when both soldiers and common people decided to take away the wealth of the Jews when they had the opportunity. First, brown shirts invaded the homes of the Ephrussi family and simply smashed and destroyed what they wished. Then they returned and took the paintings and books, cataloguing them with photographs so that Hitler could personally decide what to do with them. Their money was stolen. Some family members managed to escape to other countries, but it meant leaving everything behind. In all the violence, a lowly maid named Anna (a Gentile) managed to quietly hide the netsuke in her mattress, and held them, not for certain profit but for the opportunity she was sure would come, when she could return them to the family. Her loyalty inspires the author, yet the irony of the netsuke¿s survival is not lost: ¿why should they have got through this war in a hiding-place, when so many hidden people did not? I can¿t make people and places and things fit together any more. These stories unravel me.¿ Thus, 264 of the netsuke were restored to descendents of the Ephrussi family. Reading more like a thriller than a memoir, the details are rapid and shocking. Seeing how ordinary people behaved in horrific circumstances was revealing, in both their noble and barbaric acts. De Waal does not write simply in facts, but reveals subtler clues to the people involved. Rather than simply noting the wealth of Charles, he uncovers a more personal trait; Charles ¿does not know when to shade eagerness and become invisible.¿ Thus he makes a story of objects also an exploration of character.This is truly a beautiful book. I¿ve had to read a few art histories that seemed stale-there was no personality behind the stories. This is amazing both in content and form, as the lives interwoven with the netsuke make them unforgettable. I visited the Santa Barbara Museum of Art¿s recent Asian exhibition in hopes of seeing netsuke firsthand. There were none to be seen, and nothing that was displayed struck a chord within me as did the stories behind these pieces.
This book is written by an artist, a very fine artist of ceramics, and the beauty of his writing is extraordinary. He takes you to Paris, Japan and Vienna, tracing his ancestors and the netsuke's history. Non-fiction at its very best.
This book grew on me. It has a good concept -- the author is tracing the path of a collection of netsuke that has been in his family for a century and a half, as it travels from one family member to another, and as the family itself moves around Europe as twentieth-century history unfolds -- and the author/narrator is likable, but it was only in the second half of the book that the family members and the story came to life for me. I did enjoy reading it, but I wouldn't put it on a must-read list.
Some objects quietly survive the upheavals of private history. In my family it is handmade lace: small, packable, unbreakable, portable, created with craftsmanship that not everyone appreciates, witness to emigration, war, peace. In De Waal's family, infinitely more distinguished then mine, it is netsuke. Admired for its subtlety in Paris by the author's ancestor, the model for Proust's Swann, the netsuke collection was an appropriate wedding gift to go to a splendid household in Vienna, where the small carvings were durable enough to be played with by the children as mother dressed for the opera, then inconspicuous enough to be overlooked by looting Nazi soldiers who carried off showy oil paintings. An eccentric relative takes the collection back to Japan after World War II, and decades later gave it to a British relative, the author, who appreciates spare Japanese esthetics. As in Japanese art, the book's most compelling message is gently implied. The link in the survival of the netsuke collection during World War II is a Viennese servant named Anna, a Christian serving a Jewish family. She must have appreciated the small ivory pieces as she secretly rescued them and returned them to the family after the war. Her last name is forgotten. We can only guess what her thoughts were. In the acknowledgements at the end of the book, the author thanks his own family including his children Ben, Matthew and Anna.
I wasn't sure about this book at first, I think the beginning section could have been edited to many less pages, but after skimmimg a bit through that section, the rest of the book rocketed along and was a fascinating look at WWI and WWII European history and then onto to post war Tokyo. It was the story of a collection and it's different resting places in history. I loved this book and would reccomend it to anyone who likes non-fiction and is interested in history, art history, family and the connections of "stuff"
I must admit at the start of this book I wondered why I had asked for it for Xmas. I almost put it down a few times but I don't like not reading a book I start. Now I am glad i continued as this is a charming book. I learned so much about Vienna at the start of WWII and life for jews at this time. i've learned about Japaneese art at these intriguing carvings called netsuke. All this is weaved into a compelling family history that reaches from odessa, to Paris to Vienna, England and Japan..
A family memoir that reads like an adventure novel
Having inherited 264 netsuke, Japanese wooden and ivory carvings, Edmund de Waal, a ceramicist, decides to try and trace the origins of these little ornaments. His search and research take him to how netsuke are created and then segues into the history the man who bought and built this collection, Charles Ephrussi, the youngest son of the House of Ephrussi from Odessa, the Kings of Grain, the family he belonged to and ends with the author's connection to the family. His research becomes more than just tracing the journey made by these netsuke and the vitrine they were placed in. It takes him to the history of the family Ephrussi, from the time they became powerful grain merchants in Odessa, to a powerful dynasty spreading into France and Vienna through the 19th and early 20th Centuries, to the tragedies during the Nazi occupation and the resettlement of various family members across America, Japan and the UK after WWII. At some point, the netsuke take a back seat to the unfolding family history, but they do remain in the background, never forgotten, and at times they leap back into the spotlight, and the story behind their survival against Nazi looting is short of miraculous.It had a bit of a rocky start, but smoothed out quite nicely by the halfway point and then it just sailed calmly towards the end. The illustrations and photographs added a nice touch.
I found this gripping reading. Ostensibly the story of some small Japanese artefacts (netsuke), the book is a fascinating chronicle of a prominent Jewish family who originated in Russia, and spread all over Europe. From Odessa to Paris to Vienna to London to Tokyo and back to Odessa, this is an amazing story, and brings home to the reader the personal side of history that you don't read in the history books. Highly recommended.
I really struggled with this book. It seems to presume a far greater knowledge of art history than I have. I can understand why a reader with an interest in art history would enjoy the book, but for a general reader, such as myself, it just seems to be an inventory about the possessions of a very rich family. In fact, it's about the most materialistic book I've ever read. I know everything about what the Ephrussi family owns, and nothing about their character. What makes them tick? What is in their hearts and minds? Why should I care about them? I want to care for them because they are Jews dealing with anti-Semitism, and hurling headlong toward the greatest anti-Semitism of all. But it is even hard to feel anything for them based on their Jewishness, because they have gone to such great lengths to assimilate themselves into Europe and the countries in which they reside.
This is an engrossing and moving book. It beautifully conveys the history of the author's family in Europe during the 19th and 20th Centuries, intertwined with the story of a collection of Japanese miniatures called netsuke that the family comes to own and pass down through the years. The story continues as the family scatters to England, America and Japan in the wake of World War II, and follows the netsuke into the custody of the author today. De Waal is a ceramics artist, so he has a nice ability to convey the presence, and essence, of the netsuke as objects. He also portrays feelingly the artistic milieu of 19th Century Paris. And the dismantling of his family's lives and fortune as the Nazis advanced is chilling. But every chapter of the family's history is fascinating. Admittedly, the writing can be a little stiff and mannered at times. But this is an extraordinary story, beautifully layered. I read the book because of my interest in art, but I find it hard to think of anyone who wouldn't like it.
De Waal inherits a collection of Japanese netsuke (small, intricate decorative objet) from his gay great-uncle, and sets out to trace their history. In so doing, he examines the rise and fall of his family's spectacular wealth, the development of Viennese anti-semitism, and some of the forces that have shaped modern Europe. The book is well-written and interesting - but I didn't find it captivating until about half-way through, when the narrative moves into the 20th century.
Verbal masturbation the likes of which the literate will spot from a mile away, The Hare With Amber Eyes is among the most pointless books I have ever read. Here's a handy summary to save the potential reader a bit of time: vapid, materialistic family with few redeeming qualities accumulates a fortune; vapid, materialistic family loses everything save a collection of interesting Japanese miniatures which the author fetishizes in exhausting, long-winded detail. Nazis are involved somewhere along the line and show-offy words and phrases pop up every few paragraphs. A truly horrid book.
I read this for a book club - unfortunately.From the beginning, I simply didn't care about any of the characters; they always seemed distant, and so the book quickly became boring.I really did not like the author's pretentious style of writing: italicized foreign words tossed in on every page, like bitter lettuce added to a salad (it's supposed to seem high-brow, perhaps, but the truth is it's awful). He's also one never to use "open" when he could say "commence," or "think" when he could "opine." His frequent suppositions and imaginings were perhaps inevitable, because he can never know for sure. But I got so tired of musings along the lines of: "I imagine him sitting there, stroking the side of high-backed chair..."Perhaps most annoying is the author's habit of describing photos -sometimes when they're already in the book and sometimes when they're not. I am completely surprised by the rave reviews this book has received.