I read much less nonfiction than I do fiction. I suppose I am always looking for a story, and nonfiction so rarely provides a narrative thread that I find appealing. But I’ve had Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes on order from Amazon ever since I read a review in The Economist months ago. The US edition subtitles this book, “A Family’s Century of Art and Loss.” Who wouldn’t want to read about that?
The actual “hare with amber eyes” is one of 264 netsuke, tiny carvings once used to fasten kimono and sashes in Japan. The book’s author, Edmund de Waal, inherited the entire group from his uncle Iggie Ephrussi. The collection was purchased in the 1870s by Iggie’s ancestor Charles Ephrussi, a great collector and sophisticate from a Russo-French family. De Waal, a prominent English potter, was fascinated by these captivating objects and their history, entwined with the history of his family. So fascinated that he found himself spending two years rustling through archives, chatting up genealogists, pacing around the palaces (literally) where his predecessors had lived.
Because of my interest in late-19th century Paris I would have loved this book anyway; Charles Ephrussi is reputedly one of the models for Charles Swann, as well as the collector who overpaid Manet for a beautiful painting of a bunch of asparagus. But de Waal is a wonderful writer, and he takes us on his journey, which is as much emotional as intellectual, without a trace of sentimentality. He manages to create characters out of the owners of the netsuke, and somehow layers their lives into his own. He remains present in the narrative, getting lost in his research (way too much time on wedding presents among the echelon of ultra-rich Parisian Jewish families of the era), trying to find an approach to the story that doesn’t feel hackneyed. Because he is thoughtful, he brings fascinating perceptions to the story, as when he ruminates over the performative aspect of taking netsuke out of a vitrine in a Parisian salon, to pass them to your guests. Because he is a craftsman, he has a special appreciation for their qualities, too: their size, their limited color palette, their humor.
He shifts tenses and points of view, slipping easily from the past tense to the present, sometimes addressing the reader. Usually I hate this but it’s very effective here, as when he creates a scene of his grandfather as a small child, playing with the netsuke in the Palais Ephrussi in Vienna. Oh, yes, Vienna, and it’s getting late in the twentieth century to be a Jewish banker in Vienna. The netsuke are casualties, but who can count little beechwood carvings when the damage to people is so extreme?
Yet there is a redemption of sorts. The netsuke, astoundingly, survive the war together and go back to Japan with de Waal’s uncle Iggie, a man for whom postwar Japan was the right place. They now live together in London, and de Waal’s children play with them.
One immense flaw frustrated me: there are no pictures of de Waal’s netsuke in this book, not even on the cover. It probably cost too much to reproduce them. But de Waal speaks of them with such authority and such affection and admiration that I felt thwarted. Fortunately you can see some of them here, and you will want to when you’ve read this book.