By Edmund de Waal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 2010
What really drew me to this book was the collection of netsuke that is at the center of the story. When I lived in Cambridge I used to visit the Boston Museum of Fine Art and became totally enthralled by the tiny carvings in the Asian collection.
Having inherited a collection of 264 netsuke that has been in his family since the 1870s, Edmund de Waal decides to find out where these wonderful objects came from, who has owned them and where they have been kept. He has written a memoir about the Ephrussi family, drawn from interviews, journals, memoirs, newspaper clippings and history book that starts with a great-great uncle who lived in Paris. The Hare with Amber Eyes reads as if De Waal had lived through all this history, shared meals with these people, visited art galleries. He has gotten to know them.
Though the Japanese were extremely rare in Paris in the 1870s – there were delegations and diplomats and the odd prince – their art was ubiquitous. Everyone had to get their hands on these japonaiseries: all the painters Charles was starting to meet in the salons, all the writers Charles knew from the Gazette, his family his family friends, his lover, all were living through this convulsion. Fanny Ephrussi records in her letters shopping trips to Mitsuu, a fashionable shop in rue Martel that sold Far Eastern objects, to buy Japanese wallpaper for the new smoking-room a guest bedrooms in the house that she and Jules had just finished building in the place d’Iena. How could Charles, the critic, the well-dressed amateur d’art and collector, not buy Japanese art. From pages 48/49.
De Waal, an artist who works in porcelain, takes just as much care with this story as he does with his artwork. This is his family and he treats them with honesty, care and respect. Some of this history is sweet and rich like a fine pastry, some of it is filled with horror and loss.
It is on this visit that I go to the Jewish archive in Vienna, the one seized by Eichmann, to check up on the details of the marriage. I look through the ledger to find Viktor, and there is an official red stamp across his first name. It reads “Israel”. An edict decreed that all Jews had to take new names. Someone has gone through every single name in the lists of Viennese Jews and stamped them`Israel’ for the men, `Sara’ for the women.
I am wrong. The family is not erased, but written over. And, finally, it is this that makes me cry. From page 259.
But it is De Waal’s passionate love of these objects and the tactile sensations his wonderful writing brought to my reading that makes this book a favorite for 2010. Edwurd de Waal is an artist, he builds objects with his hands, he has built a beautiful memoir with words, tender and filled with love.
You take an object from your pocket and put it down in front of you and you start. You begin to tell a story.
When I hold them I find myself looking for the wear, the fine cracks that run alongside the grain of some of the ivories. It is not just that I want the split in these wrestlers – a tangle of hopelessly thrashing ivory limbs – to have come from being dropped onto Charles’s golden carpet of the winds by someone famous ( a poet, a painter, Proust) in a moment of fin-de-siècle excitement. Or that the deeply ingrained dust lodged under the wings of a cicada resting on a walnut shell comes from being hidden in a Viennese mattress. It probably doesn’t. From page 349.