The Hare with Amber Eyes
An artist traces a century of heartbreaking family history by pursuing the path of a group of tiny, beloved objets d’art.
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Charles Ephrussi, who bought the 264 intricately carved, wonderfully tactile netsuke from a French dealer, was a model for Marcel Proust’s Charles Swann. As a third son, he was free to move to Paris and follow his passion for art rather than enter the family banking business. In 1899, after his taste turned from Impressionism and Japonisme to impeccably French, patrician Empire, he sent the netsuke to his cousin Viktor and his pretty young wife Emmy – the author’s great-grandparents – in Vienna as a generous wedding present.Skip to next paragraph
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De Waal’s narrative follows the netsuke to fin-de-siècle Vienna, among the lavish Jewish palaces that were erected all along the Ringstrasse, leading to the moniker “Zionstrasse.” In the ornately grand Ephrussi Palace, Charles’s diminutive treasures ended up in the author’s great-grandmother’s dressing room, where his grandmother Elisabeth and her three younger siblings played with them every evening while watching their mother dress for dinner.
De Waal captures the rhythm of their lives, disrupted by World War I and then devastated by Hitler’s Anschluss in 1938. By focusing on the violence to the furnishings – ”convulsive disordering, messing up, sweeping off” – during the initial breach of the family home, he conveys “the endless pulse of fear” with surprisingly fresh power and outrage.
Through the efforts of de Waal’s grandmother – the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Vienna, and a poet who corresponded closely with Rainer Maria Rilke – the family escaped Hitler with their lives but little else. “It was a family that could not put itself back together,” writes de Waal, the son of an Anglican minister. He cries when he comes across a registry of Jews born in Austria whose names are all stamped over by the Nazis with “Sara” for the women and “Israel” for the men.
There isn’t a dull moment in “The Hare With Amber Eyes.” His portrait of postwar Tokyo, where his beloved great-uncle Iggie settled with the netsuke and his life partner, is as vivid as what precedes it. De Waal astutely notes that Iggie, who fled to New York as a young man “to boys and to fashion,” served as an American Intelligence Officer, and then became a successful businessman in Japan, “identified with [Tokyo’s] capacity for reinvention.”
I was first drawn to de Waal’s book because I was interested in learning more about the netsuke my father started collecting during business trips to Japan in the 1960s. I’ll have to look elsewhere for that sort of history. But what a serendipitous find: “The Hare With Amber Eyes” is a wondrous book, as lustrous and exquisitely crafted as the netsuke at its heart.
Heller McAlpin, a freelance critic in New York, is a frequent Monitor contributor.