Every story needs a point of entry, and Edmund de Waal has chosen a brilliant one for The Hare with Amber Eyes, his extraordinary history of his “staggeringly rich” Russian-Jewish banking family, who flourished in Paris and Vienna from the late 19th century until Hitler’s Anschluss.
De Waal, a British potter and professor of ceramics whose porcelains are included in many prominent museum collections, values beautiful objects. Given this aesthetic appreciation, his approach to the Ephrussi family’s phenomenal story through their collection of 264 Japanese ivory and wood netsuke, which first came into the family in the 1870s, seems especially apt.
Bought by a cousin of de Waal’s great-grandfather during the height of the Japonisme craze in late 19th-century Paris, these miniature carvings were originally created as small toggles to secure purses suspended on cords from kimono sashes. They made it down to the author through five generations – thanks in large part to his great-grandmother’s loyal maid who bravely, defiantly smuggled a few at a time out of the Ephrussis’ Viennese palace in her apron pockets, right under the noses of the occupying Gestapo.
In tracing their journey, de Waal’s inquiry takes him to Japan, Paris, Vienna, and Odessa, reconstructing the gilded life his cosmopolitan ancestors lived against a backdrop of ever-present, insidious, escalating anti-Semitism.
De Waal is an uncommonly sensitive, self-aware biographer, worried, as he stands outside his family’s old palaces, about being “like some sad art-historical gumshoe” and never getting “beyond a connoisseurial inventory of the grand furnishings.” He writes, “I really don’t want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss.”
Instead, he wants “to be here with the netsuke.... I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers – hard and tricky and Japanese – and where it has been.... I want to walk into each room where this object has been.” He not only succeeds in walking his readers into those opulent rooms, but in reviving their occupants for us.
Originally from Berdichev, in the eastern Ukraine on the edge of Poland, the Ephrussis made their way to Odessa, where they amassed a fortune by cornering the grain market. They changed their Jewish names from Chaim to Charles Joachim, Eizak to Ignace, and Efrussi to Ephrussi, and moved into banking, financing large capital projects such as railroads and bridges.
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.
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.