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 netsukedrunken monks, almost-ripe plums, snarling tigerswere 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 Renoirs 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 Hitlers 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 shed 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.
BookBrowse - Marnie Colton
I finished The Hare With The Amber Eyes with ambivalence. On the plus side, it contains some fascinating information on the restitution of art objects that had been confiscated by the Third Reich as well as the Allied rebuilding of Japan after World War II. The author is clearly passionate about the subjects he discusses, and his dedication to researching his family's history, in all its triumph and tragedy, is admirable. That said, the pacing is often glacial, and the book only begins to pick up about mid-way through, with the author's discussion of how the Nazis' rise to power directly affected his family and their art treasures. I love art, but my eyes started to glaze over by the umpteenth depiction of a stately salon filled to bursting with brocade, porcelain, and ivory. At times I felt like I was watching one of those online virtual tours of museums or historical houses that allow you to slowly pan around a room to take in every detail, only at an even slower pace.
More problematically, given the current economic crisis, this seems like a difficult time to bring out a book about opulent wealth, even if that wealth is wrenched away from the family in the most horrible, violent way. I also have to say that as someone who is half-Jewish (albeit in a totally secular way), I was a little uncomfortable with the way the book seemed to reinforce some of the stereotypes about Jews: that they are all enormously wealthy, arrogant, elitist, and avaricious. I certainly don't believe that this was the author's intention, but given some of the recent American financial scandals involving characters like Bernie Madoff, the timing of publication seems unfortunate. The author's habit of mentioning every visit he makes to every library and detailing the contents of his notes further pulled me out of the story; perhaps this is a consequence of the number of falsified memoirs that have flooded the market, but he could have included footnotes to describe this information at no cost to the narrative flow.
"A somewhat rambling narrative with special appeal to art historians, this account is nonetheless rich in drama and valuable anecdote." - Publishers Weekly
"The roster of characters is daunting at first, but this narrative proves a marvelously absorbing synthesis of art history, detective story and memoir. " - Kirkus Reviews
" The Hare With Amber Eyes belongs on the same shelf with Vladimir Nabokov's Speak, Memory, André Aciman's Out of Egypt, and Sybille Bedford's A Legacy. All four are wistful cantos of mutability, depictions of how even the lofty, beautiful and fabulously wealthy can crack and shatter as easily as Fabergé glass or Meissen porcelainor, sometimes, be as tough and enduring as netsuke, those little Japanese figurines carved out of ivory or boxwood." - The Washington Post
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