Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes

Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: a hidden inheritance. Vintage books paperback, 2011. First published 2010

I posted recently on the secret Cornish garden of some neighbour friends and their handsome Siamese cats. One of these friends lent me a copy of this book. I finished it with some powerful mixed feelings.

Edmund de Waal expresses some conflicting feelings about the book himself just a few pages from the end; he tells an acquaintance that he’s writing a book about…and stumbles to a halt:

I no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or is still a book about small Japanese things.

De Waal Hare Amber Eyes coverIt’s all of those things – uncategorizable. Ostensibly it is about the provenance of his collection of over 200 netsuke – the small ivory or wooden objects crafted by Japanese artists well over a century ago. Originally intended as ornamental but useful toggles to hang from cords attached to traditional dress, they became sought after objets d’art in late 19C Europe, during the Japonisme craze, when they first entered the collection of one of de Waal’s Ephrussi ancestors in Paris.

From there they migrated as a wedding present to another family member in Vienna. They subsequently travelled via Japan to England and were inherited by de Waal.

But this is not just a cute social history of Europe in 200 objects. It’s a profile of a wealthy, important Proustian family told not from the viewpoint of an academic historian, but by a person deeply connected emotionally and genetically to the subject – his own family.

His Jewish ancestors made their fortune originally in Odessa, importers and exporters of Russian grain. From there they expanded into banking, with branches in several major European capitals. But as a Jewish family based largely in Vienna, they were dangerously vulnerable to the vicious ‘final solution’ of the Nazis, culminating in the holocaust.

Another involuntary diaspora of the Ephrussi family ensued.

Hare netsuke

Hare netsuke from the collection, in the public domain via Wikimedia Images, attribution: Lostrobots / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)

De Waal gives a highly personal, deeply moving account of this only too well-known tragic and shameful period of history. These are people he’s enabled us to get to know, with their love affairs and foibles, their poignant attempts to fit in to an Austrian society which only superficially accepts them, but ultimately despises them. They are outsiders, resented, and the Anschluss gives their bigoted, hypocritical Christian neighbours the opportunity to release all the pent-up animosity and envy that they’d harboured for decades.

I found the book a deeply moving and sometimes upsetting experience, but I admit to some misgivings in my response. It’s probably a kind of inverted snobbery to find the long descriptions of the sumptuous opulence of the Ephrussi palaces, packed with mismatched and priceless artworks, furniture and other stuff, and the fraternising with royalty, aristocracy and famous artists and writers, just a little too Downton Abbey at times.

This is not a noble response, I know, and this doesn’t diminish the horror I felt at the inevitable brutality of the persecutions, humiliations and terror the family underwent at the hands of the most despicable people Europe has known.

It’s gratifying to read about the last major Ephrussi that de Waal tells us about in detail: his much-loved great-uncle Iggy, living with increasing happiness with his Japanese companion, and finally restoring the netsuke to a home that appreciates them. As Edmund de Waal did himself when he inherited them.

He spends much of the last third of the book profiling his brilliant grandmother, Elisabeth. She was one of the first women to graduate from the University of Vienna, gained a doctorate and became a lawyer. In the twenties she married a Dutchman named Hendrik de Waal, and settled into domesticity in England in the thirties. She was a poet, corresponded with Rilke, and wrote five novels; one of these, a semi-autobiographical family history set in Vienna in the 1950s, and referred to frequently in The Hare, was published in 2013 as The Exiles Return, and is now available as a Persephone Books paperback.