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.


18 thoughts on “Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes

  1. A very fair review, Simon. I had a lot of the same mixed feelings when I read it.
    I’ve read both of Elisabeth de Waal’s Persphone books, and I liked “Milton Place” a little bit more than “The Exiles Return.” The latter book seemed a bit too personal and close to the bone for a really successful novel…although still worth reading.

  2. Interesting to read your post, Simon, because I did try to read this once and stalled very early. I’m not quite sure why now, as it should have been the kind of thing I liked, and with the connection to the Holocaust, about which I’d read a fair amount. I think maybe it was what you describe so aptly as the Downton Abbey elements; whatever it was, it didn’t quite gel and so I never finished it. Which is a shame really, because it obviously did have a story to tell.

    • The anti-Semitism displayed in Paris in the latter parts of the 19C and in Austria until the horrors of the Nazis are vividly described by de Waal – but I find the stories about ordinary people more compelling- they had fewer options in saving themselves. He tells his story pretty well, though, despite the over-long account of tapestries, furniture and clothes. The netsuke are brilliantly evoked.

  3. One of Elisabeth’s other novels, Milton Place, is also available from Persephone and it is excellent. She’s just as talented as her grandson.

  4. Very thoughtful piece, Simon. I too had mixed feelings about this book when I read it 8 or 9 years ago. (It was a book group read, chosen by another member of our group, so maybe my response was partly a function of timing.) Anyway, I’m glad you’ve mentioned the grandmother, Elisabeth. I found her story the most interesting element of the book. A friend — the one who chose The Hare for our book group — has a copy of The Exiles Return, so maybe I can borrow it at some point. It sounds excellent.

  5. Simon, you have such a rigorous eye that you direct with impressive energy on yourself. I find your assessment of “inverted honesty” fascinating. Here in The States, I think our distance and the “peasant stock” of any of us seems to release us to shamelessly covet the Downton goodies, and weep over every belch of a Royal Baby, from Little George on.. and.. on.. and on, to a sometime ridiculous extent. May have mentioned this before, but at the Downton premier, I salivated over the decanting of the red wine, and the polishing of the silver! Not sure if I’m going to try this, but I AM curious to learn a little more about “netsuke.”

      • Simon, not sure if my comment came across as cavalier…I love to ponder cultural differences and American “Downton Madness” has always puzzled me. But didn’t mean to be overly personal…especially in first sentence!

        On another note, I recently did some study of the Chartist movement and its influencing as it echoed thru time, even to the workmen’s clubs.

        Here in U.S., I think workers were badly served by the cynical Reagan “Morning In America” theme. As if every blue collar worker was a millionaire in waiting. 40 years later, American workers are pathetically outmatched by capital holders, and our lack of universal healthcare us barbaric. Just some odd thoughts.

        • It’s ok, Maureen: I didn’t take exception to your comment, and understood the spirit in which you were writing. I think in the UK there’s always been a sense of deference and awe encouraged in the lower orders towards their social ‘superiors’ (though not usually superior in any sense other than wealth and possessions). You’d have thought that would have just about gone by now, but it still lingers – for example, in the tolerant amused support shown in the tabloid press towards our buffoon of a PM, who’s quintessentially the public school (ie private)/Oxbridge/super-privileged toff. The more outrageously lazily and stupidly he behaves, the more people seem to find him endearing. He’s not the only leader with that kind of fan-base, I know!
          The Chartists were an interesting lot, and their legacy survives here in various organisations like the Workers’ Education Association, which gives free classes on every possible topic. Interesting piece in today’s UK Guardian about the ways that DT and his clique are appropriating and abusing the legacy of Lincoln – sounds implausible, but all to true.

          • A number of years ago I read a book called “Freedom and Necessity” by Steven Brust and Emma Bull. It was a bit of a mash-up of speculative fiction, fantasy, and history with the Chartist Movement as its background. I knew next to nothing about Chartism when I read it (I’m a fan of Emma Bull), and I found it fascinating. The fantasy milieu might put some off, and the history might putt off others, but I liked it!

            Ugh, BoJo is almost (ALMOST) as obnoxious as Trump. And about as genuine.

          • Thanks for the tip about that book, Paula. As for BJ and DT – obnoxious and despicably unprincipled (and cruel, as DT’s own sister is recorded as saying)

  6. “seem”

    You are closer than me!

    I enjoyed finding out Queen Eluzabeth is sometimes referred to as “Brenda.” : )

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