The Hare With Amber Eyes

The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal (London: Chatto & Windus, 2010)

I finished The Hare With Amber Eyes just before Christmas but hadn’t got around to writing it up. However, as I see it won the Costa Book Award for Biography last night, now is clearly the moment to have my say.

It had caught my interest when I’d read reviews earlier in the autumn; I like cultural histories based around objects and I like netsuke, and indeed miniatures in general, so there was a certain inevitability about my reading it at some point. I was also intrigued by the quality of the ‘buzz’ about it. I’m not usually very good with ‘buzz’; the more people go on about a book, the more resistant I become to reading it now, in the moment, but for this book it felt different, slow but steady, and a lot of different people talking about it (and indeed the literary year culminated in six different contributors to the Times Literary Supplement’s end of year round-up – out of sixty-five – mentioning the book, which is an almost unprecedented amount of attention. Even Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain only mustered two separate mentions). I enjoyed reading it immensely; it’s one of those books that makes you want to sneak away to grab another couple of pages when you’re supposed to be doing something else.

Given this is a book about objects, let’s talk about the book as artefact first, for it is in some ways a rather attractive thing. A small hardback, comfortable in the hand, bound in pale blue cloth with a design in red and blue-green, simple and pleasing. It is a pretty thing and I like looking at it. The impression is somewhat spoiled by a wrap-around strip of glossy paper, on which are thumbnails of photos from the book, a mixture of colour and black and white, and, superimposed on that a picture of the hare itself, so small you might almost miss it (I suspect the picture shows the hare at about half life-size). I can’t really understand why the publishers chose to do this as it is not aesthetically that pleasing (and one of the core values of this book is the aesthetically pleasing) The book’s interior is a little disappointing: the paper is coarser than the outside would suggest while the photographs are interspersed through the text and, consequently, have reproduced rather poorly. In fact, the reproductions on the wrap-around strip are far superior, just really small.

>However, it was only when I’d finished the book and finally noticed the picture of the hare on the cover that I suddenly registered something odd about the book. It doesn’t contain a single interior photo of an individual netsuke. De Waal describes several in some detail in the book’s prologue but the only photos that include them are interior shots showing their vitrine in various different rooms. (And it is not that he seems to be shy of displaying them. Some of the pieces are included in a photo-gallery on the Guardian’s website here. They’re well worth taking a look at.) For that matter, the netsuke didn’t figure in the story as much as I’d initially expected them to. Or, rather, while they were undoubtedly always present somewhere they were rarely visible. Indeed, they were almost certainly not bought as individual pieces, lovingly gathered over a long period of time by a devoted collector, but purchased as a job lot of 264, a ready-made display, so whatever material value they might now possess, or whatever personal value they might hold for de Waal, that is not why they were originally acquired.

When de Waal finally inherits them from Jiro Sugiyama, adopted son of his great-uncle Iggie, Emmy’s and Viktor’s eldest son, they become a touchstone for the family about which he knows so very little, brought alive when he visits his uncle in Tokyo and listens to him talking about people de Waal knows nothing of. And for the purposes of this book,  they provide a convenient metaphor for the duality that seems to me lies at the heart of de Waal’s family, the Ephrussis and their experiences during one hundred and fifty years of European history. It’s a duality that is expressed over and over again, starting with de Waal’s own aesthetic appreciation of the individual netsuke, when set against their collective acquisition by Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of de Waal’s great grandfather, in 1879, reflecting the then enormous interest in chinoiserie and oriental art, and his later extravagant gesture in giving them away.

The Ephrussis (originally the Efrussis; even the name change hints at that duality of identity), a Jewish family of grain brokers and financiers, had found their way from Odessa to Vienna and to Paris, and had worked hard to assimilate themselves into Western European culture and society. Charles, disinclined to become a banker, had taught himself about art and then began writing for the Gazette des Beaux-Arts before becoming the magazine’s proprietor, and became an established part of the Parisian cultural scene, his Jewishness politely overlooked. The link between the Parisian and Viennese branches of the family was re-established when Charles presented his collection of netsuke as a wedding present to his cousin, Viktor, on the occasion of his marriage to the Baroness Emmy Schey von Kotomola. The netsuke went east again, to Vienna, and remained there until after World War II when Viktor’s daughter, Elisabeth, tried to retrieve her family’s property. Most things had been lost or stolen by the Nazis but when, almost by chance, Elisabeth met the family’s former maid, Anna, she revealed that she had managed to steal and hide the netsuke in her bed and had spent the war sleeping on them, waiting to return them to the family.

It is perhaps ironic that things that were so casually bandied about the family early in their existence as a collection, treated as the job lot they were, should acquire a significance more for how they were rescued than for their intrinsic artistic and material value, and even de Waal himself, while he relishes their aesthetic qualities more than most (he is a ceramic artist), is caught in the net of story that surrounds them. Or, rather, I think he recognised the need to unravel that net of stories and trace the netsuke back to their source in the family, to understand the family itself. To understand rather than to document as, inevitably, documentary evidence was lost or destroyed, particularly during the Second World War, and family members were not there to pass on their stories.

Much of de Waal’s researches have been an attempt to salvage memories of a family he knew little about, to find traces of them in the archives. As he shows, it was often easier to track the family’s early history through its possessions, photographed and discussed in journals, than through scraps of family documentation, and I have to admit I found this part of the memoir more interesting because of de Waal’s account of his painstaking research. I suspect it might be this element of the narrative that seems to have resonated with so many TLS contributors. The later part of the story is a more familiar narrative of family misjudgement in getting out of Vienna and Paris, of persecution by the Nazis, of theft, violence and displacement, and then settlement. And again, there is the irony that Charles’ fashionable taste for chinoiserie resurfaces in his descendant’s realisation that Japan is the place where he feels most at ease, taking the netsuke on another journey eastward before they return to the UK with de Waal himself.

So, in truth, this is not really a book about netsuke so much as it is a book about cultural interaction, about what objects represent to people, and how those meanings change with time and experience. It’s a rich book, in ways I didn’t immediately anticipate, and well worth reading. But I still wish they’d printed the photos on decent paper stock and made a little more of the netsuke, because they are so beautiful.

Guardian editorial: In Praise Of … The Hare With Amber Eyes
Review by Veronica Horwell in the Guardian Review, 26/06/10
Review by Rachel Cooke in The Observer 06/06/10
Commentary on the netsuke by Edmund de Waal (with photos) 29/05/10

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