Edmund de Waal is a high-end ceramicist and a descendant of the Ephrussi family, Jewish merchants and financiers who were never as rich as the Rothchilds, but were rich enough to marry Rothschilds. De Waal wanted to trace the origin of a collection of netsuke he inherited, and the story led him to write an unusual memoir of his unusual family, The Hare with the Amber Eyes (2010).
I know that these netsuke were bought in Paris in the 1870s by a cousin of my great-grandfather called Charles Ephrussi. I know that he gave them as a wedding-present to my great-grandfather Viktor von Ephrussi in Vienna at the turn of the century. I know the story of Anna, my great-grandmother’s maid, very well. And I know that they came with Iggie to Tokyo, of course, and were part of his life with Jiro.
Paris, Vienna, Tokyo, London.
At times, it seemed as if it were written for me. The Paris of de Waal’s book, of Charles Ephrussi, is that of Marcel Proust, who borrowed some fragments of Ephrussi for Charles Swann (“Charles has become so real to me that I fear losing him into Proust studies,” 105). Proust makes regular guest appearances, along with more writers (Huysmans, Goncourt, Zola) and every major Impressionist painter. I had come across references to Charles Ephrussi many times while reading about Impressionist art. How pleasant to be able to assemble the pieces.
Charles Ephrussi’s name appears not just in art journals and society pages, but in anti-Semitic writing:
The Ephrussi family comes up again and again. It is as if a vitrine is opened and each of them is taken out and held up for abuse. I knew in a very general way about French anti-Semitism, but it is this particularity that makes me feel nauseated. (92)
And when the story moves to Vienna, well, we know and de Waal know what is coming. De Waal never quite takes to Vienna, never can fathom the scale of his family’s life, their wealth or the size of the palace in which they live, or the catastrophes that crash into them, first a world war and then worse, much worse. De Waal has a variety of rhetorical strategies at hand – social history, archival digging, personal story-telling. For World War I, and again for the Nazi annexation of Austria, de Waal almost turns the book into a chronicle. What would commentary add?
On 9th April Adolf Hitler returns to Vienna…
On 23rd April a boycott of Jewish shops is announced. That same day the Gestapo arrive at Palais Ephrussi. (247)
We know the netsuke escape the Nazis. They return, by coincidence to Japan. Civilization returns to the world, art returns. The memoir is an artist’s firm defense of the value of art.
Christopher Benfey’s A Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan (2003), a history of artistic and intellectual exchanges between Boston and Japan, would make an outstanding companion to de Waal’s book. It is possible that I am the only book blogger who has written about it.
Side note to Jenny at Shelf Love: the answer to your “why” questions is “W. G. Sebald.” Search for “quiet.”
Title quotation from p. 47.