Non-fiction – paperback; Vintage; 368 pages; 2011.
Edmund De Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes won the 2010 Costa Biography Award. And yet this book is not a biography as such. It’s a mix of memoir and history, with a little bit of art and some travel thrown in for good measure.
The hare of the title is carved out of ivory and is one of 264 netsuke that Edmund De Waal inherited from his Uncle Iggie. Netsuke are miniature sculptures from Japan, highly collectible and presumably worth a lot of money. De Waal, who is a potter by trade, is obviously enamoured of them and is keen to learn how these intriguing items came to pass. He also wants to know how they entered his family: where did his Uncle Iggie get them from?
While the book appears to centre on this special collection of netsuke — their origin, the ways in which they have been passed through three generations of De Waal’s family — their appearance in the text is fleeting. This is more a story about De Waal’s complicated, but intriguing, family tree — he is the direct descendant of the Ephrussi family, a Jewish banking and oil dynasty that originated in Odessa, Ukraine, rose to power in Paris and Vienna, but then crumbled when the Nazis seized their assets, including the family’s famous bank, during the Second World War.
De Waal chooses to structure his book by starting near the top of his family tree, rather than working backwards as one might expect (or perhaps I’ve just watched way too many episodes of Who Do You Think You Are?) This is a gamble, because what happens if this person is the most interesting relative of the lot? Everyone else will pale by comparison and the narrative tension will be lost.
Arguably, Charles Ephrussi, whom De Waal introduces us to in Part One, is the most interesting relative he has in his tree. Paris-based Charles (1849-1905) is an art historian, critic and collector, who is immersed in the Impressionist era. He buys work from the likes of Manet, Pisarro and Degas and is depicted in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. If that’s not enough, he is also the inspiration for Charles Swann in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. He even starts his own periodical and becomes editor several years later.
It is Charles who buys the netsuke from Japan at a time when Japanese art was coming into fashion. And it is Charles who passes them onto a Vienna-based cousin, as a wedding present, setting them on a journey that is to stretch for more than 100 years.
I have to admit that there were times when I found this book slightly tedious — and dull. De Waal has a tendency to be self-indulgent, to explore the things that interest him rather than thinking about his reader, but his prose style is elegant and effortless.
Every now and then, however, there are little bursts of excitement — and shock — that lift the text out of the doldrums and give the narrative some extra impetus. I was particularly rivetted by the section in which the Nazis seized the Ephrussi family’s palace, depriving them of their property and belongings. For a family so wealthy and privileged it must have seemed an astonishingly rude — and frightening — shock from which they never fully recovered.
But, overall, I had reservations about this book, perhaps because I’m not much of a “thing” person — material objects and accumulation of wealth don’t interest me in the slightest. The Hare with the Amber Eyes resonated more with me as a history of anti-semitism in the 20th century rather than a “biography” of netsuke. It’s an interesting book, but it’s also a strange one, too.