Last summer my husband Chris and I ran into someone we hadn’t seen in years, and spent considerable time chatting with her and her husband about books. A few days later, The Hare with Amber Eyes arrived in our mailbox. Our friend recommended it especially to Chris because of its connection to Marcel Proust, one of Chris’ favorite authors. After reading it he suggested I might like it as well. And then he suggested again. I read the blurb and was intrigued:
When he inherited a collection of 264 tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings, called netsuke, he wanted to know who had touched and held them, and how the collection had managed to survive. And so begins this extraordinarily moving memoir and detective story …
Edmund de Waal inherited the netsuke collection from his great-uncle in 1994. It was originally acquired by a cousin, Charles Ephrussi, more than a century before. The Ephrussi family left Odessa for Paris and Vienna in the 1850s, and became wealthy financiers. Very wealthy financiers, with palatial homes and fabulous art collections. They moved among the rich and famous, and supported the artists of the period (Charles can be seen in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party). But by the time de Waal was born in the 1960s, the netsukes were all that remained. This memoir relates the family history, and de Waal’s self-discovery, a by-product of his research.
The netsuke had a unique appeal. During their long history they were sometimes displayed prominently, and at other times relegated to less-used rooms. But they were always displayed in a vitrine, for a special reason:
But the vitrine — as opposed to the museum’s case — is for opening. And that opening glass door and the moment of looking, then choosing, and then reaching in and then picking up is a moment of seduction, an encounter between a hand and an object that is electric. (p. 66)
The Ephrussi family remained strong through the early 1900s, despite the growing antisemitism in both Paris and Vienna. But Hitler’s arrival in Vienna changed everything. Homes were searched, possessions seized in the name of the Reich, and men arrested on trumped-up charges:
This process of stripping away your respectability, taking away your watch-chain, or your shoes or your belt, so that you stumble and hold up your trousers with one hand, is a way of returning everyone to the shtetl, stripping yo back to your essential characters — wandering, unshaven, bowed with your possessions on your back. (p. 251)
* What’s not to like about a memoir with a Middlemarch reference?