Edmund de Waal’s story of his family and their netsuke, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, has been called overly precious by some reviewers and overworked and belaboured by others, but I found myself constantly intrigued. I also thought it to be better constructed than his next one (which I read first), The White Road. Netsuke were made by the Japanese to fulfill a fun
ction as toggles on clothing and were crafted out of ivory, bone or wood. The crafters often gave them ingenious forms — animals, people, actions (both mundane and salacious). As De Waal (who inherited 264 of them) points out, they are also just the right size for a hand and pocket and holding and carrying them can be a great pleasure.
The way De Waal builds the book is to trace across history and cities the movement of a Jewish Russian family from Odessa who built a fortune by brokering the storage and movements of grain. Scions of the family then moved to Vienna, then on to Paris (each time building large extraordinary houses and contributing to the life and fortunes of the local Jewish community, even while attempting to assimilate and becoming more secular). And finally De Waal’s grandmother landed up in England. During a late 19th century craze for all things Japanese the netsuke and a vitrine to house them were bought by Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of his great grandfather, Viktor. Charles then made a wedding gift of them to Viktor who was living in Vienna. The vitrine was put into Viktor’s wife Emmy’s dressing room and the netsuke became play things for her children (Elisabeth, Gisela, Ignace and Rudolf) when she was changing clothes (there were multiple reasons to do so every day in Emmy’s Vienna).
In March 1938, the Vienna home was attacked by Nazi sympathisers and the family had to leave. The house was turned into a headquarters for the Nazis and the maid kept on as a servant. This woman sneaked the netsuke into her pocket day after day as she cleaned and then stored them under her mattress. Viktor’s daughter Elisabeth (who would become De Waal’s grandmother) had married a Dutch man and moved to Tunbridge Wells. After the war she returned to discover that Anna had saved the netsuke and so this collection landed up in England. In 1947 her brother Ignace (De Waal’s uncle Iggie) visited while making a major decision to go work in the Congo or Japan. When the saved netsuke came out, he decided on Tokyo and took the netsuke with him. De Waal himself encountered the netsuke when he was on a scholarship studying pottery in Japan in 1991 and was introduced to them by Uncle Iggie. On Iggie’s death he inherited the 264 pieces.
That’s the story. The telling is more complex (although keeping someone else’s family tree in your head across five countries and seven generations is complex enough). De Waal likes to travel as a story teller, to go to the actual place, to get a powerful sense of it. He says that the story is located in three rooms: “The first of the three rooms is the study in Paris in the 1870s of the art-critic Charles Ephrussi, the model of Swann in Proust, hung with Impressionist paintings by Renoir and Degas. The second room is the dressing-room of my great-grandmother Emmy von Ephrussi in the vast Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse in Vienna. The third room is that of her son Ignace, my great-uncle Iggie, in Tokyo in the 1970s, an apartment looking out across central Tokyo.”
So he starts in Paris to find Charles’ home which is now the Hotel Ephrussi on the rue de Monceau. Charles is a most fascinating character and he was not so interested in the family business, so he became a collector and critic of art and for a time was a part-owner (from 1885) and then editor (from 1894) as well as a contributor to the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, the most important art historical periodical in France of the time.
Then De Waal goes to Vienna to find the Palais Ephrussi on the corner of the Ringstrasse and the Schottengasse, the home of Viktor and Emmy. And finally Tokyo to the apartment Iggie shared with Jiro — the whole way following the journey of the netsuke.
This form of storytelling melds past and present (the houses in both Paris and Vienna which he can and can’t visit are fulfilling other functions today, but they still stand), and personal family stuff with big major historical events. It deals with the unknown and the famous. It traffics in the lost and the found, the destroyed and the preserved. As a reader and a writer, I like this degree of layered complexity. It also raised some very poignant political issues: as De Waal treks across Europe to unearth the lives and choices of his very rich, very privileged ancestors we learn that as Jews — no matter how well assimilated and educated — they were still living on the edges of these cities in countries that had an uneasy accommodation with their Jewishness. De Waal says: “It makes me wonder what belonging to a place means. Charles died a Russian in Paris. Viktor called it wrong and was a Russian in Vienna for fifty years, then Austrian, then a citizen of the Reich, and then stateless. Elisabeth kept Dutch citizenship in England for fifty years. And Iggie was Austrian, then American, then an Austrian living in Japan. You assimilate, but you need somewhere else to go. You keep your passport to hand. You keep something private.” (Page 326).
We also don’t know the names of the crafters who made the netsuke and we realise that those who bought these trinkets in the 19th century didn’t care to know them. It was Iggie who had the netsuke assessed in Tokyo in the 1970s and then some of the carvers regained their names. De Waal says: “When I go to my cabinet I find four small tortoises climbing on each other’s back. I look up the number on Iggie’s list and it is by Tomokazu. It is made from boxwood, the colour of a caffe macchiato.” (Page 327).