Thursday, October 18, 2012

A Family History

The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss

The Hare With Amber Eyes: 

A Family's Century of Art and Loss 

by Edmund de Waal

"As I stand in front of the museum with its stature of a wrestling Laocoon, the one that Charles drew for Victor, I realise how wrong I've been.  I thought the boys left Odessa to get their education in Vienna and in Paris.  I thought that Charles went off on his Grand Tour in order to broaden his horizons, to get away from the provinces and learn about the Classics.  But this whole city is a classical world balancing above the port." (p 343)

This book combines biography, autobiography, history, anthropology and art history. But above all The Hare with Amber Eyes is the story of a family. It is a memoir about their story over five generations as they moved around the globe from Odessa to Tokyo. It is a story of leavings and relationships intertwined with the history of Europe from the end of the nineteenth century through the end of the Second World War. It is also a story of a family whose experience and familiarity with the likes of Proust, Rilke, Japanese art, the rue de Morceau, and the society of the Ringstrasse in Vienna adorn their intimate family memories.
Edmund de Waal is the descendant of the founder of a family, the Ephrussis, that had once been as rich as the Rothschilds but saw their wealth reduced to a collection of tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings known as netsuke. His desire to discover the story of his family led him to investigate how this occurred and write this memoir. It is a beautifully written book that highlights the literary, artistic, and historical events that surround the major figures in the family. But It begins in fin de siecle Paris (where part of the family had moved after leaving Odessa) before moving to Vienna where the family would be ensconced in the Ringstrasse for the early decades of the twentieth century. All that would change with the coming of the Nazis and the destructive force of war in Europe. At their height the Ephrussi were patrons of numerous geniuses – an aunt, Elizabeth, was a correspondent of the poet Rilke. Charles features in a famous Renoir painting and bought a picture of asparagus fresh from Manet’s studio. In their story one can see evidence Thomas Mann’s principle that, in great dynasties, the first generation makes money, the next spends it on art and the final ruin of the house is the last generation who become artists.

What impressed me, as it has other readers, was the importance of art and literature in this family. This is on prominent display in the section set in Paris that describes the family's connections with the impressionist and symbolist movements. The author's own interest in art and ceramics pervades the story and insures that his search will highlight these areas. It is a search that begins in Japan with his Uncle Ignace (Iggie), who died in 1994 in Tokyo. De Waal inherits the collection of netsuke that includes "The Hare with Amber Eyes" and he proceeds to investigate the story of his family and of the netsuke collection that represents their heritage. The memoir is a tale told modestly and subtlety, and its power grows through the small moments de Waal shares as he uncovers his family's history.

The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. Picador Books, 2010.


Parrish Lantern said...

this is a book, I've been meaning to read for quite a while but haven't yet got to it.

James said...

Thanks for your comment. If you enjoy art history you will like this book.