Sunday, June 30, 2013

The Hare With Amber Eyes

Updated July 21
This is one of the best books I've ever read

This memoir by Edmund de Waal is enjoyable on several levels. It is a captivating account about a family, the Ephrussis, that once enjoyed the fame of the Rothschilds, but, mysteriously, has vanished from history. It is a history of art collecting written by a ceramicist. Best of all, it is beautifully written. One of the blurbs alludes to W.G. Sebald and I had already recognized the similarity of this memoir to the dreamy fiction or fact narratives of this German writer turned Englishman (though presumably De Waal's is all fact). The author manages the same blend of specific and universal, and in this case the specific is also reminiscent of Patrick Leigh Fermor's virtuoso use of language to describe places far removed in space and time.

De Waal's tracing the Ephrussi family to the Rue de Monceau and Parc Monceau, which I got to know well when I worked for Edouard Cointreau there, was icing on the cake for me. All the reading I've done about the Rothschilds and the history of finance also makes this memoir resonate in a special way.

I have to suspend my reading for a week or two to focus on a book for book club, but I wanted to put down some of these initial impressions while they were fresh. I'll add to them when I finish the book.

Update July 21

The charming Paris story continues in Vienna as De Waal moves on from Proust to Musil and Roth, evoking a magical history of cafes and society as his collection of Netsuke move from Paris to "Zionstrasse" in Vienna and the Palais Ephrussi on Schottengasse and Ringstrasse.

It turns out that this idyll of wealth and luxury is building to a climax that is as moving as it is horrifying, as De Waal chronicles in his measured understatement the consequences of the Anschluss and the humiliation and expropriation of his rich ancestors. The exile of his great-grandfather Viktor and his wife Emmy is moving, as is the narration of the persecution of Jews that brought an end to the Vienna of Freud and Mahler. The pitiful fate of an assimilated Jewish family that proved its loyalty by keeping its money and its life in a city threatened by Nazism is moving. The poignancy of how the Gentile servant secreted the little Japanese figurines and preserved them for the family is a miniature act of courage and generosity in a world turned upside down.

De Waal mentions that the Ephrussi summer home in Kovecses is recalled by Leigh Fermor during his trip across Europe in 1938. The Ephrussi bank figures in The Radetzky March. The Ephrussis in fact are a thread through European history, a transnational family that mocks the artificial divisions of borders and nations.

The short episodes of the netsuke with his great-uncle Iggie and their move to De Waa;'s house in London are followed by an short and elegaic visit to Odessa. Elegy in fact describes the book as a whole, for it is a vivid portrayal of a ghostly parallel universe, now forgotten, where fame and wealth were always hedged by a fragile acceptance in society.

It is an epic story, told with modesty and understatement through the narrow lens of a collection of Japanese sculptures and what they witnessed.

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