very once in a blue moon comes a wonderfully conceived piece of prose non-fiction. Get ready to relish Edmund de Waal’s 2010 prize-winning family biography, “The Hare with Amber Eyes.”
The story begins in 1991, in Tokyo, when young potter de Waal, a British ceramic artist, first encounters Japan’s little-known 17th-century carved miniatures known as netsuke. One of them is an ivory rendering of a hare, its eyes two dots of amber. A “startlingly pale, lovely object.” Two decades on, the object is at the center of de Waal’s book.
Though the exquisite little sculpture and lilting title suggest a pleasant trek through minor art history, the real story is about 150 years of European anti-Semitism. Researching the tiny hare leads de Waal into a genealogical dig that reveal the brutal events that impoverished and dispersed the Ephrussi, the Jewish banking and oil dynasty to which his family belonged.
When de Waal first discovered the hare he was ignorant of the prejudice that haunted his ancestors. He was in Japan to study the country’s famed pottery workshops. Once a week, he’d visit the suburban Tokyo home of his Vienna-born great uncle Ignace Ephrussi. Over dinner, Iggie told him entertaining but sketchy anecdotes of his long-ago Viennese years. He then showed de Waal “my part of what was left of our family things,” a glass showcase containing 264 intricately detailed netsuke.
Though devised as simple toggles, they were painstakingly carved, in ivory or wood. De Waal recognized a world of objects to which he could aesthetically relate. Like the netsuke, his hand-thrown pots and beakers had a tactile dimension.
When Iggie died he left the Japanese figures to his great-nephew artisan in London and de Waal’s children began playing with them, as Iggie once had. But their presence made him curious. Why did the Ephrussi amass this esoteric collection and pass it down through generations? All he knew his Jewish family was that it owned banks that extended well beyond the family base in Odessa. The Ephrussis were constantly on the move.
He also knew the family had lost its widespread fortune. Somehow. His British-wed grandmother Elizabeth never mentioned her Vienna youth and her will ordered the burning of her private letters and papers. Iggie had been just as elusive. What bitter memories had silenced Elizabeth and Iggie?
To research his forbearers, De Waal traveled to Paris, Vienna, Kovesces, and Odessa. Suddenly, the charming sculptures begin to produce a thin narrative thread, with de Waal’s investigation revealing a long and unrelenting history of racial bigotry.
In Parisian libraries he discovered art journals that contained articles by Charles Ephrussi, his great-great uncle. Socially ambitious, a rich banker and an art collector, Charles commissioned works from famed painters Moreau, Renoir, Degas. He moved into the secure heights of Parisian society. Following the French craze for japonisme he acquired the netsuke. When Empire fashion became the new rage, assiduous assimilator Charles shipped all 264 figures to his banker nephew Viktor Ephrussi in Vienna as a wedding present.
Perhaps Charles should have known that moving with the Parisian glitterati didn’t make you an insider. Not if you were Jew. In 1894 the Dreyfus case split France. Charged with a murder he didn’t commit, Dreyfus was sentenced to death based on the period’s ant-Semitic bias. Charles was labeled a “Dreyfussard.” Renoir called his ex-patron “a dirty Jew.” Gala invitations and exclusive club memberships dried up. So did friends. Charles, transformed into a disgraced outcast, died of heart failure.
Meanwhile, the netsuke found a new home, in Viktor’s monumental Viennese mansion. Not quite stylish there either, they were dispatched to wife Emily’s dressing room. As toys for Iggie and their other children. Grown, these children left for America, for England, anywhere that wasn’t Austria. By 1930 the Ephrussi’s mansions and furnishings had been sold on the cheap and “all quite legally.” To Nazi sympathizers. The family’s remaining bank assets were seized by the Nazis following the German annexation of Austria in 1938. Viktor and Emily fled in poverty. Only the netsuke were saved, tiny enough to fit in an elderly servant’s pocket. She would take home one each night.
After World War II, Grandmother Elizabeth traveled to Vienna, recuperating a pittance of the Nazi-confiscated fortune. The netsuke went to one-time fashion designer Ignace. Who rubbed them in his fingers, as memory.
In finely chiseled prose that deliberately leaves drama to character, de Waal recounts the varied and suffered human stories of a lost family. And creates a deeply disturbing masterpiece.