A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Netsuke have always intrigued me – or the idea of them, as I’d never get close to them without a pane of glass between me and them – they are far too precious and valuable, even though they are made to be appreciated by touch as well as sight. The potter (gosh, I’ve just realised – another one!) Edmund de Waal inherited a collection of 264 of them, and this inheritance unlocked an amazing family history, that crossed Europe and intersected with the history of the 19th and 20th centuries.
A netsuke is a tiny piece of intricate carving, an essential if minute component of Japanese formal dress until the end of the 19th century. It is a toggle on a cord, that attaches a small bag to the belt around a kimono. From the 18th century, the fashion was for these little utilitarian items to be wonderfully carved, out of ivory or boxwood mainly but other woods too. They are meant to be a tiny piece of tactile and visual pleasure. The carvings can be of animals, or people, or familiar objects, but always with a twist – they are exciting, full of movement and energy, or funny, or sly, or mischievous, or saucy. They are precious, and sought after, and immensely vulnerable – yet these survived.
Edmund de Waal grew up aware of the existence of this collection, and the family legend of its survival, even though the great European family that possessed it finally dispersed in the catastrophe of the Anschluss in 1938. He is a potter apprenticed in the tradition of Bernard Leach, and educated in the Japanese pottery villages that inspired Leach. In Japan, he spends time with his great-uncle Iggie, who has made his home there, by way of Vienna and the USA, and by a wild coincidence taken the netsuke back home. From Iggie, he gathers shreds of the netsuke collection’s journey through time and space, crafts it into what he calls a ‘smooth’ and ‘thin’ perfectly shaped anecdote; then, dissatisfied with that, he decides to find out as much as he can about the family that guarded the netsuke for so long.
What follows is a truly wonderful memoir of passion, warmth, love and pain. De Waal’s grandmother was born Baroness Elisabeth von Ephrussi in 1900, the daughter of a Viennese banker and scion of the sprawling, powerful Ephrussi family, originally from Odessa. In the middle of the 19th century, Ephrussis became some of the most powerful grain merchants in Europe, and set up business in Paris and in Vienna, dealing in the vast grain supplies coming from the Ukraine. From that beginning, they became merchants and financiers. In Paris and in Vienna they left architectural monuments, in the Rue Monceau, and on the Ringstrasse. In each generation, there were sons and daughters of exceptional gifts. The netsuke were acquired by the Parisian Charles Ephrussi in the 1870s, and this marks the beginning of the quest to commemorate the family. There are so many rich connections – Charles, younger son and dilettante, was a connoisseur and respected art critic, and the acquisition of the netsuke shows him at the cutting edge of the taste for Japonaiseries. He befriended some of the Impressionists – and commissioned work from them, and offered them access to the Japanese art that helped form their taste. And – the first of many Eureka moments for me in this book – Charles Ephrussi knew Proust and helped advance his career, and is one very strongly recognisable model for the character of Swann.
Charles gave the netsuke collection, complete with the vitrine in which it was displayed, as a wedding present to a younger member of the Viennese branch of the Ephrussis, to Viktor and his new wife Emmy, de Waal’s great-grandparents. There, the netsuke became domesticated, the beloved playthings of the children, including the author’s grandmother. The collection stayed there until the final disaster of the Nazi takeover of Austria. The three oldest children who had played with the netsuke had grown up and moved away from Vienna. The immense riches and possessions of Viktor and his family were wrecked or appropriated by the Nazis – apart from the netsuke that were overlooked, so that the servant Anna could rescue them, a few at a time in her apron pocket, while she was meant to be packing up the possessions to be taken away, and hide them in her mattress – until the war was over, and Elisabeth returned to Vienna, to the amazing fact that they had been rescued and kept safe by a loyal friend.
From there, they travelled with Iggie, Elisabeth’s younger brother, to Japan, were inherited by his partner, Jiro, then passed to the author and their current home in London. There Edmund de Waal has an intimate relationship with them, often naming them by their decriptions – the rat catcher, the ripe medlar, the barrel maker and his half-completed barrel, the bundle of kindling. He loves to carry them round with him, feeling their shape in his pocket (and almost losing a tiger in the London Library).
This is a fantastic enough story in itself – but there is more, so much more. De Waal structures the family history beautifully around this narrative thread. From time to time these tiny, exquisite objects surface from the density of an incredibly rich mix of family secrets and public history, to tell their own tale, then disappear again. I am a sucker for research, and de Waal has done so much, unearthed so many documents and pieces of evidence and marshalled them so well (though I’d have loved a few footnotes). His reflections are fascinating on the aesthetics of collecting, the cult of bibelots and what they mean to their owners, the significance of the vitrine that houses them, of locking it to protect and claim exclusivity, of opening it to share as a hospitable or didactic act.
I am shamed that, though I’ve heard of the Rothschilds, I had never heard of the Ephrussis, a pan-European Jewish dynasty that rivalled them in its day. The difference lies in survival, and choices made. Charles lived through the age of the Dreyfuss affair and yet died loved and admired; Viktor set too great a store by assimilation into the Austro-Hungarian Empire, finding out that this left him and his family vulnerable to the changes and upheavals of the period between the First and Second World Wars. The whole narrative, up to a shattering account of the Anschluss, is a story of anti-semitic straws in the wind, more and more of them, and the wind stronger and stronger, until it blew the Ephrussis away.
This book is one of the most original I have read for a long time, beautifully and movingly written, and so rich in its layers and themes. My one error (being such a Now and Happening sort of person), was to choose the Ebook version to read. This was a big mistake. Although I am a great advocate of Ebook readers (after all, my trusty Sony reader enabled me to pack some clothes to wear on holiday this year instead of busting my baggage allowance with paperbacks) they are not yet up to making the best of an illustrated memoir like this – and/or the publishers are not thinking through all the detail that needs to go into a fully functional Ebook version. The photos are tiny, and low resolution, and, the most annoying thing, the family tree image was tiny, would not zoom on the reader, and on the computer screen proved to be such low resolution that when blown up it was completely unreadable. That caused huge difficulty, because, if ever there is a book where you need to keep a bookmark or a handy finger in the page with the family tree, it is this one.
However, I couldn’t help reflecting – this serves me entirely right. What on earth made me think that I should enjoy reading a book inspired by sensual, tactile, visual objects, without giving myself the sensual, tactile and visual pleasure of handling the physical book? Silly me.
Edmund de Waal: The Hare With Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance. Chatto and Windus, 2010. 368pp
ISBN: 9780701184179 Ebook ISBN: 9781407052472