A couple of days ago I finished reading The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal. I wasn’t quite sure what to make of it when I fist read the little blurb on the back, or whether I would even like the book. I will be honest and tell you that it took a long time for me to get into this book and when I did I found myself constantly re-reading things. Basically, if you read this make sure that you are concentrating.
This story is like Ancestry.com come to life. It follows the journey of a cabinet full of little Japanese figurines called netsuke as they make their way through a family and through history, to finally end up in the home of the author. The history commences in Paris in 1871, around 100 years before the current owner is even aware of the netsuke. It is in this opening section that we meet the Ephrussi family, whose fortunes would change drastically over the following 40 years. Originally from Odessa in Russia, this Jewish family from humble beginnings would go from grain merchants to becoming a family of bankers whose influence and power was on par with that of the Rothschild’s.
In Paris we focus on Charles Ephrussi – the “spare son” who would not be expected to go into the family business. Instead, he becomes a scholar in art and a patron of artists. He counts amongst his friends Degas, Manet and Renoir and at one stage a young Marcel Proust was his secretary and eventually a life long friend. It is Charles who first buys the netsuke, at a time when the Western world was just discovering the East and the beautiful art that was produced there. In 1899, the netsuke leave Paris and end up in Vienna, shortly before the breakout of World War I. They see the end of that war, the change of power in Austria and the rise of the anti-Semitism that would become so infamous during World War II. They are there when Hitler makes his return to the country of his birth and they are there when the Nazi’s take over Vienna and the Ephrussi family are forced to give up everything that they have worked for and flee the country. The netsuke do not leave Austria with the family and the way that they make it out of the country and back to the family is a truly remarkable story in itself and proof that while the anti-Semitic feeling was strong in the country, it was not present in all people.
After many years, the netsuke eventually end up back in Japan and from there they make a journey to England into the hands of the author and their current location.De Waal has gone to extraordinary lengths the follow these figurines through history and through his family. 2 years of research and travel around the world has certainly paid off as this book is a very solid piece of work. He has a very rich family history and I frequently found myself feeling jealous of him and the amazing people who are his ancestors. His grandmother was an inspirational woman and was the first woman to graduate from Vienna University with a law degree, which would eventually assist in her in getting her parents out of Austria at the beginning of World War II.
This second World War was most definitely the downfall of this great family. I have no doubt in my mind that if this war had not occurred, we would be most certainly banking with the Ephrussi Bank today.
There are some truly heartbreaking moments throughout this book and though the author wasn’t there, his writing is so emotive that you could be forgiven for thinking that he was. You get a real sense of the pride that he feels for his ancestors and he should be proud – this is a family who came from virtually nothing to become one of the most powerful family in Europe. This is a very interesting account of a family history and I would encourage you to take the time to read it.
RATING – 7 out of 10.
WHO SHOULD READ IT – Lovers of history, lovers of art and anyone who enjoys reading a good family history.
WHO YOU’LL LOVE – Charles Ephrussi – an interesting historical figure and I think that without his kind patronage towards young artists (such as Renoir), we may not have the beautiful pieces of art that we have today.
FAVOURITE QUOTE – “Charles bought a picture of some asparagus from Manet, one of his extraordinary small still lifes… It was a bundle of twenty stalks bound in straw. Manet wanted 800 francs for it, a substantial sum, and Charles thrilled, sent 1,000. A week later Charles received a small canvas signed with a simple M in return. It was a single asparagus stalk laid across a table with an accompanying note: ‘This seems to have slipped from the bundle.'”
- “Winter Exhibition of Netsuke Art by Jin Kuwabara” (japantimes.co.jp)