I’ve just finished reading The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal. It was highly recommended by my cousin, Peggy, and it won the 2010 Costa Biography Prize and was a Sunday Times best seller. I dutifully bought a copy and read in during a recent trip to Sicily. In many ways it is a fascinating book.
The hare in the title is a small ivory netsuke from a collection acquired by the author’s great grandfather’s cousin in Paris in the second half of the 19th century. Netsuke are small, precious, hand-carved and polished figures of animals and people, made in Japan by skilled craftsmen of ivory or unique hard wood, like boxwood. The collector, Charles Ephrussi (born 1849), was from an extremely wealthy Jewish family originating in the Ukraine. The family made their money buying and selling grain from the Ukraine and later in a banking empire. The story traces the lives and life styles of the family from Odessa in the Ukraine to Paris to Vienna to Tokyo to London (where the author now lives) alongside the collection of 264 netsuke that were passed through the family. The collection is quite extraordinary in that all 264 pieces of the original collection have survived several transfers between family members, including temporary custody under the mattress of a ladies maid during the Nazi occupation. The pieces, while extremely valuable as a collection were also very precious to their various custodians.
But it is not the netsuke which take centre stage in this story, which is really about the lives (good times and bad) of the family members. Particularly fascinating are the descriptions of the life styles in the second half of the 19th century and at the beginning of the 20th century. They are life styles which we would not recognise today. For the family, things started to go very wrong with the rise to power of the Nazis. But post-war, with family members scattered through Europe, America and Japan, lives became stable and even improved.
The book strikes one as a very learned biography. It is erudite, and colourfully descriptive, with an extensive vocabulary and frequent phrases in French or German. But it is the descriptions of people’s daily habits, their attitudes, priorities, activities, dress, etc., in the various cities over a period of 15 decades which are most fascinating.
The family characters are real, but they seem suitably distant and untouchable. We know them from a distance. The descriptions of settings and the author’s reflections on what he has learned are sometimes too copious, but I suppose the author wants to immerse us in the results of his very extensive research, from which he, himself, took great pains and satisfaction. In fact, I find it rather startling that De Waal was able to take two years away from his family (married with three children) and his occupation (world-famous ceramic artist) to do all the necessary research. But he deserves our thanks for creating a fascinating biography and a literary treat.