The wonders of the internet! A week ago, I wrote about the book I was reading, Charles King’s Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams. My plan was to turn to the latest installment of Robert Caro’s LBJ biography, when I finished it. But instead I’m now a fourth of the way through Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss. Why that? Because of the kind suggestion of someone who took the time to write a comment in response to my Odessa post. A complete stranger. I rarely get comments to my posts. Which is fine. I don’t expect any. But I’m grateful that I got this one. I remembered reading about de Waal’s book when it came out. Perhaps I read Walter Kaiser’s review two Octobers ago in the New York Review of Books. But I had since forgotten about it.
Here’s the publisher’s description:
In the 1870s, Charles Ephrussi assembled a collection of 360 Japanese ivory carvings known as netsuke, some comical and some erotic, none of them larger than a matchbox. The scion of a rich, respected banking family that “burned like a comet” in Parisian and Viennese society, Ephrussi was an early supporter of the impressionists; Marcel Proust was briefly his secretary and used him as the model for the aesthete and lover Swann in Remembrance of Things Past.
The Holocaust swept Ephrussi and his glorious, cosmopolitan family into oblivion, and almost the only thing that would remain of their vast empire was the netsuke collection, smuggled out of their Vienna palace (now occupied by Hitler’s theorist on the “Jewish question”) in the pocket of a loyal maid, Anna—one carving a day for a year.
In this grand story, the renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal, the fifth generation to inherit the collection, traces the story of a remarkable family and a tumultuous century. At once sweeping and intimate, A Hare with Amber Eyes is a deeply personal meditation on art, history, and family, as elegant and precise as the netsuke themselves.
And the conclusion to Kaiser’s review:
Only someone for whom objects are as meaningful as they are for Edmund de Waal could have performed his quest. Only someone with his intelligence and sensitivity could have written such a fascinating account of his journey. The reader—and, indeed, the author—of this book will probably never fully understand the compulsion that drove him to undertake that journey, and his account inevitably leaves us with unanswered questions. Just why and how did a collection of netsuke impose, as he claims, a responsibility on him to explore his family’s history? Wasn’t it, rather, an opportunity that he may, consciously or unconsciously, have been seeking? But even if it was, how then did these Japanese artifacts allow him to open the doors of his family’s European past? Hasn’t his netsuke collection come to have greater significance for him than it did for any of its previous owners? Why did he feel compelled personally to revisit the rooms in Paris, Vienna, and Tokyo where the netsuke had resided? In short, how has a collection of tiny carvings exerted such irresistible exactions and provided such poignant ancestral awareness?
At the very end of the book, when his quest has taken him geographically and historically as far as Odessa and his family’s origins, he suddenly wonders what sort of book he is writing: “I no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or is still a book about small Japanese things.” The answer, of course, is that it is about all of those things, but most of all it is the evocative account of a gifted, interesting, inquiring man in search of his historic identity.
None of this explains why I chose to read de Waal rather than the LBJ biography. All I can say is that I’m having difficulty finding the ship to board that will take me away from the borderlands of the nineteenth-and twentieth-century’s Russian and Soviet empires and on to the new world. The trouble began with Max Egremont’s Forgotten Land: Journeys Among the Ghosts of East Prussia, which led to Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands: Europe Between Hitler and Stalin, Orlando Figes The Crimean War: A History, Colin Thubron’s Shadow of the Silk Road, Thomas de Waal’s The Caucasus, Charles King’s Odessa, and now The Hare with Amber Eyes. I need to find an LBJ ancestor who emigrated from the Black or Baltic Sea to Texas and get on board with him or her.
In any case, the current book is a natural successor to the Odessa book. Early on, we learn about the origin of Edmund de Waal’s ancestral wealth, in a paragraph that could have come straight from King’s book.
Odessa was a city within the Pale of Settlement, the area on the western borders of imperial Russia in which Jews were allowed to live. It was famous for its rabbinical schools and synagogues, rich in literature and music, a magnet for the impoverished Jewish shtetls of Galicia. It was also a city that doubled its population of Jews and Greeks and Russians every decade, a polyglot city full of speculation and traders, the docks full of intrigues and spies, a city on the make. Charles Joachim Ephrussi [the author's great-great-great grandfather] had transformed a small grain-trading business into a huge enterprise by cornering the market in buying wheat. He bought the grain from the middlemen who transported it on carts along the heavily rutted roads from the rich black soil of the Ukrainian wheat fields, the greatest wheat fields in the world, into the port of Odessa. Here the grain was stored in his warehouses before being exported across the Black Sea, up the Danube, across the Mediterranean.
By 1860, the family had become the greatest grain exporters in the world.
De Waal writes beautifully about objects and touch. For instance, in introducing us to the netsuke collection that his great-grandfather acquired in Paris, de Waal discusses the vitrines in which wealthy people of the era would display their findings.
A collector friend of Charles is described in the act of placing Japanese objects in a vitrine, “like a painter applying a stroke to his canvas. The harmony is complete and the refinement exquisite… “
The vitrines exist so that you can see objects, but not touch them: they frame things, suspend them, tantalize through distance.
This is what I realise now I failed to understand about vitrines. I spent the first twenty years of my life as a potter earnestly trying to get objects out of the glass cases in which my pots were often placed in galleries and museums. They die, I’d say, behind glass, held in that airlock. Vitrines were a sort of coffin: things need to be out and take their chances away from the protection of formal display, to be liberated. “Out of the drawing-room and into the kitchen!” I wrote in a sort of manifesto. There was too much in the way. There was trop de verre, too much glass, as a great architect commented on seeing a rival Modernist’s house of glass.
But the vitrine — as opposed to the museum’s case — is for opening. And that opening glass door and the moment of looking, then choosing, and then reaching in and then picking up is a moment of seduction, an encounter between a hand and an object that is electric.
One more quote, because the story is so charming.
Charles bought a picture of some asparagus from Manet, one of his extraordinary small still lives, where a lemon or rose is lambent in the dark. 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.”