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The Hare with Amber Eyes, 2

Three weeks ago I wrote about Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss, which I had just begun, quoting 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.

I kept finding reasons to interrupt my reading of The Hare in favor of other books: Thad Ziolkowski’s new novel Wichita, his older memoir On a Wave, John Jeremiah Sullivan’s essay collection Pulphead, and finally, Gillian Flynn’s new thriller Gone Girl.

My last excuse for interrupting my reading of The Hare was that things weren’t looking too good for the Vienna branch of de Waal’s wealthy and assimilated forebears, as the twentieth century began and world wars loomed. Time to take a break and steel myself before proceeding with the inevitable pain.

On finishing Gone Girl Saturday morning, I returned to The Hare and soon discovered that de Waal’s account of his family’s Vienna years is riveting. What a story! By evening, I had finished the book’s final 200 pages.

[Spoiler alert: read no further if you want to enjoy the book without having some of the family history spelled out.]

There’s the author’s great-grandfather Viktor, the artistic member of the family who is forced to take over the Ephrussi banking interests when his older brother dies; Viktor’s younger wife Emmy, their daughters Elisabeth (the author’s grandmother) and Gisela, the son Iggie, and the much younger son Rudolf. Elisabeth is an astonishing character, leaving the pampered life of the extremely wealthy behind to get a doctorate in law and write poetry, carrying on a correspondence over several years with the great poet Rilke, moving to France, Switzerland, marrying a Dutchman (not Jewish), eventually settling together in England and becoming Anglicans. Gisela marries a Spaniard and moves to Spain. Iggie walks away from the family bank to pursue his interest in clothing design, an interest developed during the kids’ nightly visits to their mother during her pre-dinner dressing ritual. He moves to Paris, New York, and Hollywood, only to discover he isn’t sufficiently talented and continuing on to Tokyo, where he becomes a successful businessman.

Meanwhile, Viktor and Emmy find themselves trapped in Vienna with Rudolf in 1938. de Waal’s account of the Anschluss is sobering, as Hitler absorbs Austria into the Reich and Jews are immediately attacked. There’s the violence, which Viktor, Emmy, and Rudolf avoid, and there’s the law, under which they are relieved of the bank and the house, allowed to live in tiny quarters in the back end while the rest is used as offices. Their property is carefully itemized and removed. Rudolf finds safe passage to Arkansas, where he becomes a US citizen, like Iggie, and serves in the US military during the war, also like Iggie.

Viktor and Emmy head to the family country estate in Czechoslovakia, just in time to find the Nazis moving in there too. That’s when Elisabeth comes to the rescue, traveling everywhere and assembling paperwork to get her father out to England, but too late for her mother, who commits suicide.

The netsukes? We know they got out somehow, since the book opens with them in Iggie’s possession in Tokyo. But they aren’t mentioned during the Nazi cataloguing of the family belongings in Vienna. Only later do we find out how they stayed in the family, a surprise I’ll say no more about.

We learn little about the next generation. Edmund’s father Viktor becomes an Anglican clergyman. There’s a hint that the family’s Jewish roots survive in some small way: on his mother Elisabeth’s death, Viktor recites the Kaddish. In the penultimate chapter, Edmund flies to Odessa to close the circle, visiting the sites where the great Ephrussi family fortune was established.

This closes a circle for me too, since I began reading The Hare immediately after finishing Charles King’s Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams, a major theme of which was the growth and dissolution of Odessa’s Jewish community. And, of course, I have my own roots in that community, it being the one-time home of my grandmother and her family. (See my post on the Odessa book.)

By the way, the book I read prior to Odessa was The Caucasus: An Introduction, written by Thomas de Waal. I wrote about it here. Well, what do you know? Thomas makes a cameo appearance in The Hare, joining Edmund in Odessa as regional expert, guide, and translator. What’s their connection? They’re brothers. I should have figured that one out sooner. Quite a family. And quite a book.

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