The Hare with Amber Eyes
A Hidden Inheritance
Edmund de Waal
This is indisputably the best book you will ever read about miniature sculptures of rabbits, turtles, wolves, octopus, bats, rats, pigs, cats, horses, deer, birds, bees, humans (some in flagrante delicto, and not necessarily with other homo sapiens), demons, dogs, sumo wrestlers, monkeys, snakes, peonies, chrysanthemums, dragons, frogs and all manner of other flora and fauna that are carved in mind-boggling detail out of wood, ivory, bone, horn and whatnot, the finished pieces of which are typically no bigger than a quail egg.
And by "best book" I mean exquisite, multi-layered, heartbreaking, strange, powerful, poignant, and feel free to add any other such adjectives you wish because I don't have the time. I'm writing this review on a tortuously tight deadline and need to move on to actually discussing the book, which, to be honest, is not so much about any of the above.
The topic at its rich, substantial heart is the story of several generations of a remarkable family that owned --- still owns --- a 264 piece collection of the described objects, known as netsuke, originally a small decorative fastening device for a man's purse (kimonos had no pockets), first made in 17th century Japan, that became an art form and is widely collected by individuals and museums to this day. Some of the pieces can be worth fortunes that are thousands of times larger than a quail egg. (By the way, netsuke --- the word is both singular and plural --- is usually pronounced net-ski, with net-skei coming in second. If you wish to debate it, you will find plenty of amateur and professional phoneticists online ready for the challenge.)The Hare with Amber Eyes is an elegant, quirky, eclectic page-turner. Here's why and how:
De Waal is an acclaimed ceramicist. He works only in white. He uses the journey of the netsuke collection as the frame story for a polydimensional biography of several generations of his ancestors, the Ephrussi family. As with many such unexpectedly successful projects, de Waal doesn't merely rely on intelligence, an unusual sensibility, evocative prose and a singular story. He also has good luck on his side: His relatives were abundant, fascinating, hugely accomplished, madly productive, cultured, and lived in extraordinary (sometimes nightmarish) times. And they knew everybody.
As he describes it, de Waal's book is "the story of the ascent and decline of a Jewish dynasty, about loss and diaspora and about the survival of objects." The family began as successful grain merchants in Odessa, later relocating to Vienna where the Ephrussi Bank was established. They became extremely wealthy, and their massive home adjacent to the bank resembled a luxury hotel, inside and out. It often was the site of celebrations, formal balls, and lavish dinners generously garnished with dignitaries and celebrities. There were luxurious coaches with footmen, chaperoned daily walks through the park for the children, handsome horses and hunting parties, original paintings, tapestries, and sculpture everywhere, and an army of maids and butlers to maintain the perfection and domestic splendor.
The Ephrussis were Jews but very much a part of Viennese mainstream society despite the occasional slights, insults and disparaging asides about the dangerous reach and dark intentions of their influence. They did well indeed until a mediocre painter and failed art student, a native of Austria turned anti-Semitic, vegetarian, superstar tyrant, decided to impose Germany's hideous National Socialism on his motherland. Those of the Ephrussi family who were able to leave Austria got out with a single suitcase, if that. Somehow, the netsuke collection also escaped.The collection's first caretaker in the family was the 1870s art-critic and patron Charles Ephrussi, the Peggy Guggenheim of his day. Renoir, Moreau, Monet, Proust, Degas and various other art world luminaries were close with him and the Ephrussi's art collection became vast. "In three years," de Waal writes, "[Charles] put together a collection of forty Impressionist works --- and bought twenty more for his Bernstein cousins in Berlin. He bought paintings and pastels by Morisot, Cassatt, Degas, Manet, Monet, Sisley, Pisarro and Renoir: Charles created one of the great early collections of the Impressionists."
To research his book, de Waal had to visit places like London's National Gallery to see pictures respectfully isolated on over-spacious walls, paintings that were once hung in Charles' apartment four and five deep --- with the vitrine of netsuke nearby.
But what of the netsuke? What is the attraction, exactly? What is it about those peculiar little objects that caused this elaborate, far-flung family, sometimes despite terrific turmoil and tempestuousness (yes, de Waal treats us to affairs and sexual intrigue along with the art, sorrows, wars; he dissects personalities and relationships; does some good old-fashioned salacious dishing) to carry the collection all over the world?
Well, for starters, netsuke are not some rarefied objet, icons to be touched only by those of the aesthete priesthood --- the curatorati. It is art to be held, handled, played with by children on the carpet in the library, to be placed in a trouser pocket and rolled between the fingers absentmindedly to induce calm, and it was used as such over the decades and centuries by many members of the Ephrussi family (and no doubt a substantial percentage of the Japanese population who, don't forget, first employed the pieces to keep their purses closed). The netsuke did not hibernate in its polished glass sarcophagus for the nearly century and a half of its ownership by the Ephrussis. It lived with them and among them.
If you ever get the chance, take a netsuke in your hand, roll it in your palm, hold it close, try to imagine the intense focus, effort, artfulness, (not to mention exceptionally good eyesight) and just plain carving skill it took to make these miniature sculpture: A woman bathing leisurely in a wooden tub; a half starved wolf, its sharp spinal ridge and protruding ribs testament to its condition; a rat, its sinewy, impossibly long tail wrapped around it with balletic delicacy. Virtually every piece, it seems, is imbued with the distinctively Japanese blend of deep drama, whimsy, symbolism, grace, and a splash of the erotic here and there.Edmund de Waal, was very close to his uncle Ignace --- Iggie --- who, like many of the Ephrussis, had a varied, exotic life that found him living, at various times, everywhere from Congo to Tokyo, where he spent his last 30 years or so with his partner, Jiro. After Iggie died in 1994, de Waal went to the funeral in Tokyo, said the Kaddish in the Buddhist temple where the rites were held, then went home with Jiro to help sort out Iggie's clothes. De Waal writes, "I open the cupboards in his dressing room and see the shirts ordered by colour. As I pack the ties away, I notice that they map his holidays with Jiro in London, Paris, Honolulu and New York. . . . [later] over a glass of wine, Jiro takes out his brush and ink and writes a document and seals it. It says, he tells me, that once he has gone I should look after the netsuke. So I'm next."
In the book's preface, de Waal, contemplating the project before him, the crafting of this eccentric history about "loss and diaspora and about the survival of objects," writes, "I realize that I've been living with this netsuke business for too long. I can either anecdotalize it for the rest of my life --- my odd inheritance from a beloved elderly relative --- or go and find out what it means . . . I must sort it out now or it will disappear."
Good job of sorting, Mr. de Waal.