Saturday, February 4, 2012

The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund De Waal

In The Hare With Amber Eyes, Edmund De Waal narrates the rise and fall of his maternal family over decades and countries.  His mother was one of the members of the Ephrussi family.  The Ephrussi were Russian grain traders who became wealthy and branched into banking and art collections.  They owned grand mansions and banks in Paris, Vienna and later lived in Japan.

The book starts with the story of the French branch.  Charles Ephrussi was an art collector, dandy and ladies' man, living with the rest of the family in a mansion in Paris and seen in all the best circles.  One of his early collections was a set of 274 netsuke; the Japanese ivory miniatures carved to illustrate animals, daily life memorabilia such as logs or a sheaf of grain, and the inhabitants of the country.  He later gave this stunning collection as a wedding gift to a couple in his family from the Austrian branch, and the netsuke moved to Vienna for their next home.

In Vienna, Viktor and Emmy Ephrussi lived the life of fabulously wealthy Austrians; days filled with social visits and clubs and business relationships; the nights filled with society dinners and balls.  The children of this couple were entranced with the netsuke, which lived in Emmy's dressing room and which the children were allowed to play with as they watched their mother dress for evenings out.  But this fabled existence was shattered by the German invasion and conquer of Austria in World War II.  In a manner of days, the entire Ephrussi fortune was distributed to various German strongholds as the family was forced to sign over everything and finally managed to flee the country.  Imagine the surprise after the war when one of the children returned and found that the netsuke had miraculously survived.

The next home for the collection was in Japan, where they had been created.  Iggie, who had become a fashion designer after fighting with the Americans in the war, settled in Japan and lived there for many decades.  His nephew, Edmund De Waal, visited him there and had a close relationship with him.  De Waal, a potter who lived in England, appreciated the artistry of the netsuke and Iggie left the collection to him.  The netsuke now reside in England with De Waal.

De Waal has written a splendid history of his family, using art to tie together the generations and the various branches of this illustrious family in various countries.  The chapter in which the family is made destitute by the Nazis brings home the horror of that time in a way that dry history books cannot.  This book is recommended for art lovers, for history lovers, and for anyone interested in a marvelous read.

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