Jewish Journal

The Jewish story behind 264 netsukes

by Jonathan Kirsch

Posted on Jul. 27, 2011 at 6:03 pm

Memoir has come to be regarded nowadays as a highly corrupted literary form, but we are reminded of how rich and meaningful a memoir can be in “The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance” by Edmund de Waal (Picador, $16.00). First published in 2010 to great critical acclaim, the book is now available in a handsome paperback edition, and it’s nothing less than a treasure trove between covers.

The book begins in contemporary Japan, where the author’s aging great-uncle regales him with family stories set in Vienna in the years before World War I.  “Growing old in Japan is wonderful,” says Uncle Iggie Ephrussi. “Living the longest is hard.”  When Iggie dies in 1994, the author inherits his uncle’s collection of 264 netsuke figurines and, in a real sense, the old man’s archive of memories, too.  “How an object is handed on is all about story-telling,” muses de Waal. “There is no easy story in legacy.”

De Waal embarks upon a journey through time and space to reconstruct the history of Iggie’s netsuke collection and soon finds himself composing a chronicle of the Ephrussi family, which originated in Odessa and sent its scions to the great cities of Europe in the 19th century to expand their grain-export business.  “They were Jews with their own coat of arms,” explains de Waal. “And each deal struck with a government, each venture with an impoverished archduke, each client drawn into a serious obligation with the family would be a step towards even greater respectability, a step further from those wagons of wheat creaking in from the Ukraine.”

The author leads us from Odessa to Vienna to Paris, all the while conjuring up the experiences of his distant relations in prose so resonant that it achieves a kind of musicality.  Yet the book is also highly decorated with the findings and leavings of an old family — businesses and careers, marriages and love affairs, the things they acquired and the things they lost.  De Waal pauses now and then to reflect on what his research reveals, as when he learns that his relative, Charles Ephrussi, the founder of the netsuke collection, conducted an affair with a married woman: “I want to be bourgeois,” he confesses, “and ask how you find time for five children, a husband and a lover?”

Above all, de Waal is attuned to the powerful inner experience of the collector of objects. As Charles begins to purchase Japanese arts and crafts, the author sees in them “an air of eroticized possibility, evoking not simply the shared encounter of lovers over a lacquer box or ivory bibelots” but also “props for dressing up, role-playing, the sensuous reimagining of the self.”  And he quotes de Maupassant on the subject: “The bibelot is not only a passion, it is a mania.”

Charles collected far more than netsuke.  He owned 40 Impressionist works, and he was important enough as a patron of the arts to earn a place in a Renoir painting, “The Luncheon of the Boating Party.” He even caught the eye of Proust, who describes the figure in the painting as “clearly out of place” because he wears a top-hat, but de Waal insists that “Charles Ephrussi — or at least the back of Charles’s head — enters art history.”

When Charles sends the netsuke collection as a wedding present to a cousin in 1899, the gift provides an opportunity for de Waal to travel to the Palais Ephrussi in Vienna, “certainly not a house for a wandering Jew.”  We’ve already seen that anti-Semitism afflicted the Ephrussi family in Paris, but now it takes on an even uglier aspect and even for Jews like the Ephrussis, who have been raised to the nobility and are now known as “von Ephrussi.”

“In 1899, the year that the netsuke arrived in Vienna,” de Waal points out, “it was possible for a deputy in the Reichsrat to make speeches calling for Schussgelder — bounties — for shooting Jews.”

Now the possession of valuable objects begins to take on new and different meanings. “To get food, you part with more and more,” the author writes of the worst days of First World War. “Objects are loosened from your home and become currency.” Yet a daughter of the Ephrussi family, at the age of sixteen, is permitted to get her own books bound in “half-morocco with marbled covers” — “a rite of passage, a way of marking that her reading is significant.” But times are not good for the Jews, as de Waal allows us to see, and especially not for wealthy ones.

“Loud-voiced people were arriving from all parts of the world to buy banks, factories, jewels, carpets, work of art or landed estates,” complained one observer in post-World War I era, “and the Jews were not the last ones to come.”

Worse is to come, of course. Uncle Iggie now re-enters the story, a young man starting out in the banking business in Frankfurt in the early 1930s — an inauspicious time and place for a Jewish banker — but ending up as a fashion designer in Paris and New York.  “It was only when I found his design of cruise-wear based on US Navy signal flags that I realized how much fun Iggie was having,” writes de Waal. “It shows girls dressed in shorts and skirts being run up the rigging by magnificent swarthy sailors, while the code helpfully informs us that the girls are wearing signals for ‘I need to have personal communication you,’ ‘You are clear of all danger,’ ‘I am on fire,’ and ‘I cannot hold out any longer.’”

Back in Vienna, however, the Ephrussi family has fallen into the ungentle hands of the Gestapo, and its property is “Aryanized.”  Now the author shows how possessions can take on life-and-death implications, and the pleasure that he has previously taken in making inventories and providing lush descriptions of the beautiful things that the Ephrussis owned turns into a Kafkaesque horror.

“[E]very single drawer is wrenched open, the contents of every cupboard pulled out, every single ornament is scrutinized,” writes de Waal. “And all these things, a world of things – a family geography stretching from Odessa, from holidays in Petersburg, in Switzerland, in the South of France, Paris, Kövecses, London, everything – is gone through and noted down. Every object, every incident, is suspect. This is a scrutiny that every Jewish family in Vienna is undergoing.”

And what of the netsuke collection?

The author omits the collection from the inventory of goods that are looted from the Ephrussi family by the Nazis, and these precious objects disappear from our view.  At the end of the book, however, the mystery of their disappearance is solved. I won’t reveal it here except to observe that history has provided de Waal with a poignant and unforgettable ending to his saga — “a resistance to the sapping of memory,” as he writes in a phrase that elegantly sums up all that he has accomplished in “The Hare With Amber Eyes.”

Jonathan Kirsch, author and publishing attorney, is the book editor of The Jewish Journal. He blogs at www.jewishjournal.com/twelvetwelve and can be reached at books@jewishjournal.com.

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