Monday, October 3, 2016

Follow the White Hare

The Hare with Amber Eyes (Illustrated Edition): A Hidden Inheritance

I just finished reading this book a day or so ago, and I was knocked out by it.  I had no idea where it would go – I simply like netsuke – and I was amazed.  I’ve never been much interested in European history.  I was inoculated against it by an especially bad world history teacher (who was also a coach – hint, hint).

But this is something else.  De Waal manages to create prose that is continuously inviting and satisfying.  Unlike the dry recitations of names, date and place-names that historical treatises tend to be, this is rich, moisturized storytelling that would make Scheherazade envious.  And there’s a good bit about netsuke, as well.

The volume is generously provided with illustrations, photographs and maps, which is why you must read the illustrated version.


 Here is an Amazon review by R. G. Saunders on September 23, 2010
This is a mesmerising many-layered book. The fascinating narrative of the fabulously wealthy Jewish Ephrussi family moves through the decades from commercial Odessa to the Paris of the Impressionists and artistic salons to the brutal destruction of the Anschluss of 1938 in Vienna and a familial diaspora over three continents. Parallel to this, we follow with the author his own emotive journey to reclaim the lives lived in the vanished rooms of his forbears. This he does sensitively and successfully, imagining his way there through archives, letters and contemporary fiction. He visits all the great houses and, in Odessa, tasting the dust of the demolished palace rooms, he rejoices in the survival of the Ephrussi family emblem on a last remaining banister.

Such evocative writing and small discovered detail make this a story we want to follow with him and we find that this is not, after all, a tale of acquisition but of loss. The 264 tiny Japanese carvings (netsuke) bought in the 1870s in Paris are all that now remain of the family possessions. We also come to understand another loss: the Ephrussis no longer felt defined by their Jewish origins: artists and socialites passed through their grand salons. It is shocking to discover that even those who enjoyed their patronage were casually anti-Semitic. It is hard to read the vivid account of the abrupt violence of the Nazis as they took (almost) every precious possession from them, leaving them, in the end, only their Jewishness.

The netsuke are the beginning and happy ending of the story. Their exquisite detail is emblematic of this beautifully crafted book and its touching story of the individuals through whose hands they passed. One or other of them seems, like a rosary, to accompany the writer in his travels: a constant reminder to keep faith with his past.

 The author with some of his netsuke

You can pick up a used copy at for as little as four bucks, plus shipping. 

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