My father was an inveterate collector, and over the years, he converted our house into a kind of museum. The first floor was literally filled with books, antique furniture, Oriental rugs, paintings and all of the accessories that make a space come alive. My father's taste was wide-ranging and impeccable, and best of all, none of the rooms were off-limits.
I loved almost every inch of what he managed to gather together, but there was one portion of my father's collecting world that baffled me a bit — his nearly overwhelming passion for Japanese and Chinese objets d'art, those delicate ivory, jade and wood carvings the Japanese call netsukes. My father would swoon over them.
I deeply admire many things Japanese, especially the country's literature and those films that were exported with greater frequency throughout my adolescence. But it took me a long time to develop any feeling for the often miniscule and incisively crafted pieces that so obsessed my father. I understood, even as a young child, how much artistry had gone into them, but I had much more feeling for the large American pieces of fine furniture, and especially, the many paintings that covered our walls, all of which seemed to dwarf what often looked, in these surroundings, like emphemera.
Only recently, though, did I begin to wonder how my father — a first-generation Jewish American, raised in South Philly, the son of a poor weaver — how did he know to collect such pieces? He was doubtless a well-educated, widely read individual, with an amazing intellect — he was a physician, who'd struggled heroically and single-handedly to secure himself a higher education — but those little carvings really did seem alien to my mind. How was it that he understood they were something to collect and meditate upon — which he did with frequency?
None 'Larger Than a Matchbox'
That is just one of the questions answered — indirectly — by a new, quite moving book titled The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, published recently by Farrar Straus and Giroux.
The author is by training a ceramist, whose porcelain, according to the book jacket, "has been displayed in many museums around the world … . He was apprenticed as a potter, studied in Japan, and studied English at Cambridge." He is now a professor of ceramics at the University of Westminster and lives in London with his family.
One might assume from the clues sprinkled throughout this brief bio that his book is a treatise on Eastern artistry of all sorts. But though artworks propelled him on the long journey depicted in his memoir, the central preoccupation in The Hare With Amber Eyes is the author's family history. The work's subtitle is "A Family's Century of Art and Loss."
My personal queries about collecting small Oriental figurines have been answered because the author's attempt to understand his forbears' illustrious past begins when a beloved uncle bequeaths to him a set of 264 netsukes, none of which, we are told, is "larger than a matchbox."
De Waal's forbears on his father's side were the Jewish Ephrussis, a powerful banking family during part of the 19th and 20th centuries, in Paris and Vienna, particularly; at least, that is, until the Nazis swarmed over Europe and stripped the family of its hard-won riches. All that was left of the material possessions the family had gathered were those 200-plus netsukes. Their journey — and how and why they came into the author's possession — constitutes the tale he tells so skillfully in this, his first book. If he is as good a ceramist as he is a writer, he must be excellent indeed.
The patriarch of the Ephrussis family was Charles Joachim, born in 1793 in Berdichev, Ukraine. In his 71 years, de Waal tell us, he had a remarkable success. He began by transforming his small grain-trading business, located in Odessa, into a much larger enterprise by cornering the market on wheat.
The patriarch's master plan, however, was grander than this. He wanted to build upon the contacts he'd made in business in order to transform his commodity trading house "into an international finance house." Ephrussi et Cie would become a bank, and Charles would send his children out to conquer Europe.
As the author points out, the Ephrussis were "doing a Rothschild." Just as the earlier famous banking family "had sent their sons and daughters out from Frankfurt at the start of the 19th century to colonize European capital cities, so the Abraham of my family … had masterminded this expansion from Odessa in the 1850s."
His two sons from his first marriage were enlisted. "One of the sons, my great-great-grandfather Ignace, was tasked with handling Ephrussi business in the Austro-Hungarian Empire from [the] Vienna base. Paris came next: Léon, the older son, was tasked with establishing the family and business here."
De Waal begins his actual journey into the past in Paris, since that is where the story of the netsukes begins. Leon makes a success of the bank, supported by his wife, three sons and a daughter. His two oldest boys, Jules and Ignace, work in the business, but it is understood, de Waal suggests, that Charles, the youngest, does not have the temperament for finance and so, provided with a proper allowance, he is free to do as he wishes. And what he wishes is to be an appreciator of art, a collector, a critic. (Not surprisingly, Marcel Proust used Charles as a model for Charles Swann, one of the central characters in In Search of Lost Time.)
To begin his training in connoisseurship, the real Charles secures an apartment, "gilded and clean, and empty," writes the author. "He has somewhere to come back to, a new house on a newly paved Parisian hill. He has languages, he has money and he has time. So now he sets off wandering. Like a well-brought-up young man, Charles goes south. He goes to Italy."
De Waal calls this Charles' "year away from his family, a gap year, a conventional Wanderjahr, a Grand Tour through the canon of Renaissance art." This journey, argues the author, is what turns Charles into a collector; it allows him "to turn looking into having and having into knowing."
Charles buys drawings and medallions, Renaissance enamels, 16th-century tapestries and a number of sculptures, and brings them all back home, filling up his apartment, making it an aesthetic landscape. In time, he begins writing for the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, working his way up to the post of editor. He befriends and is a patron of certain Impressionist painters long before they are famous.
He begins buying the netsukes in 1870, because Eastern art is all the rage in Paris, especially among young, wealthy, Jewish collectors. Some 30 years later — Charles would die in 1905 — he gives the collection as a wedding present to de Waal's great grandfather, Victor von Ephrussi, part of the Vienna branch of the family. Charles' favorite cousin had married the beautiful, charming and much younger Emmy Schey von Koromla. It was she who would permit her children to play with the netsukes as she dressed for evening parties. One of those children was Iggy — another Ignace! — the beloved uncle who would bequeath the pieces to de Waal.
The collection was of a piece as the Nazis marched into Vienna and incorporated Austria into the Reich, during what is called the Anschluss. These scenes are like nothing else I've ever read in Holocaust literature. They are so specific, so personal — because we have come to know the Ephrussis so well, thanks to the author's consummate skill — that they are at times unbearable to read.
How the netsuke collection was saved — because almost every other glorious thing the Ephrussis had acquired was stolen by the Nazis — is part of what is so moving about this book. This particular anecdote is also so crucial to the story de Waal has to tell that, like the solution to a complex mystery, it would be another crime to divulge any of the details.