The Hare with Amber Eyes: a Hidden Inheritance, published by Picador in 2010, was written by a world famous ceramicist, Edmund de Waal, the latter-day scion of an influential and fabulously wealthy Jewish family, the Ephrussis. De Waal’s ancestors fled Poland for Odessa, where they became the pre-eminent purveyors of Ukrainian wheat, fled Odessa for Paris, fled Paris for Vienna, and fled Vienna for England, where de Waal now lives. They ran across history to escape waves of anti-Semitism. The nooks and crannies of the family’s residences, the city streets and country paths where their houses stood, the books they read, the clothes they wore, the people they knew, are one delight of reading the book.
It is a unique kind of literature, written by a first-time author who is an artist to his fingertips but has probably never taken a writing course.
The unifying focus of the book is a collection of netsuke. Little by little, we learn that these are tiny sculptures created by Japanese artisans and collected during the japonisme craze in Paris toward the end of the 19th century, partway through this history of the Ephrussi family. The vitrine which holds these adorable, exquisite chatskis somehow survives the anti-Semitism of Dreyfus-era Paris, Hitler-era Vienna, wars, rivalries, failures, poverty, unimaginable wealth, and many poor decisions, ending up in the apartment of de Waal’s uncle, who has spent his adult life in Japan – where the netsuke came from in the first place. The meaning of this precious vitrine full of tiny objects is different to the Japanese and to Uncle Ignace.
I have read about Parisian anti-semitism in history books and in French class – I know well enough the J’accuse controversy sparked by Emile Zola, but I have never lived vicariously as a Jew in Paris at that time. The Ephrussis live in the Jewish quarters of various cities, but conscientiously assimilate, leaving behind many vestiges of their Jewish heritage, though they marry Jews from assimilated families like theirs. They become well connected and wealthy in Paris, but it all disappears in a moment, ditto Vienna. De Waal presents his family as watching it all in disbelief. Suddenly they are not invited. Suddenly they are threatened in the newspaper, all for being Jewish – surely this could not be happening here.
You know about kristallnacht and Hitler’s persecution of the Jews, but have you ever felt, as if it were in your own living room, the suddenness, the turning inside out of everything overnight, the loss of all you had, the being trapped with no escape? De Waal never blames anyone – it is too cataclysmic a loss to figure out exactly who is at fault, or even to count up all that is lost.
As a reader, the story and the way it is conveyed struck deep, especially in this time of Trump, when we say day after day, “Surely this isn’t happening” or “He can’t do that.” Yes, Hitler could, and yes, the French courts could, and yes, the Cossacks could arrive in your town, set it on fire, and kill everyone. It is possible for the agile and wealthy to escape, but today one looks around and says, “to where?”
De Waal assumes his readers will know what a netsuke is, and the meaning of “flaneurial,” or “incunabula.” He compliments the reader by assuming that the reader’s sophistication is as many-layered as his own; for example, when he says that a 19th century relative is called “le Polonais, the Pole, the waltzing boy,” he references Chopin, the Polish composer of waltzes (among other things), but the well-informed reader will have to make that connection. He throws in dozens of other linguistic and historical words and people; Nobelstock, and do you know who Pieter de Hooch is? I am speaking only for myself, but just reading the book was exhilarating because I was brought into the company of an author who assumed I have the same encyclopedic knowledge as he does. The words and referents are not showy, they are precise to the story being told.
The book is a triumph of imagination. De Waal studies family archives and photographs, and travels to the very homes his family lived in, besides becoming exhaustively familiar with the history of those places so he can place his family within them. The photographs help us to re-imagine his family, too. The fact that his family consorted with Proust, the Rothschilds, Emperor Franz Josef and many other luminaries lifts his story into the realm of myth, but really, it could be anyone’s family, moving from here to there to escape failure, disappointment, and problems with the government or law, or to embrace the wonders of their age – a house in the country, or a vitrine or bibelots from Japan. In the hall of my own apartment hangs a silk embroidery bought in 1910 when my great-grandparents traveled to China via the Siberian railroad. It wouldn’t need to be anything so wonderful; it could be a baby’s spoon or a favorite chair. We could all weave a textured tale like de Waal’s about our families, but I doubt that I could make mine quite so exquisite.