A while ago I had a book recommendation from madambeetroot (see, sometimes I do write down who tells me things!) for The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal. It's sort of a different view of art looting than I'm used to, because it's not just about the looting but about the history and a really large context for the items.
It's an incredibly dense book, though a much faster read than I initially thought it would be. Edmund de Waal uses an art collection, and specifically a collection of Japanese netsuke figures, as the central theme of the book, but it's also about the history of his family since the late 19th century, what it was like to survive the first world war and the start of the second in Vienna, and what it meant to be Jewish in Europe in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
So, there's a lot to deconstruct, and I'm going to do nearly none of that, because I do not have the brains. I had to keep flipping back to the family tree in the front of the book to keep everyone straight. But it is a fascinating book to read.
How objects are handed on is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you. Or because it was given to me. Because I bought it somewhere special. Because you will care for it.
-- p. 17
It is a discreetly sensual act of disclosure, showing their [art] pieces together in public. And assembling these lacquers also records their assignations: the collection records their love-affair, their own secret history of touch.
The book is, in part, the love story between Edmund de Waal's great-uncle Ignace, the holder of the netsuke at the start of the book, and his partner of forty-one years, Jiro Sugiyama. The netsuke were brought to France by Charles Ephrussi, a member of a large banking and grain-speculation family; he collected Japanese art as a sort of bonding ritual with his (married) lover, Louise Cahen d'Anvers. They were given to Charles's cousin Viktor as a wedding gift, and thus made their way to Vienna. Eventually Ignace inherited them, and took them to Japan when he moved there and fell in love with a young Japanese man named Jiro. It's a lovely loop, and it's a very well-told story.
The Ephrussi family was incredibly wealthy and well-known in all their branches (England, France, Austria and Russia), and the book is a sort of sidelong biography of the clan, as well. Charles, the initial collector, was a supporter of the arts his entire life (you can even see him in the famous Luncheon of the Boating Party -- he's the chap in the back in the top hat) and Viktor, while not cut out to be a banker, nevertheless ran the Ephrussi bank in Vienna successfully for almost his entire life. The Vienna Ephrussis, of whom Ignace was the elder son and heir, weathered the first world war in Vienna, seemingly without too much incident if not without discomfort.
[Viktor] has taken up collecting incunabulae, early printed books, and his particular passion -- more intense since the crumbling of the [Austrian] Empire -- is for Roman history....Early printed Latin histories seem a characteristically abstruse thing -- and an expensive thing -- to collect, but he is interested in empires.
As Jews in Austria, however, they couldn't ride out the second war as they had the first. The night Hitler marched on Austria, their home was broken into and many of their belongings destroyed by young Nazi sympathisers. Over the next few months, they were subject to harassment, searches, and eventual if temporary imprisonment for Viktor and his youngest son, Rudolph (Ignace, by this time, had gone to New York to study "fashion and boys").
Viktor's eldest daughter, Elisabeth, was a lawyer in a time when few women even dreamed of attending university; when the Nazis began to move, she was living in Switzerland, but came to Vienna (an incredibly daring move for a female Jewish intellectual) and managed to get her remaining family to temporary safety, and then to permanent safety in England, where she joins them.
The story of how the Netsuke survived the Nazi looting of Jewish households in WWII is in some ways the climax of the book, and it's an amazing account. Throughout the story of Viktor and his wife Emmy's life in Vienna, de Waal kept mentioning Emmy's personal servant, Anna. I was confused as to why she was mentioned so prominently until I hit the point where Elisabeth came back to Vienna after the war and went to her old home, only to find it being used as offices for Allied occupation forces.
So I just took them. And I put them in my mattress and I slept on them. Now you are back, I have something to return to you.
Elisabeth finds her mother's Gentile servant Anna still living there, and Anna explains that she was forced to help the Nazis crate up all the Ephrussi belongings after the family fled. She couldn't rescue anything "of value", in terms of jewelry or silver, but she managed to sneak two hundred and sixty-odd netsuke out of their display case by putting a few in her pocket every day. She hid them in her mattress, and when the war was over she returned them to Elisabeth, since Emmy had by this time died.
Elisabeth eventually took the netsuke back to England with her, and when Ignace was considering a postwar job in Japan, she gave them to him to take with him. Ignace eventually willed them to Jiro, who promised them to Edmund when he died. And thus closes the story, with Edmund returning to his home in England to consider the history he's uncovered.
Final Verdict: It's a wonderful book, though very hard to read at times, mostly due to content rather than any problem with the prose. It's subtle and layered and well-crafted, which is even more impressive considering Edmund de Waal isn't a writer by trade. Well worth the purchase price (though admittedly I got it from the library).
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