The Secret History of Things and Why We Have Them: A Review of The Hare With Amber Eyes

To commemorate special occasions my granny would send me a family heirloom, and somewhere on the item or in its container would be a sticker bearing her near illegible script stating who originally owned it. For my high school graduation I received a necklace of that has a gold flower pendant with an amethyst in the center that once belonged to my great-grandma Edvina. When I wear it I think of her and her life on a Nebraska farm, but that’s about it. I never wondered who gave it to her or if she bought it, who made it, when it was made, or what the significance of it was to her. Was it a special treasure and that’s why my granny kept it? Or was it kept because my granny kept everything (and kept it all meticulously labeled and categorized, too)? Had I thought of these questions, I could have asked my granny when she was still alive and been rewarded with another story of Life On The Farm (my favorites).

When Edmund de Waal received the family heirloom of 264 Japanese netsuke upon the death of his great-uncle Iggie, he did have these questions. Through his conversations with Iggie, he knew the timeline of the netsuke: they were first purchased in Paris in the late 19th century by Charles, his great-grandfather’s cousin; at the turn of the century the netsuke end up in Vienna in his great-grandparents home; after WW II, the netsuke briefly reside with his grandmother in London before making the trek back to their homeland to be a part of Iggie’s home in Tokyo. Most of us would be pretty satisfied with that much information, but de Waal, a renown ceramicists who makes small pots, understands that what makes the things we have special is the fact that they histories that others do not know. He wondered how these netsuke, small, intricate boxwood and ivory carvings of animals, people, and scenes from nature ended up in his family in the first place. Why did Charles begin the collection? What role did the netsuke play in his life? Why did he give them away? How did they fit in with the family in Vienna? Where were they kept? How were they used, if at all? How did they survive WW II when the great majority of what the family owned was destroyed?

In his book The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, de Waal painstakingly delves into the history of his family’s netsuke. The result is a narrative that spans over a century of the Ephrussi, a family of Russian Jews who settled across Europe and established a banking empire. de Waal’s research included everything from reading Proust’s novels (Proust was a colleague of Charles Ephrussi and he created characters based him), newspapers, journals, other popular books of the times, ledgers, diaries, letters, poems, Nazi records, and more. This allows him to not only follow the history of the netsuke, but to recreate the lives of his relatives. This intimate glimpse allows the reader to become a voyeur and live vicariously through each family member; history is brought up close and made real.

The parts of the book are divided by where the netsuke resided and each studies the role of the netsuke in that world. Part One explores Paris during the rise of Impressionism and japonisme; the netsuke are en vogue and are individual pieces of art. They are often the favorites of the artists and literati during Charles Ephrussi’s salon discussions. Part Two examines how the netsuke are transformed from pieces of art into trinkets when they move to Viktor and Emmy Ephrussi’s palais along the Ringstrasse in Vienna. Emmy and her three children create stories around the netsuke as Emmy is dressed by her lady’s maid Anna for the multitude of balls, dinners, teas, and operas she attends. In Part Three the netsuke are literally missing– from the house and the narrative. An author does not need to create a sense of foreboding for a Jewish family living in 1930’s Austria; history tells us what happened. Still the reader hopes the narrative takes a flight of fancy where Hitler does not exist and the Ephrussi family is spared. But, as always, history marches on. It is astonishing how quickly the Ephrussi’s life and legacy is obliterated, but it is equally astonishing what is saved and how it is saved. After the war, the netsuke re-emerge. In Part Four the netsuke and Iggie begin their new life in Japan, where Iggie rebuilds his life among the ruins of Tokyo. In Part Five, de Waal revisits Tokyo and London and make the pilgrimage to Odessa, where the Ephrussi wealth began. He reflects on what his past means and his role in the netsuke’s future.

I highly recommend this book. If you are interested in art, history, culture, WWII, Downton Abbey, a lost way of life, this book is for you.

Readers, have any of you read The Hare With Amber Eyes? What did you think of it? Have you read anything similar? Please share!

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