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Reading groups: Family history in the glass cabinet

by
29 June 2011

John Arnold on The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

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IN A chapter on Boris Pasternak in the book Life Conquers Death (Zondervan, 2007), I stated that his family background “was that of the cultured and cosmopolitan Jews of Odessa”. My old friend and fellow retired dean, the Very Revd Victor de Waal, wrote to say that his family background was that of the cultured and cosmopolitan Jews of Odessa, and that his son Edmund (right) was writing a book about them — the Ephrussi banking dynasty, once rivalled only by the Rothschilds.

I was intrigued, and eager to know more about these people who seemed to be both mysteriously exotic and also deeply embedded in the Church of England. This won­der­ful book answers my curiosity, and opens up fascinating perspec­tives into the history and culture of Russia, France, Austria, and Japan in the 19th and 20th centuries. This is achieved by means of a literary device, which I found at first arti­ficial, but it was eventually vin­dicated by de Waal’s skill in con­struc­­tion, fluency in composition, and mastery of evocation.

He purports to tell the story, not of a family, but of a collection of net­suke, little Japanese carvings, small enough to be carried in the pocket and felt by fingertips, precious enough to be displayed in cabinets. In an autobiographical preface, we learn of his commitment, from an early age, to pottery, punctuated by reading English at Cambridge.

He goes to Japan, where he meets his great-uncle, Iggie, from whom he eventually inherits the collection; and he starts to ask his grandmother, Elisabeth, about the family. After two years’ research, he does not want to write a conventional, literary, what he calls “thin”, chronicle, but rather something with the plasticity of solid objects in space, such as pots and netsuke. De Waal synthesises his craft apprenticeship in pottery with his arts studies in Cambridge. He says: “How objects are handed on is all about story-telling.” I would say: “And, in this case, vice versa.”

The author takes us first to the Paris of the Second Empire, where the Ephrussi have arrived, in both senses of the word, from obscure and provincial Berdichev in the Russian Pale, via grain-trading in Odessa and banking in Vienna.

Some members of the family are making money (I would have liked to know more about just how); others, like the handsome and charm­ing Charles, are spending it — on grandiose houses and beautiful mistresses, and on the collecting of works of art at a time when Japon­aiserie is all the rage.

In the 1870s, Charles acquires 264 netsuke. He is also a considerable scholar, connoisseur, and patron of painting, supporting the Impres­sion­ists from the start. De Waal evokes the brilliance as well as the opulence, the erotic and plutocratic excess, the literary and artistic splen­dour of fin de siècle Paris, against a background of increasing anti-Semitism, by using sensory percep­tion to unlock memories of time past. Charles Ephrussi was a model for Charles Swann in Proust’s Swann’s Way.

Meanwhile, grandmother Elisa­beth’s branch of the family is con­solidating its position in Vienna, building an even more spectacular palace on the splendid Ringstrasse, rivalling the new university, parlia­ment, and opera buildings of the same period. The netsuke travel there as a wedding gift.

The Ephrussi take their place in the uniquely seminal Vienna of the early 1900s, where practically all the writers and poets, artists and com­posers, scientists, psychiatrists, and philosophers who are to transform the 20th century might be strolling along the Prater on the same spring morning. They might also bump into Lenin in exile, and the young art student Adolf Hitler, very much at home in the increasingly fetid anti-Semitism of the city.

The story of the Anschluss, or in­tegration of Austria (part enforced, part voluntary and indeed enthu­siastic) into the Third Reich, with its disastrous consequences for the Ephrussi family, makes painful read­ing. The Kafkaesque and weasel-worded chicanery of the Austrian authorities in hindering the restitu­tion of their property after the war is almost as heartbreaking as the crude brutality of the deaths, incarcera­tions, and expulsions in 1938. It brought to mind my student days in the Vienna of 1956, still the murky world of The Third Man.

Elisabeth gains a doctorate in law (the first ever given to a woman by the University of Vienna), writes poetry, and corresponds with Rilke. She escapes and marries the Dutch­man Hendrik de Waal, whose pa­rents (respectively Jewish and Dutch Reformed) had married in the Anglican Church in Paris, and settles eventually in Tunbridge Wells.

The netsuke are saved in the pocket of the brave and loyal Gentile servant, Anna, whose full name the author still does not know. They make their way back to Japan, and “become Japanese again” in the care of great-uncle Iggie, an improbable character even by Ephrussi stan­dards, but vivid and credible.

Post-war Tokyo is evoked as skilfully and elegiacally as Paris and Vienna. Iggie gives the netsuke to his young partner and eventual adopted son, Jiro. Their relationship is depicted with just the right mixture of reticence and straightforward­ness. Jiro bequeaths them to the author.

They rest now in his London home, in a second-hand vitrine from the V&A. De Waal says: “I want our children to get to know them.”

After Paris, Vienna, and Tokyo, I wanted to know more about Odessa. So, fortunately, did the author. In its penultimate (and my favourite) chapter, the book takes us back to its origins, demonstrating in a kind of rondo mastery of form as well as of language. This is truly what Chaucer might have called the Potter’s Tale.

The Very Revd John Arnold is a former Dean of Rochester and of Durham.

The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal is published by Vintage at £8.99 (CT Bookshop £8.10); 978-00-9953955-1.

THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES — SOME QUESTIONS

Reviews of this book have described it as “brilliantly constructed”, a “book of astonish­ing originality”, and a “perfect book”. Do you share these opinions? How would you de­scribe The Hare with Amber Eyes?

THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES — SOME QUESTIONS

Reviews of this book have described it as “brilliantly constructed”, a “book of astonish­ing originality”, and a “perfect book”. Do you share these opinions? How would you de­scribe The Hare with Amber Eyes?

Did anything surprise you about the story of the netsuke?

Did anything surprise you about the story of the netsuke?

“I no longer know if this book is about my family or memory or myself, or is it still a book about small Japanese things.” Would you have preferred a straightforward family history?

“I no longer know if this book is about my family or memory or myself, or is it still a book about small Japanese things.” Would you have preferred a straightforward family history?

The author is a potter — is there anything in the way he tells his story which suggests that he is a craftsman?

The author is a potter — is there anything in the way he tells his story which suggests that he is a craftsman?

What is it about the netsuke that de Waal found so fascinating? Do you have objects in your possession that have intriguing stories attached to them?

What is it about the netsuke that de Waal found so fascinating? Do you have objects in your possession that have intriguing stories attached to them?

Why were the Jews so unpopular in Paris and Vienna? Are there any parallels in today’s world?

Why were the Jews so unpopular in Paris and Vienna? Are there any parallels in today’s world?

None of the family is interested in Judaism as a religion, yet, when Elisabeth dies, “Victor, the clergyman in the Church of England . . . said Kaddish for his mother in the parish church.” Why?

None of the family is interested in Judaism as a religion, yet, when Elisabeth dies, “Victor, the clergyman in the Church of England . . . said Kaddish for his mother in the parish church.” Why?

Anna played an important part in keeping the netsuke in the family. How do you feel about the fact that nothing is known of her once she has to leave the Ephrussi family?

Anna played an important part in keeping the netsuke in the family. How do you feel about the fact that nothing is known of her once she has to leave the Ephrussi family?

A number of famous people, such as Proust, Renoir, and Rilke, crossed paths with the members of the Ephrussi clan. Does this make the story more interesting?

A number of famous people, such as Proust, Renoir, and Rilke, crossed paths with the members of the Ephrussi clan. Does this make the story more interesting?

“It makes me wonder what belonging to a place means” (page 326). How would you respond, both in the light of your own life, and for the Ephrussi family?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 August, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa. It is published by Bloomsbury at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-1-4088-0948-8.

Author notes

Susan Abulhawa was born to refugees from Palestine whose land had been seized by Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967. She grew up in Kuwait, Jordan, and East Jerusalem, before moving to the United States as a teenager. She graduated from the University of South Carolina as a biomedical scientist, the field in which she then worked. In 2001, she estab­lished Playgrounds for Palestine, a charity that seeks to provide opportunities for Palestinian children to play. She now lives with her daughter in Pennsylvania. Mornings in Jenin is her first book.

Book notes

In 1948, the Abulheja family is driven from its home, and re­moved to a refugee camp in Jenin. Their six-month-old son is snatched from his mother’s arms by an Israeli who takes him to his wife. They bring him up as their own child. In the refugee camp, the youngest child, Amal, is born. The story of her family is told through her eyes. Her older brother sacrifices every­thing for the Palestinian cause; unwittingly, the two brothers end up as enemies. Amal moves to the United States, where she brings up her daughter without the support of family.

Books for the next two months:

September: Pilgrimage: The journey to remembering our story by Andrew Jones

October: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

“It makes me wonder what belonging to a place means” (page 326). How would you respond, both in the light of your own life, and for the Ephrussi family?

IN OUR next reading-groups page, on 5 August, we will print extra information about the next book. This is Mornings in Jenin by Susan Abulhawa. It is published by Bloomsbury at £7.99 (CT Bookshop £7.20); 978-1-4088-0948-8.

Author notes

Susan Abulhawa was born to refugees from Palestine whose land had been seized by Israel in the Six-Day War in 1967. She grew up in Kuwait, Jordan, and East Jerusalem, before moving to the United States as a teenager. She graduated from the University of South Carolina as a biomedical scientist, the field in which she then worked. In 2001, she estab­lished Playgrounds for Palestine, a charity that seeks to provide opportunities for Palestinian children to play. She now lives with her daughter in Pennsylvania. Mornings in Jenin is her first book.

Book notes

In 1948, the Abulheja family is driven from its home, and re­moved to a refugee camp in Jenin. Their six-month-old son is snatched from his mother’s arms by an Israeli who takes him to his wife. They bring him up as their own child. In the refugee camp, the youngest child, Amal, is born. The story of her family is told through her eyes. Her older brother sacrifices every­thing for the Palestinian cause; unwittingly, the two brothers end up as enemies. Amal moves to the United States, where she brings up her daughter without the support of family.

Books for the next two months:

September: Pilgrimage: The journey to remembering our story by Andrew Jones

October: The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins

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