Sometimes we get it wrong. With the best of intentions, we make the wrong decision- the one that doesn’t turn out so well for us. We make mistakes and do daft things. That can have serious consequences, or be a minor disturbance. This choice was not serious, but I chose wrong. After a run of historical/ war type book club choices, I helped choose something contemporary and fictional, when I should have voted for family biography.
I should have chosen The Hare with Amber Eyes.
I’d thought that a history of ‘things’ from Paris in 1871, to Vienna in 1899, to Tunbridge Wells, Tokyo and London would be dull. Worthy. Have nothing to say to me. I was wrong.
This is a beautiful, mysterious, intriguing, gripping book. The fabulously wealthy Ephrussi family are at the heart of banking, empire building and art. They are secular but defined in so many ways by their Jewishness. We’re with them as they rise to prominence, through the Dreyfus Affair, the First World War, the rise of national socialism, the Anschluss and its aftermath. We are there for the loss, the diaspora, the return of the netsuke to Japan. I’ve studied these periods of history, but I’ve never read anything that made this time ‘real’ until now. The Ephrussi family were far outside any social circle that I could relate to; because of that there exisits archive material, financial records, letters, still familiar gossip. In contrast, there is no information on the servant Anna apart from oft told family tales. ‘There is space around Anna.’
The story has been painstakingingly researched, but wears it lightly. We get a feel of what life was like for the very, very rich- family estates, palaces, holidays in a six story chalet in Switzerland. During this time the netsuke (tiny, intricate carved toggles made out of wood or ivory) were highly fashionable, a bit of an embarrassment, children’s playthings, totems.
Edmund de Waal is a descendant of the Ephrussi family, and is an English ceramic artist. His ancestor Charles, commissioned work from the likes of Renoir, Monet and Degas. Charles’ cousin Viktor, unexpectedly, became head of the bank in Vienna. He wasn’t great with money (more well meaning but bad choices). Viktor’s eldest daughter, the formidable Elisabeth, correspondant of Rilke, was the keeper of the stories and de Waal’s grandmother.
I found two great tensions running through the story: what was going to happen to all of the family members, and how on earth could the netsuke survive? I have to say that the book lost some of its interest for me once those issues were resolved, but I’m sure the tales of Elizabeth’s brother Iggie’s life in Japan would be more interesting to others.
De Waal travels back to the original family home in Odessa and still finds traces of the Ephrussi amongst the dust. He wonders about whether his great grandmother’s dress was from the previous season, and how he could find out. He reads the Gestapo listings of the contents of the Ephrussi home. He realises that ‘Jews matter less than what they once possessed’, that the records of the Viennese Jews were overwritten, red stamped ‘Israel’ for the men, ‘Sara’ for the women.
The Hare With Amber Eyes isn’t so much about the netsuke themselves, but about their people. De Waal’s father was never a keeper of the netsuke, but is integral to the book. He kept finding parts of the family archive in hidden boxes and suitcases, and these were essential to the discovery of the story. His son’s bemusement at the series of finds shines through.
Powerful and emotive, it could have been an interesting book club choice.