My rating: 5 of 5 stars
The Hare with Amber Eyes
by Edmund de Waal
I don’t read much nonfiction. I like books that are stories, with a plot and a climax, and characters I can empathize with. Nonfiction often drags for me, with its insistence on sticking with real events and real people. I do read historical fiction because I like to read stories in distant places and long ago times. The Hare with Amber Eyes is the rare nonfiction book that worked for me.
Edmund de Waal is an English potter with a Dutch last name, but his grandmother was born into a fabulously wealthy family of Jewish bankers and grain merchants. The Ephrussi were contemporaries and equals of the Rothschilds, related by marriage. Originally from Odessa, they moved to Vienna and then some of the younger sons moved to Paris. Through this family, de Waal inherited a collection of 264 netsuke, small carved figures that Japanese gentlemen used to wear on their obis, rather in the manner of a watch fob. The collection included the eponymous hare with amber eyes. De Waal decided to tell the history of the various Ephrussi who had owned the netsuke, starting with his great-great-uncle Charles Ephrussi, who was, among other things, a patron of the arts and a critic in late 19th Century Paris. If you are familiar with the famous painting The Luncheon of the Boating Party, Charles is the man in the background, looking slightly overdressed in a top hat and black frock coat. He was a friend and patron of Renoir and other Impressionists, right at the peak of that movement in art.
In fact, as it turns out, the history of de Waal's netsuke is largely the history of the 20th Century. Charles eventually gave them as a wedding gift to a nephew who lived in Vienna, and they made the journey across Europe to take up residence in the incredibly grand Palais Ephrussi where eventually they became the playthings of de Waal’s grandmother and her siblings. From post-war Vienna they eventually made their way to England and then, amazingly, back to Japan.
Obviously, netsuke cannot speak, but de Waal has researched his well-documented family, and he describes their lives and times beautifully. When a visual and tactile artist tells a story, you would expect a level of detail that makes you feel like you are there, and de Waal does not disappoint. He clearly sees more than many of us; he never says “tree” but always linden, or elm, or oak, or whatever kind of tree it was. His history immersed me into first Paris, and then Vienna, and then Tokyo. I even forgave him his extensive use of present tense, a thing I do not forgive easily.
I should mention that I read the Kindle version, which was very clean and had only two tiny formatting errors (an excess hyphen and a space in the middle of a word). The photographs of people and places came through very well; I suspect they were all (or almost all) taken in black and white. The only thing missing from the Kindle version was the book cover! Oh, and the netsuke themselves, which do not appear in the book (not even the printed version; I know because Michael Dirda mentioned it in his review). Luckily, you can see some of them online, as well as Mr. de Waal’s pots. One thing he never mentions is that he is not just any potter, but a world-class potter with gallery showings.
All that and he wrote this fabulous book, too! I am so happy he did.