I read very little historical non-fiction. In fact, I’m probably within a rounding error of reading none at all. So it was an unusual moment indeed when I found myself wanting to pick up The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal — and I’m so very glad that I did.
I heard about the book from the NYPL Live line up, and noticed the way Paul Holdengraber was writing about it on Twitter — he mentioned that it was a book to read slowly, with prose that should be savored. I must have been going through my Alice Munro raptures around that time, and was luxuriating in slow reading, so in that regard it made some sense that I’d be interested. Still, it’s a book about 19th century family history and art collection — not my thing. I ordered the book and wondered how long it would sit on my shelf.
The book clearly didn’t gather dust for very long. It has actually proven to be a welcome change of pace from fiction, and something I might enjoy delving into more often. (Maybe.) De Waal sets out to trace the story of how a collection of netsuke (small, carved figures from Japan, like these) came to belong to him. He traces his lineage through the Ephrussi family, who had astonishing connections in 19th century France (Charles Swann is based partly on Charles Ephrussi, a friend of Proust’s!) and amazing art to go with it.
Deep down, what I care about most when I read is style. If a writer’s style grabs me, I will happily go in for the characters or the plot or the aesthetics or whatever it is that the writer draws my attention to. That’s probably why I enjoyed this book, even though the genre is so far out of my norm: de Waal’s style is carefully crafted and quite beautiful. De Waal is a potter, and the materiality of language is strongly present in the way he shapes his words and phrases. I think that’s why the book reads slowly: there’s a carefully measured rhythm to it, always keeping the balance, like a pot being slowly pulled into shape on a wheel.
De Waal cares about the netsuke, and he cares about learning enough about the story to make it all feel real to him. The reader benefits as the generations are revived and explored, each person examined one by one like the figures de Waal removes from their display case. He doesn’t just tell about them; it’s as though he wants to know them by touch, have a sensory experience of them.
The portrait that de Waal paints looks inward as much as back through history; the reader accompanies him on a distinct journey as he researches the movements of his netsuke through generations and across borders. He relays his discoveries about his family, of course, but he also brings the reader with him into libraries and archives, through opulent family homes that have been reconfigured into insurance offices, across borders from France to Austria to Japan to Russia. His research replicates the path of the netsuke, which echoes the journeys of the family.
The family history is a painful one, and really could not be otherwise, given that it focuses on a Jewish family of Russian origin living in Paris and Vienna during World War I and II. As he learns of the events leading up to World War II — which stripped his family of all that they had built, and then continued stripping away their nationalities and even their names — de Waal comes to the crushing realization that “the family is not erased, but written over” until not a trace of them can be seen in the revised Austria (259). One of the most moving images for me was Viktor, stripped of wealth, homeland, and much of his family, spending the days of his own exile reading Ovid and concealing his emotion (270).
The family manages to rebuild itself after the war, albeit in a very different form and in many new places. That the netsuke remain with the family when so much else was lost is incredible, and their particular journey out of post-war Vienna is especially poignant — but I’ll leave it for other readers to discover.