Objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost. People have always given gifts. It is how you tell their stories that matters.
At primary school, I remember, we would be set a writing exercise such as, a day in the life of a penny. People would say of inanimate things that had been around for longer than a child could conceive of: ‘the stories they could tell!’ The Hare With Amber Eyes is a magnificent work of memory recovery – a family memoir, but also a voyage into the dark recesses of the twentieth century.
A netsuke is a tiny piece of intricate carving, ‘a small, tough explosion of exactitude’, an essential component of Japanese formal dress until the end of the 19th century. It is a toggle on a cord, that attaches a small bag to the belt around a kimono. From the 18th century, the fashion was for these small carvings – of animals, or people, or familiar objects – to be shaped from ivory or boxwood. In late 19th century Europe, after Japan had been forced open by the black ships of America, and especially in the Paris of Proust, Degas and the Impressionists, netsuke arrived on the wave of Japonisme, sought after and immensely valuable.
It is here that De Waal begins his story of the journey of 264 netsuke, a family inheritance which has miraculously survived the catastrophe of 20th century Europe. After he inherits the collection, De Waal is determined to discover who has handled these objects. Where have they been? In which rooms were they displayed? De Waal is not interested in a few stitched-together anecdotes:
I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers — hard and tricky and Japanese — and where it has been… I want to know whose hands it has been in, and what they felt about it and thought about it — if they thought about it. I want to know what it has witnessed.
De Waal’s ancestors were the Ephrussi, originally grain merchants from Odessa who expanded into banking and settled in Paris and Vienna. They were extraordinarily rich assimilated Jews, pillars of French and Austrian society. De Waal begins his story in Paris, with Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of his great-grandfather, who was a patron of the arts, gathering one of the great early collections of Impressionist paintings, and the inspiration for Proust’s character, Charles Swann.
It is Charles who acquires the 264 netsuke, not piece by piece, but as a complete and spectacular collection. The world of Belle Epoque Paris that the netsuke have arrived in – the new avenues of grand palaces, the rooms in which artworks are displayed and soirees are held – lives and breathes in De Waal’s descriptions, the result of meticulous research in the archives and on the spot footwork. This is the Paris painted by Gustave Caillebotte who lived around the corner from the Ephrussi family and depicted in his Le Pont de l’Europe and Jeune Homme à sa Fenêtre.
It is also the Paris of Dreyfus and intense anti-Semitism. The Ephrussi family were Dreyfusard by faith and by inclination – and also because they lived in the public eye. In a letter to Andre Gide in 1898, a friend recounts hearing a man catechising his children outside the Ephrussi house: ‘Who lives here? Le sale juif!’ Among Charles’ artist friends, Degas was savagely anti-Dreyfusard and stopped speaking to Charles, Cezanne was convinced of Dreyfus’s guilt and Renoir became actively hostile to Charles and his ‘Jew art’.
In 1899, Charles’ cousin, Viktor von Ephrussi (Edmund de Waal’s grandfather) is married in Vienna. Charles sends something special to Vienna as a wedding present: the vitrine with green velvet shelves, and a mirrored back that reflects 264 netsuke. Here they come to rest in a dressing-room, inside a huge palace built and owned by the family on the Ringstrasse.
De Waal writes, ‘I don’t really want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss’, but his narrative moves, crab-like yet inexorably, towards the 1930s, and the deepening shadows of anti-Semitism and fascism. It is none the worse for that, for this is one of the most compelling accounts of the disastrous aftermath of the First World War that I have read. It is here that the netsuke come to stand as a symbol of the terrifying vulnerability of the Ephrussi family and all assimilationist Jews like them who had invested so much – in money and sentiment – in their country of birth.
The netsuke are installed in the dressing room of Emmy, De Waal’s grandmother. When she dresses to go out, the children are allowed to play with the netsuke and tell stories about them. Afterwards they are replaced –
locked into their vitrine, behind the dressing-room door, which is along the corridor and up the long stairs from the courtyard, which is behind the double oak doors with the porter waiting, which is in the fairytale castle of a Palais on a street that is part of The Thousand and One Nights.
Then, in March 1938 following the Anschluss, the house is stormed. Men wearing swastika armbands break in, smash and steal, and throw an antique desk over the stairwell into the courtyard below. Later the Gestapo arrive, and the listing and meticulous recording of objects begins. Soon the Ephrussi Palace is ‘Aryanised’,occupied by Nazi offices, including that of Alfred Rosenberg, the Plenipotentiary of the Führer for the Supervision of all Intellectual and Ideological Education and Indoctrination in the National Socialist Party.
How did the netsuke escape the Gestapo? How did they return to the family and move to Tokyo? Anna an elderly servant, loyal to the Ephrussi family, hid the netsuke, which are small and hard, in her mattress:
Touch is not only through the fingers, but through the whole body, too. Each one of these netsuke for Anna is a resistance to the sapping of memory…a story recalled, a future held on to.
There is no sentimentality, no nostalgia. It is something much harder, literally harder. It is a kind of trust.
After the ease with which De Waal has been able to reconstruct intimate details of the lives of his Ephrussi forbears, the finds he cannot do the same for Anna:
There is a space around Anna, like that around a figure in a fresco. She was a Gentile. She had worked for Emmy since she got married. ‘She was always there,’ Iggie [Emmy’s son] would say….
I do not even know Anna’s whole name, or what happened to her…She was, simply, Anna.
And so the netsuke arrive in Tokyo, in the possession of De Waal’s great-uncle Iggie. And it is there that De Waal first encounters them. While on a Japanese scholarship, he lunched with his great-uncle once a week, after which Iggie would bring out some of the small, compressed carvings of animals, figures, plants and fruit. Holding one, the potter De Waal recognised that they retained ‘the pulse of their making’.
Like his pottery, De Waal’s prose is spare and restrained. He does not seek to over-emphasise his family’s loss. There are glimpses of the aftermath: how Rudolf Ephrussi came to be playing the saxophone in Arkansas while his father, Viktor, deprived of his own treasured library, sat in his daughter’s kitchen in Kent, reading the Times and Ovid’s poems of exile. And how the netsuke made their way back to Japan. The extraordinary story of how they remained in the family is the culmination of a book that is both a personal memoir and a story that resonates with the history of the 20th century.
- God of small things: article by Edmund de Waal (Guardian)
- The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (Guardian review)
- Guardian gallery of Edmund de Waal netsuke