Filip's Reviews > The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss

The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal
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Apr 30, 12

Read from February 22 to March 05, 2012 — I own a copy

The concept of tracing the history of a rich Jewish bankers family through the vicissitudes of a collection of Japanese miniature sculptures, is original and interesting. The beginning of the book is a bit slow, but it then comes to life with fascinating descriptions of the Ephrussi in Paris during Impressionism or in Vienna during the first part of the 20th century, ending with dramatic events surrounding the Austrian Anschluss into the German Reich.
And yet it is hard to feel much sympathy either for this family or for the author. A wronged sense of entitlement pervades much of the book, and a lot of energy goes into describing how the family lost most of its wealth under the Nazis (the description of the Kristallnacht mob entering the Ephrussi building and ransacking the furniture is blood-curdling). On the other hand, no moral judgment is passed on how the Ephrussi had been spending their money until then, nor is the reader left any clearer as to how the Ephrussi's fortune was amassed in a few short decades only.
In this romantic vision of "When my family played Downton Abbey in Vienna", servants receive short shrift: Anna, the saviour of the netsuke collection, is quickly dismissed (nobody in the family even remembers her last name); and of course the doorman is blamed for letting the gates wide open for the Gestapo on an inspection visit (as if a closed door was going to stop them).
It would have been easier to warm to the family if the author had come across as less self-absorbed. His pottery activity is mentioned regularly, but is pretty much irrelevant to the book; and some odd choices in vocabulary (a "glaucous" pudding - really?) betray the random use of a thesaurus to impress the readers. Finally, some fact-checking would have been in order, so as to get the spelling and syntax of French and German phrases right. The errors are not only linguistic, but also historical and geographic: Czechoslovakia did not exist before 1918, so the Ephrussi couldn't have had a country estate there (if anything, before WWI they would probably have thought of it as Hungary). Dachau is not on the edge of Bavaria but on the outskirts of Munich. Germany was the land of thinkers and poets ("Land der Dichter und Denker"), not Austria - etc etc.
Overall, an interesting read of a flawed book. The awards for the book seem motivated by compassion for the riches-to-rags family history (coupled with a Goodwin bonus), more than for the craftsmanship of the author.
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Comments (showing 1-5 of 5) (5 new)

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message 1: by Marina (new)

Marina Very good review. Amazing that this book is now being translated into close something like 20 languages. The chilling style seems to derive from writing for Connoisseur or Architectural Digest--characters are a function of their house decoration. Meanwhile, just in passing, early on two facts are mentioned: the "opening up" of Japan by C. Perry and his cannons, and the Paris Commune. A whole other world is invisible: imperialism (forcing Japan to trade) and socialism (the Commune), while we readers are focused on the inert furniture and paintings on the walls of these "grand hotels."


Janne exactly how I felt: couldn't have said it better. I am going to refer to this review in my comments.


Barbara The subject matter could have made for an absorbing read, particularly as one is prediposed to sympathise with the victims of antisemitism, but I was so put off the Ephrussis by the author's smugly prissy and shallow presentation of them that I finished the book only to please a friend. The last chapters partly redeemed for me what had otherwise been an anaemic and humourless recital of possessions and connections. The only character who came to life for me was the author's grandmother - an accomplished and strong-minded woman.


Vicky Williamson This review expresses exactly how I felt about this book and.picks up many of the points I noticed myself. The sense of privilege and entitlement was suffocating in some parts, and spoiled some otherwise interesting anecdotes.


Rupert Frazer The Ephrussis were rich. Certain members of the family were given to spending their great wealth on houses, furniture, jewellery and wonderful works of art. As Jews this was partly done to raise their status amongst the higher echelons of Austro-Hungarian society. And partly because they loved what they were buying and commissioning. This book delineates the process and how it ended with grace, charm and immense restraint. I strongly disaggree with much of the initial review and most of the subsequent comments. Think, just for a moment, how the rich of today spend their money - and weep!(less)


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