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Proust is Revealed in The Hare with Amber Eyes!

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Elise Miller I found The Hare with Amber Eyes, A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund De Waal so relevant to my Proust studies that I’m writing about it, even though the Burlingame book group, headed by Michael Kimball, has not even met to discuss it yet. The book is a family history, its characters and multiple settings connected by a collection of 264 netsuke, the exquisite, tiny Japanese carvings that were part of his inheritance.
De Waal is descended from the Ephrussi, an extensive banking family, less well-known than the Rothchilds, but no less affluent, international and vilified as Jews in the 20th century. He writes fluidly and clearly, shifting between charm and power, depending on the historical situation. One would never know that his primary art form is ceramics.
The first admirer, purchaser and scholar behind the netsuke is Charles Ephrussi (1849-1905), part of the Paris branch of the family during the time when Japanese art was opened to Europe—and became all the rage, especially among artists in Paris. Charles, a respected art historian (scholar, collector, writer, editor, and publisher), was close with many artists of the newly-emerging Impressionist painters. They in common an admiration for the elements of Japanese art. Charles understood, explained, lionized, and ultimately, patronized the Impressionists. As he approached middle age, he was also a mentor and friend to Marcel Proust.
Proust later named the debonair, cosmopolitan, handsome and generous Charles Ephrussi as one of two major models for the character of Swann! But not the primary model. De Waal gives fascinating details about their relationship, how Charles attended many an elegant salon with the younger Proust. They shared a lifestyle in a society unique to Paris in the late nineteenth century. Charles helped and advised the young Proust in matters of both art and literature. He was Jewish and suffered from anti-Semitism, both before and during the Dreyfus years. And finally, although Charles’ long relationship with fellow art collector, Louise Cahan d’Anvers, is well-documented, De Waal hints that he and Proust might have been lovers—making Charles bisexual.
Amazing to find this close relationship described in a book that I never expected to connect with Proust in any way! What fun to learn so much about one book from another!


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