Gail'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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's review
Feb 08, 2011

really liked it
bookshelves: non-fiction, politics-and-history
Read in March, 2011

If you love history and art—and the melding of the two—that I think you will find it impossible not to be taken with Edmund de Waal's "The Hare with Amber Eyes."

To be fair, this is high-brow storytelling. If "The DaVinci Code" is the McDonald's equivalent of a book that incorporates these two themes, then "Amber Eyes" is the four-course French meal complete with palette-cleansing sorbet.

The book is a biography of de Waal's inherited collection of more than 200 pieces of Japanese netsuke, small carved figurines of ivory and wood (nowadays you might see knock-offs of these in pawn shops and flea markets but the real deal is, as we learn here, worth a small fortune).

The netsuke tie together the story of de Waal's family history, as the author follows what happens to the pieces over the course of 140 years by sharing vivid details of the inhabitants of the three rooms in which the netsuke found their home.

The first is the Parisian study of Charles Ephrussi, an art critic and writer who hung with the likes of Impressionist painters Renoir and Degas (and who owned an enormous collection of their art at one time). The second is the Viennese dressing room of de Waal's great-great grandmother Emmy von Ephrussi at a time when the Austrian capital is being torn apart by war. The third, the Tokyo apartment of Emmy's son (and de Waal's uncle) Iggie.

The way de Waal writes this book lets us imagine ourselves in each of these time periods while, at the same, giving us insight into the hours upon hours he spent in French and Austrian and London libraries, searching for his family's past in the tiny type of newspaper articles and society columns.

de Waal is a a ceramic artist with major installations in Britain's V&A museum and Tate Britain who also happens to be one hell of a fine storyteller. I found myself enthralled reading about the lavish lifestyle of his ancestors and his impressions as he introduced himself to each of the great homes of residence where they lived (one example is the Palais Ephrussi -- just IMAGINE your great-grandparents living here!

A few of my favorite scenes and/or commentary in the book:
• de Waal's description of the Parisian salon scene of the late 1800s -- imagine sitting in the parlors of well-to society women, in the company of legends like Proust and Renoir and Roudin, talking about art and culture!
• de Waal on his study of Charles in Paris:
" It makes me think of the rummaging that I am doing through his life as I track the netsuke, the noting of other people's annotations in the margins. I vagabond in libraries, trace where he went and why. I follow the leads of whom he knew, whom he wrote about, whose pictures he bought. In Paris I go and stand outside his old offices in the rue Favart in the summer rain like some sad art-historical gumeshoe and wait to see who comes out ... And I find that I have fallen for Charles. He is a passionate scholar. He is well dressed and good at art history and dogged in research. What a great and unlikely trinity of attributes to have, I think aspirationally.
• de Waal's detailing of the rich society life of Emmy von Ephrussi (the hours she'd spend every day preparing to go out for society events; three wardrobe changes every day!)
• There is a great passage in which de Waal talks about a series of letters exchanged between Emmy's oldest daughter, Elisabeth (the author's grandmother) and a famous Swiss poet of the 1920s -- a line from one of his letters that I really really loved about Elisabeth's joint ventures in law and poetry: "I find the great contrast between your two occupations positive; the more diverse the life of the mind, the better the chances are that your inspiration will be protected, the inspiration which cannot be predicted, that which is motivated from within."
• Reading about de Waal's family stuck in Austria when World War II broke out was heartbreaking but I couldn't pull my attention away from the storyline, knowing this all really happened
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01/11 marked as: read

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