How do you go about writing an extraordinary, bestselling, prize-winning family biography? First of all, belong to an extraordinary family. This is the lucky fate of Edmund de Waal, a potter, whose ancestors belonged to a rich European banking dynasty, a Jewish family of fabulous wealth. The Ephrussi’s left their native Russia to spread themselves out in a network across Europe, building enormous houses in Paris and Vienna. As a starting point to this history, de Waal focuses in on great-uncle Charles, the third son of the branch of the family who came to Paris. With no need to work for a living and plenty of available cash at his disposal, Charles became a collector and an art historian, one of the first to invest in the Impressionists, and one of many to become enamoured of Japanese art. In a burst of enthusiasm, he bought a job lot of netsuke, tiny, whimsical figures carved out of ivory or wood, 264 in fact, and arranged them all in a vitrine, or a glass display cabinet. Having recently inherited the netsuke, de Waal’s task in this memoir is to trace the journey they took through the centuries and across continents to end up in his possession.
De Waal is a very present narrator, sharing with the reader his curiosity and his distress as he travels around the archives of the world, uncovering his family history. As someone with a passion for art objects himself, it is perhaps unsurprising that so much of this book is about the things that his ancestors purchased, particularly when they comprised of opulent furniture, rugs, golden dinner services, sculptures, ornaments and paintings. But it is also a way of figuring out how his ancestors were tied into the history of their times. The objects his family owned and appreciated become for him a bridge into the past and how it was lived, and a route towards understanding the interests and desires of people whose personalities are nearly lost to the attrition of time.
When Charles finally tired of the netsuke (Japonisme fading out of the artistic scene in Paris), he sent them as a wedding present to the other main branch of the family, to Viktor and his new bride, Emmy, in Vienna. From this point on the story becomes darker. Viktor is another younger son, free to follow his own interests rather than enter the bank. Until his older brother, Stefan, elopes with his father’s mistress and is swiftly disinherited. Now Viktor is obliged to put to one side his gentle academic interests and enter a world of banking for which he is insufficiently prepared. By the end of WW1, this arm of the banking dynasty is ruined by his poor decisions and has to be rescued. Though this is nothing compared to the fate the family will undergo when the insidious anti-Semitism of the early twentieth century reaches its climax with Hitler’s invasion of Austria.
Now here’s an interesting thing. When I read the reviews for this book on amazon, they were surprisingly mixed. What it boiled down to was that good old British resentment of privilege. This was a rich family who used their money to live in magnificence rather than, for instance, found hospitals and help the poor. How sorry should we be that they had their finery brutally stripped from them? There were also uncomfortable parallels drawn with the current crisis in banking. How much sympathy does the general reader have available at present for Viktor’s plight, when he was ‘not good with money’ and lost the savings of thousands of people after WW1?
Most of the negative reviews abhorred the actions of the Nazis, and found the anti-Semitic sentiments outrageous, but were not quite sure what to do with their queasiness over the wealth and privilege the Ephrussi’s enjoyed. Unsurprising, when those very sentiments were at the root of anti-Semitism in the first place. De Waal describes how in 1863, when Viktor arrived in Vienna as a child, there were fewer than 8,000 Jews in they city. By the time he married in 1899, there were 145,000, many of whom had made remarkable achievements in banking, the media, literature and law. 71% of financiers were Jewish, 65% of lawyers, 59% of doctors. Here we can trace the origins of resentment, envy and paranoia. The popular press was quick to point out that these immigrants had taken over the public life of Vienna and were in control of its professions. Such accusations are an ungainly mix of prejudice and truth and have never ceased to trigger reactions of unease and disgust. Just last week, Mister Litlove was reading a book on the recent banking crisis that described how America’s wealth had been concentrated in so few hands that the best analogy to the financial situation was Stalin’s Russia. Whilst it is reasonable to be concerned about who controls the wealth of a nation, it is no solution to redistribute it through looting and pillage, of course. Except, hmm, for Robin Hood, who managed to do so and maintain good PR.
The more I thought about this book, the more I marvelled at the way de Waal had negotiated this minefield of conflicting sensibilities. His tone throughout the book is cool and a little scholarly; he does not judge. Many of the reviews I read would have liked to see him judge a bit more. They point out that although his family suffered horribly at the hands of the Nazis, they escaped with their lives, which is more than can be said for hundreds of thousands of other Jews who hadn’t been prosperous to begin with. How the old, dark feelings linger on, despite the hideous examples that history provides of resentment’s consequences. What I feel is that suffering is suffering, and once we start to compare it, and decide who should be permitted sympathy and who should not, we are on a rocky road to losing vital parts of our humanity.
For me, the social history in the book was the most fascinating part. Where I struggled was with the dense descriptions of the objets d’art. I am not much of a ‘thing’ person, if you discount books (which I do because they are alive), and I floundered in certain sections that read like exquisitely written auction catalogues. But this is still a clever book that weaves together the history of a remarkable family with the history of a remarkable century through the beautiful things produced, coveted and preserved across time. It is, however, a slow read that had me reaching for the dictionary at times (‘plebiscite’ anyone? I thought it was to do with veins in the leg, but it turns out to be a form of referendum). Pick it up when you have leisure and patience and then you will be rewarded.