The Hare with Amber Eyes

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.

Three netsuke from de Waal's collection

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.



22 thoughts on “The Hare with Amber Eyes

  1. I have this book on my list, so I’m glad to see that you enjoyed it.

    Interesting about how people wanted de Waal to be more judgmental. I’ve seen a lot of reviews of different books that want authors to make it very, very clear that certain ideas and events were very wrong. I usually prefer for authors of books like this to just live with the complexities and let readers sort out their feelings. I can see why readers’ feelings about this family might be conflicted, but it seems to me that history is full of stories that pit our various sympathies against each other.

  2. A lovely review of one of my favourite reads of the year. I agree with this completely: “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.”

  3. What fascinating points about the Amazon reviews uncomfortable with the family’s privilege, and the role of similar feelings in waves of anti-Semitism. Knowing my particular interests, you’ll probably be unsurprised that this sentence leaped out at me:

    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.

    I’m reading Mary Douglas’s Purity and Danger right now, and she talks about how states of ritual pollution (which I’m sure map imperfectly if at all onto feelings of disgust, but are potentially related) often occur when boundaries between different groups are under pressure, and this is such a nice example of that. Both from the perspective of the non-Jewish population of Vienna who perceived Jews to be invading or contaminating “their” city, and from the perspective of modern-day reviewers who want to extend their sympathy only to those who fit a certain definition of the proper victim (Jewish, but not wealthy). Such interesting stuff. I too love the sentence Ana pointed out.

  4. I’ve been wondering whether to read this book. I’m not at all keen on reading dense descriptions of objets d’art reading like auction catalogues, or the coveting of such objets, but on the other hand the context interests me greatly. Now after reading your post I’ll at least see if there’s a copy in the library.

  5. I love social history. Also, it’s interesting what people do when they have more money than they need, isn’t it? And what that says about the society they come from. I’m sometimes really proud of our class (late 20th c) of American actors – Pitt, Damon, Clooney – who put so much of their extra resources into worthy causes.

  6. This sounds really interesting. And your mention of netsuke reminds me that we have a local art museum here with a very large collection of them. They are beautiful and fascinating little objects.

  7. I loved this book for all the reasons you did, and also probably more unreservedly because I do intensely love artistic objects as much as I love words. I doubt if I could have pinpointed how these things came together, so am yet again grateful for your insights. I had no idea about the resentful reviews you mention, and am shocked.

  8. Robin Hood is actually not an exception as far as I can tell. All the stories that I have seen or watched do show him robbing from the rich. None show him giving to the poor.

  9. I think I prefer it when authors writing nonfiction don’t take such a strongly judgmental stance on what they’re writing about and let he reader sort it out–but then maybe it depends on the topic–you have to give the author credit for his diplomacy. I’ve wanted to read this since it first came out and love social history as well (might even like the stuff on all the artsy things, too). Interesting book and interesting responses to it.

  10. I was never sure whether I should read this but your review makes it sound very appealing. I think that some objects are far from being dead. Some that were valuable for a person are infused with the person’s energy. I worked in a museum for two years and had to catalogue a huge collection of the same things. It’s very tiring to describe the same object that looks different hundreds of times. I realized then that I could never be a collector. Not even of books. I like to own books but for their content, I do not care all that much how they look.
    Still, when I see a nice collection of something I can appreciate it.
    Once more I’m anoyed by people’s reactions. There are so many things that people consider to be a privilege, wealth of course, status, education, looks and whenever someone who is considered to be privileged encounters misfortunes it seems as if people think he/she doesn’t have a right to complain… In this case, as you say, it makes one feel uneasy because we know where this thinking, related to Jewish wealth, ended

  11. I had this out from the library earlier, but ended up not starting it because I was worried about some the concerns you mention. But your wonderful post has convinced me to give it a go; you always have the most thoughtful, lovely prose Litlove. 🙂

  12. celawerd – thank you for commenting! It is packed full of information about art and history and the family concerned. Definitely an interesting read.

    Teresa – absolutely! And so much that our ancestors believed has been discredited in later times. It’s hard to read any book of history that’s an accurate portrayal without bumping up against racism or sexism or class distinction or injustice of all kinds. This book is intriguing in that de Waal charts the progress of anti-Semitism in a way that makes the reader’s skin crawl, so I found myself entirely on the side of the family and never gave their wealth a thought until I read the reviews. I agree that de Waal handles it quite rightly by remaining non-judgemental. It gives you plenty of space to think about what happens. I do hope you enjoy this when you come to read it.

    Nymeth – I had forgotten that you read this! I will come and read your review again as I’m now really keen to see how you discuss it – I’ll bet it’s a wonderful review!

    Emily – I thought of you reading the book, because the word ‘disgust’ comes up several times in relation to anti-Semitism, as well as a brief discussion of the way it was used to perpetuate an image of Jews as unclean and contaminating. One of the main feelings behind the ideology of the Third Reich was that it was unacceptable that Jews could now look like anyone else – by taking their means of living from them, and reducing them to poverty, they were rendered ‘recognisable’ once again as dirty beggars. Really, it is enough to make your skin crawl.

    Margaret – very sensible decision indeed to try this out as a library book. There was plenty for me to enjoy here, and the descriptions are all beautifully done. I’ll be very interested to know whether you take to it or not. Do say if you can!

    Melissa – I never did much history at school and so I feel it’s a subject I’ve very ignorant about. But that’s a great reason to read up on it now! We have so many great charity causes these days – in the UK we have Children In Need every November, and Comic Relief every other spring, and it always makes me feel tearful to see so many people donating, even when they don’t have that much cash of their own. It’s a part of modern society that is very encouraging.

    Carolinareads – it really was! 🙂

    Stefanie – oh how lovely to be able to see this objects in a local museum! If there was anything lacking in this book, it’s more pictures of the netsuke. They do sound so lovely.

    Jean – yes, I can see that you, with your artistic eye, would love this. It’s a real art lover’s book. I must say the reviews were a bit surprising. I’d been completely caught up with the anti-Semitism and had found it shocking, so the thought of the family’s wealth never made much of an impact on me. After all, there’ll always be wealthy people around. I just wished my grandmother had had a correspondance with Rilke! 🙂

    Ed – my goodness, I had never thought of it like that. We used to have an audio tape of the Robin Hood story (it belonged to my son) but it broke at a crucial moment so I always felt I was missing a vital chunk of the story. How intriguing.

    Danielle – I think you’re quite right. Whatever personal opinion a reader forms, it feels better to have the author leave the matter open and undecidable. I daresay it might push readers in the other direction if the author was partisan! I loved the social history in this and found much to admire. Be warned that the start is a bit slow, though, and you have to stick with it. So long as you schedule it for a time when you feel patient and want a gentle, painstaking read, you’ll be fine. It’s worth taking the trouble over.

    Caroline – I always feel a bit uncomfortable when a reader slams a book, because after all, we are none of us the final authority. And reading is best when it opens the mind – I never gave the wealth of the Ephrussi’s a second thought until I read the reviews and then I wondered whether I should have done. But it seemed to me that across the narrative, de Waal is gently suggesting that all great collections are in some way opportunist, that the people who put them together act in the name of a passion that isn’t always ethical – or else the collections would never come into being. How interesting to work in a museum! I’ve always thought that would be a great job.

    Eva – oh thank you! How nice of you to say so. Hugs! And I’d love to know what you think of it. It is a slow and painstaking read in parts, but I do think it’s worth it overall. Take your time and pick the right moment.

  13. I’ve been meaning to get a copy of this one; I’ve heard so many good things! Thanks for the warning about the slowness in parts — it won’t keep me from reading it, but it’s good to know, so I can make sure I’m in the right mood. I’m not much of a “thing” person either — except for books, which don’t count, as you say!

  14. I loved Hare with the Amber Eyes when I read it earlier this summer, and spent a good week or so recommending it to everyone I could think of (well, not the Andy McNab-readers, but most of the others). And your post has just re-filled me with my own reflections – wouldn’t it have been lovely to have pictures of the netsuke at the head of each chapter or something like that? And I’d not really appreciated how the all the cultural linkages in Paris at the start of C20 actually worked for the people involved and what it would be to be part of a circle like that – I thought this brought humanity to a lot of recent history, as well as telling a family’s story and making me wonder again about learning some more about Japan!

  15. Pingback: The Hare with the Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal « The Sleepless Reader

  16. This review is spot on, in my eyes. I am curious about the authore of this blog…but new to wordpress….How do I learn more about you? Or are you purposely anonymous?

    • Kathy, first of all it’s very satisfying when my views coincide with someone else’s! I’m very glad about that. As for me, well funnily enough I’ve only recently switched to this new template and keep promising myself I’ll write an About page and of course I never get there. So you spur me on to do that. I used to teach French literature at university level, but now I work part time with the students who are struggling with essay writing skills and so on. But I will always love talking about books.

  17. Pingback: Edmund De Waal, The Hare with Amber eyes, a hidden Inheritance (2010) « Smithereens

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