Tuesday, November 1, 2016

61 Books: #57

The project: to read 61 books, of whatever sort—short, long; literature, schlock; prose, poetry: you name it—before December 4, 2016.

The first ten books can be seen here. The second ten are here. Nos. 21–56 can be found a few posts on.

57. Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance (2010) (11/1/16)
This a family history, a social history, a tracing of precious things through time and lives, a detective story, an exploration full of emotion and sensuousness. All in all, a remarkable book.

The quick description: Edmund de Waal, a well-known British ceramicist, inherits from his beloved great-uncle Iggie 264 netsuke, tiny carved objects brought from Japan to France in the 1870s by a cousin, Charles Ephrussi, and decides to trace their path. In so doing he recounts the lives of wealthy ancestors at the center of Parisian society (Charles collected the works of the greatest Impressionists and was a model for Proust's character Charles Swann) and other wealthy ancestors at the center of Viennese society, who lose everything during World War II, for they are Jews. Rilke plays a role, and there is a charming story of a painting of a single asparagus spear by Edouard Manet, a gift for Charles's generosity. The description of the German takeover of Austria is horrific, though fortunately most of the family manages to escape. Great-Uncle Iggie winds up in Tokyo, so postwar Japan is richly described as well. The fascination with things Japanese in fin-de-siècle Paris is contrasted with the mid-twentieth-century version of same. In the end, de Waal returns to the place where the Ephrussi family got its start—Odessa—bringing things full circle.

De Waal is an indefatigable researcher, and he brings out the lived life of these people down to the clearest detail. He also injects himself strongly into the story: his curiosity, his humanity, his reflectiveness, his sensitivity and sensibility. He spent two years obsessed with the Ephrussis and their netsuke, and the passion shows. It is a passion his forebear Charles evinced when he set off on a journey to find the lost drawings of Dürer. A couple of paragraphs about that reveal the breadth and depth of de Waal's writing:
Charles might be a flȃneur, might take his time in the salons, be seen at the races and the Opéra, but his "vagabonding" is done with real intensity.
     Vagabonding was his word. It sounds recreational rather than diligent or professional. As an extremely rich Jewish mondain, it would have been contrary to social practice to be seen to work. He was an "amateur d'art," an art lover, and his phrase is carefully self-deprecating. But it does get the pleasure of the searching right, the way you lose your sense of time when you are researching, are pulled on by whims as much as by intent. 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 gumshoe and wait to see who comes out.
     I find that as the months pass I have a strangely increased sensitivity to the quality of paper.
     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.
Occasionally the writing is a bit shaggy (the book could have used more editing, says the editor, or maybe just serious proofreading), but that's a small complaint given the book's richness. There are so many passages I marked, that I could reproduce here: about touching and the life of objects; about love, of family, of culture, of life; about the netsuke themselves, which frame the story, provide its red thread, and whose survival in the family is nothing short of a miracle—riding on an act of love.

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