mad in pursuit notebook


"Hare With The Amber Eyes"


"Hare With The Amber Eyes" is a perfect book for someone interested in art history, family history, and the stories our stuff have to tell. That would be me.

Author Edmund de Waal is a ceramics artist, raised in a Church of England family. When he inherits a collection of netsuke (tiny Japanese carvings) from his great-uncle Iggy, he sets out to tell their story. This draws him into a two-year "vagabond" in which he explores his mother's side of the family. She is from one of the great Russian-Jewish merchant/banking families of Europe -- the Ephrussis.

The subtitle is "A Family's Century of Art and Loss." When the netsuke collection was acquired in the 1870s, in Paris, the Ephrussis were the toast of the town, mingling with authors like Proust and many of the Impressionist painters. But anti-Semitism lurks beneath the surface. The netsuke are sent as a wedding present to a nephew in Vienna, just as Hitler is beginning his rise.

Nothing remains but the stories. This is the theme, I think. Families come and go. Dynasties rise and fall. A few trinkets get passed along. We want their stories. De Waal does a beautiful job of following his curiosity, walking (as literally as he can) in his ancestors footsteps through Japan, Paris, Vienna, and Odessa. He's lucky in that his family was famous, so there is documentation of them everywhere. But instead of being overwhelmed with the details, he uses the netsuke -- and the family love of art -- to pull together a strong narrative.

The book also explores our attachment to our possessions -- most dramatically when the Nazis march through Vienna seizing property from the wealthy Jews, snatching their works of art and meticulously cataloging them for "Aryan" museums. The meaning of being dispossessed, of losing everything, came home to me. Like it or not, our possessions are us.

I originally downloaded the book on Kindle, but couldn't find the time to settle into it. So I wound up downloading it from Audible.


Photo above is from our own little collection of netsuke.

Jan 19, 2012