The Hare with Amber Eyes

by Edmund de Waal

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Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Copyright: 2010
ISBN: 0-374-10597-9
Format: Kindle
Pages: 351

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A netsuke (根付) is a miniature sculpture, often made from ivory or boxwood, generally rounded and no larger than a matchbox. They were a part of Japanese clothing starting from the 17th century: traditional garments had no pockets, but people needed a way to carry small objects around with them, so they wore pouches or small boxes attached to a cord. The cord could then be passed under the sash of the garment and be held in place there by a netsuke attached to the end of the cord, since the netsuke was too large to slip under the sash.

The hare with amber eyes is one of 264 netsuke. It, and all the rest, belonged to Edmund de Waal's uncle Iggie. They sat in a vitrine in his home in Japan, where de Waal went for a two-year scholarship and was working on a book on japonisme: the passionate and creative Western misunderstanding of Japan. When Iggie later died in 1991, de Waal inherited the collection. This book is his attempt to tell their history.

The Hare with Amber Eyes falls into the genre of family memoir or biography, but it's one told from an unusual angle. Edmund de Waal is a potter by profession: an artist who creates physical objects that then pass from his studio out into the world. The physicality of the netsuke — their occupation of time and space and their passsage through the world — fascinates him, and he tries to express that fascination to the reader and uses it as a focal point for the memoir. He tells, here, the story of his own family, but he does so via the netsuke, following them from their purchase in Paris in 1871 through one branch of the family and then another until they reach Iggie and, finally, him. Along the way, he tries to put them into context. At first, the context is primarily artistic, and the early parts of this book are something of a tour of late 19th century artistic culture in Paris. But, as the story continues, the connection becomes more emotional and the context becomes more complicated.

Anyone who is a fan of the TV program Antiques Roadshow or any similar effort to trace the history of specific objects will see the immediate appeal in this presentation. Antiques are fascinating in their mute path through lives and history; attempting to reconstruct the rooms they've sat in and the conversations they've witnessed is something I've always found intriguing. But it's also very difficult to do. Most of our objects, and most owners of objects, simply don't have that sort of documentation. I was wondering, at the start of this book, how de Waal was going to manage to construct his history.

The answer is that his family is, or at least was, famous enough to have letters, papers, and history in libraries throughout Europe. That's what makes the parts of the book before Iggie's living memory possible. It's a bit disappointing, if unsurprising; de Waal doesn't have any special technique to find hidden history, and most objects could never have this sort of history written about them. The first owner of the netsuke in his family is Charles Ephrussi, a critic, historian, and art historian who was a patron of the Impressionists and who was important enough in Parisian art culture that he is the inspiration of a character in Marcel Proust's Remembrance of Things Past.

This means that quite a lot of this book is about people who moved through social circles and lived in ways that I find quite foreign, which made it hard to invest too much in the first part of the book. The Ephrussi family was originally from Odessa and made a fortune as grain merchants some time prior to the start of the history, and by the time de Waal opens their story, they have vast inherited wealth. There is no sign in the book that Charles needs to work in any way. The first part of the book paints a picture of the culture of art patronage partly via descriptions of Charles's rooms and personal collection, to which the netsuke were added during the surge in interest in Japanese art in Europe produced by the opening of Japan during the Meiji period. It's interesting, but for me in a distant and intellectual way. (People with a deeper interest in Impressionist art or other late 19th century art may have a different reaction.)

De Waal writes at length at the start of this book about avoiding sentimentality and trying to take an honest and immersive look at the history of the netsuke. The emotional intensity that he brings to this goal seemed a bit odd, since little in the early part of the book seems to tempt towards sentimentality. But then the Dreyfus Affair enters Charles's story, followed by his gift of the vitrine and the netsuke to a cousin in Austria as a marriage gift, and I started to realize the implications of following a possession of a prominent Jewish family in Europe during the first half of the twentieth century.

This is the sort of non-fiction book that you can spoil, so I won't give a detailed description of the rest of the book. But there is a specific event in the history of the netsuke that de Waal tells that would be the story most people would start with, and I now understand the sentimentality that de Waal was trying to avoid. It's a great story, but one of the things I like about this book is that de Waal puts it into a broader context and complicates the story. He includes the long periods of time when the netsuke were mostly ignored, he ties them into the history of western obsession with (and exploitation of) Japanese art, and he shows how the sturdy nature of the netsuke, meant for physical handling rather than display, led to them creating the emotional connection that made them important to the family. It's a book that deals with anti-Semitism with accuracy and specifics without being either lurid or overwhelming. It's a book that traces a line through one of the most overwritten and well-trod areas of history and manages to stay on its own path. It's a book that made me angry, and made me cry, and then made me step back and think about those emotions in a broader context and think about the benefits of leaving those emotions behind.

I've never read a book quite like this before. It's slow in places (particularly if one is not very interested in art history), utterly compelling in others, and carefully avoids any simple themes or grand stories. It's entangled with some of the darkest events of recent history, but de Waal stays tightly focused on the family through the lens of the netsuke, which is valuable for keeping the story from drifting into well-worn and less unique material.

I was not as completely taken by this book as the review that got me to buy it (it's an excellent review, better than this one). But I'm glad that I read it, and I feel like I now know more about the world.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2013-02-24

Last spun 2013-07-01 from thread modified 2013-02-25