The Hare With Amber Eyes: Iggy and Edward no

hare finallyAs I consider what to say about parts 3 and 4 of The Hare With Amber Eyes, I remember my daughter, Julia’s christening in early spring 1961. At the reception in our Don Mills apartment, her fraternal grandfather made a casual anti-Semitic joke. My objection was all but drowned out by laughter. What exactly he said, I have mercifully forgotten, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that the genes he handed down to my husband Blake and on to Julia got blended with Warsaw Jewish genes to produce a son, not strictly speaking Jewish since Julia is not, but good enough for Hitler. Even so, I mostly don’t let myself feel anything like the full force of what I could feel about the Holocaust which destroyed all but two members of that middle class Warsaw family. Until I read this part of The Hare With Amber Eyes. Oddly, it is the pillage and loss of beauty, which is irresistibly affecting to me, the netsuke sitting vulnerable in their glass cabinet while the mob breaks in and then the Nazis seize the palace and force Viktor to sign it over.

after anchluss palaisThis photograph was taken after the Anschluss. I imagine this crowd is waiting for a celebratory parade.

Unlike his children, Viktor does not have the instinct to flee. By the time, it is necessary, he has great difficulty doing so. It is true that none of the immediate family is deported to a camp, although one does not survive. On balance, the Ephrussis of Vienna, like my grandson’s Warsaw family, could be seen as lucky. Strange luck to survive in the face of such grief, of so much loss. The great advantage the Ephrussis have is Elizabeth, the lawyer and the author’s grandmother. Thus Viktor finds himself sitting by the kitchen stove in Tunbridge Wells, reading news of the war and Ovid’s poems of exile, while Elizabeth learns to cook. In December 1945, she goes back to the Palais Ephrussi, no longer a Nazi headquarters but an American one. Almost nothing is left, except Anna and, amazingly, the netsuke.

Then the story switches setting. Iggy, former fashion designer, and American Intelligence officer, returns to England from a year trading grain in the Congo and receives the collection from Elizabeth. It is as if the netsuke settle what he should do next. He takes the collection with him when he moves to war-torn Tokyo. Ironically, he will work as a banker there. “Iggy had a small attache case filled with ivory monks, craftsmen and beggars, but he knew nothing about the country.”

netsuke floor cleanerAbove, a floor cleaner has a surprise.

netsuke as wornThe netsuke is the bauble that is on the belt and attached by string to the purse or pocket below. It seems to be a rat pattern in this case.

Edmund De Waal gets to know his uncle when he goes to Japan as a teenager to study ceramics. By that time, Iggie has added Japanese to his German, Russian and English. He lives in a home with fewer objects, but nevertheless rare, Japanese antiques. He is successful and shares his life with a male friend, Jiro, some years younger. So there is beauty there and happiness, but this part feels elegaic. After Iggie’s death, De Waal stays with Jiro when he visits Japan.

iggy with netsukeFinally, the author goes to Odessa where he joins his younger brother and they discover clues of the Ephrussi brothers presence there before 1870, not only in stories but also in a school and an orphanage they founded.

The netsuke are in London now in a vitrine where they can be taken out and played with by children.

netsuke rat

The Hare With Amber Eyes: Charles Ephrussi

hare finallyThis is the Hare With Amber Eyes, for which Edmund de Waal named the book he wrote about his family, the Ephrussis. My edition is subtitled “A Family’s Century of Art and Loss”. The hare is one of 264 netsuke (net-ski), tiny sculptures that hung on traditional Japanese costumes, fastening pouches -external pockets. At the end of World War II, this collection of tiny objects was the only part of the great Ephrussi fortune to survive.

Charles Ephrussi bought the collection from a Paris dealer in 1880. Charles is the man in the top hat in The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir and one of two men who served as the model for Proust’s Swann. (De Waal cautions us not to assume that Charles would actually wear such clothes to a boating party.)

luncheon of the boating partyNineteen years later, Charles sent the nesuke in their black vitrine to Vienna as a wedding gift to his cousin Victor and his bride, Emmy. There in the Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse, the netsuke lived in Emmy’s dressing room where their children played with them. They remained there when the family fled in 1938. Although the palace was occupied by the Nazis, the netsuke were miraculously spared from plunder and came back into the family’s hands in 1947. Amazingly, Iggy Ephrussi took Tokyo where he lived until his death, leaving them to his nephew Edmund de Waal, the author of The Hare With Amber Eyes.

Charles Ephrussi, who first bought the collection, kept the 264 tiny carvings in the salon of his second floor apartment on a Parisian hill. Being the third and youngest son, bookish and uninterested in making money, he was not required to join the family business. It had started as wheat dealing in Odessa, but had grown into banking and family members had been dispatched to Paris, Vienna and ultimately, to Moscow to establish branches. Charles was free to indulge his interest in art, writing a book about Durer, as well as magazine articles, becoming the proprietor of the Gazette and collecting paintings by Impressionist painters for himself and others, as well as offering the artists personal encouragement and friendship. Edmund de Waal imagines the walls of the salon as it must have been, hung with these pictures three deep. Included among the 40 paintings Charles hung were Renoir’s Gypsy Girl, Manet’s Asparagus, Monet’s Pommiers and Morisot’s On the Lawn.

gypsy girlmanet Asparagusmonet PommiersSince there are several versions of apple trees painted by Monet and since I am not an art historian, I may not have the right picture here.

MOrisot on the lawnDe Waal goes to see one of Charles’s pictures at the National Gallery in London – for now the collection has been dispersed far and wide – and says, “You feel alive looking at it.

les bainsThis is Monet’s The Grenouille.

the bathers at GrenouilleMonet’s The Bathers at Grenouille

The description of Charles’ salon with its yellow arm chair, its walls glowing with luminous Impressionist paintings and the black lacquered vitrine is one of my favourite parts of the book.

The story is told anecdotally as the author travels to the places where the collection lived and delves deeper into the family history but because it is his family, de Waal is very much a part of it, offering his response to his discoveries. If I had to choose one word to describe The Hare With Amber Eyes, it would be charming. In spite of the fact that it is a story of great loss, reading about such beauty salves the soul.

(Another post will talk about the netsuke in Vienna.)