Paris, Terrorism and Little Canoes

eiffel tower pictureYears ago, my European brother translated a French joke into English for me.

Three explorers, an Englishman, A Frenchman and a Belgian are captured by cannibals. The head cannibal says, “We are going to cook you and eat you, but first, we are going to remove your skin and make it into little canoes. You can have anything you want as a last meal.” The Englishman says, “Can you do roast beef and Yorkshire pudding?” “Of course,” says the headman. “Do you think we are uncivilized?” The Frenchman wants to begin with escargot and go on to an omelette and salad. He is too upset to eat more. The Belgian says, “Give me a fork.” “Is that all you want?” asks the headman. “We do a nice patates frites.” “That’s all,” says the Belgian. “Just a fork.” So they sit down to wait silently.  In a surprisingly short time, the meals  are presented to the Englishman and the Frenchman, and they begin to eat. The Belgian picks up his fork and begins stabbing himself all over his body. When he is covered with bleeding holes he cries, triumphantly, “That for your little canoe.”

Terrorists are nothing new to my brother and me. Our father was one domestically and socially. Keeping us in constant fear would ensure our obedience and turn us into helpers for his nefarious schemes. Oddly enough, we didn’t obey. We contradicted him and took the blows. Then we escaped him. Two of us became teachers, one a minister and my brother, the funniest, kindest oddball in Belgium.

ISIS has miscalculated as all terrorists do. Paris is now the focus of the world’s love. If you’re into it, tune in and see it in your mind-a grid of golden contrails from every corner of civilization. Spiritual help is pouring in from both realms. People are heartbroken and stricken with fear, and, yet, there is more light than darkness even now.

“Out of this nettle danger,” Shakespeare said, “we pluck this flower..” He named the flower “safety”. It suited his purpose. But it is more than that. Empathy is growing by leaps and bounds.

Terrorists always make the same mistake, and they never win. The human spirit was not built for sustained terror. We rise above. We march on.Terrorists actually accomplish the opposite of what they intended. More darkness calls in more light.

That for your little canoe!

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.)