Traces the parallel stories of nineteenth-century art patron Charles Ephrussi and his unique collection of 264 miniature netsuke Japanese ivory carvings, documenting Ephrussi's relationship with Marcel Proust and the impact of the Holocaust on his cosmopolitan family.
A Hidden Inheritance
Antiques are often more valuable when their provenance can be determined, and the more details regarding ownership and travel, the better. Thus, the extensive history of the tiny netsuke described in this memoir makes them essentially priceless. Purchased in Paris in the 1870’s, the travels of these tiny figurines reveal a much bigger and more important story than one could imagine. In fact, the general history of WWII and the days leading to it, across the European continent, are a part of their history.
This ‘art memoir’ combines a narrative of both the personalities of the owners and world history into the netsuke origins (see photo). Edmund de Waal, who began to research their origins in 1991, is an esteemed porcelain artist on his own, and his perspective on the netsuke is more insightful due to his own artistic vision and relation to the family. It’s both personal and historical.
The collection was held by his uncle in Tokyo, and had been passed down from their original purchaser, Charles Ephrussi, in the 1870s. Charles Ephrussi was the ultimate collector. Wealthy beyond imagination, he left Paris for Italy and made extravagant purchases for his Paris apartment. He hung out with Proust, Renoir, and Degas, and was part of the high society in Paris that revered all things related to art and literature. De Waal uses impeccable research to discuss the catalogues of possessions that Ephrussi owned and the family dynamics in that opulent age. However, one detail made all the difference. Ephrussi was Jewish. Thus, while he died before the worst came, his family suffered greatly and the netsuke made their own significant journey.
The book examines what happened in Vienna to the Ephrussi family in 1938, when Hitler’s power was at its height and when both soldiers and common people decided to take away the wealth of the Jews when they had the opportunity. First, brown shirts invaded the homes of the Ephrussi family and simply smashed and destroyed what they wished. Then they returned and took the paintings and books, cataloguing them with photographs so that Hitler could personally decide what to do with them. Their money was stolen. Some family members managed to escape to other countries, but it meant leaving everything behind.
In all the violence, a lowly maid named Anna (a Gentile) managed to quietly hide the netsuke in her mattress, and held them, not for certain profit but for the opportunity she was sure would come, when she could return them to the family. Her loyalty inspires the author, yet the irony of the netsuke’s survival is not lost: “why should they have got through this war in a hiding-place, when so many hidden people did not? I can’t make people and places and things fit together any more. These stories unravel me.” Thus, 264 of the netsuke were restored to descendents of the Ephrussi family.
Reading more like a thriller than a memoir, the details are rapid and shocking. Seeing how ordinary people behaved in horrific circumstances was revealing, in both their noble and barbaric acts. De Waal does not write simply in facts, but reveals subtler clues to the people involved. Rather than simply noting the wealth of Charles, he uncovers a more personal trait; Charles “does not know when to shade eagerness and become invisible.” Thus he makes a story of objects also an exploration of character.
This is truly a beautiful book. I’ve had to read a few art histories that seemed stale-there was no personality behind the stories. This is amazing both in content and form, as the lives interwoven with the netsuke make them unforgettable. I visited the Santa Barbara Museum of Art’s recent Asian exhibition in hopes of seeing netsuke firsthand. There were none to be seen, and nothing that was displayed struck a chord within me as did the stories behind these pieces.
The basic premise behind the book is a good one. Edmund De Waal has inherited a cabinet (vitrine) full of netsuke, which are small hand carved items from Japan made from wood, ivory or other materials. They are of some value and de Waal uses this inheritance to explore his family ancestry from the time that these 264 netsuke came into their possession. The Ephrussi family were Jews originally from Odessa and they settled in Vienna where they made a fortune in Banking. They were also active in Paris and this is where the book starts with Charles Ephrussi who was an art love, flaneur, and perhaps a little dilettante. The family business was centred in Vienna where the palace Ephrussi was built to celebrate their wealth and prosperity. De Waal decamps to the Capital of the Austro-Hungarian empire at the turn of the 19th century, following the netsuke which were wedding gift from Charles to his cousin Viktor. The netsuke were now part of an enormous collection of artifacts and we follow the fortunes of their owners as they struggled to maintain their position in society during the fierce anti-semitism evident during the first half of the 20th century in central Europe. Hitler’s Anschluss of Austria Hungary saw the persecuted family lose most of their wealth and possessions as they flee the Nazis, many of them going to America. The final section of the book sees the netsuke in Uncle Iggy’s possession as he settles in post-war Japan doing what the family does best: making money.
The book settles down to be a life and times of the family Ephrussi, there is no mystery about the netsuke which are only of interest when they are owned by the family. The family did live in turbulent times and so there is a story to tell and de Waal tries to imagine what it must have been like to be part of this rich family. He therefore invites us to walk with Charles through his large Parisian house with his latest acquisitions on show, bought as a result of his friendship with the impressionist painters. There were issues however and de Waal tells us that Renoir became suspicious of this Jewish connoisseur: was it the love of art that guided him or was it mere acquisitiveness with an eye for an investment. De Waal says “And it was at this point that Charles Jewishness made him suspect.”. It is also the point in the book where being Jewish and suffering from the anti-semitism that abounded at the time becomes the guiding theme of the book as it must, for a story about a Jewish family living in Paris and Vienna at that time.
DeWaal adopts the same approach when he moves the book to Vienna, the reader is asked to stand with him while he explores the old family home. We are exhorted to imagine what Victor felt like when the Allied terms for settlement after the first world war caused inflation to cycle out of control:
“Viktor looked into his own vacuum: in the safe at the office the Schottengasse were stacks of files of deeds and bonds and share certificates. They were worthless. As the citizen of a defeated power, all his assets in London and in Paris, the accounts that had been building in one city…….had been confiscated under the Allied terms of the punitive settlement……. That was not just a spectacular loss of money, it was the loss of several fortunes.”
De Waal treads a fine line between a biography of his family and an historical fiction of their life and times. There are no references or notes (yet there are plenty of quotes from contemporary documents}, which tends to push the book more towards an historical fiction. This is not to say that de Waal does not do this well, some of the best passages of the book describe Paris at the fin de siècle and Vienna at the time of the Nazi invasion.
This is a very personal biography and de Waal makes no bones about that, but it is just this aspect that I find off putting. I really have little sympathy for these entrepreneurial money men and their partners; We are asked to admire them and in the end I don’t and what is worse I don’t even care about them. A very personal view of a book that just isn’t for me, therefore 3 stars
I had to stop several times while reading to reach for the laptop (bless the internet!) to get a glimpse of a Renoir or Manet that was intrinsic to the story; to scan the family tree at the front of the book to make sure of relationships and dates; often, to wipe my tears away. My dilemma was wanting very much to know what happened to this family yet not wanting the book to end.
It begins when celebrated English potter, Edmund de Waal, inherits over 200 netsuke from his great-uncle Iggy. Netsuke are carved items used as toggles to fasten a purse worn on the Japanese obi or sash. They are made of ivory or wood and depict scenes from everyday life or nature. Each is an intricate work of art and the story of how they came into Iggy's possession fascinated the young de Waal. While he knows something of his father's family, the Ephrussis, he uses their ownership of the netsuke to trace the history of the family of Jewish financiers who made their vast fortune in grain in Odessa and moved on to live lavishly in Paris and Vienna in the late 19th century.
In Paris, Charles Ephrussi purchases the netsuke as well as paintings and sculpture of the great artists of the day. Proust is his assistant for a time and uses him as a partial inspiration for Swann of "Remembrance of Things Past"; Renoir includes him in a famous painting. In Vienna, the netsuke's next home, the massive Palais Ephrussi dominates the Ringstrasse and is so lavishly furnished, it's the first private home targeted by the Nazis after the Anschluss.
All this art and history is fascinating but what sets the book apart is de Waal's writing. This is a personal odyssey for him and the reader feels this on every step of the journey. He is trying to uncover truths and understand the prejudices of the time. Anti-semitism lurks everywhere, underneath, even as the Ephrussi try diligently to assimilate in every way. When it bursts forth like a massive head of steam, the results are terrifying.
De Waal is an artist, a sensitive man, and he allows the reader to sense his emotions at every revelation. He steps into his great great grandmother's dressing room and reminds us that here is where the netsuke were kept so the children could play with them while she dressed, and here is the view outside, and here are what the trees looked and smelled like. You are there. He has introduced you to everyone and you know them all. And when things go wrong, you're there too.
I waited to get this from the library but the list was too long so I bought it. If the library had coughed it up in time for book group I would have gone straight out to buy it after I finished. It's a book to own and re-read. It's a small masterpiece.
Edmund de Waal is the descendant of the founder of a family, the Ephrussis, that had once been as rich as the Rothschilds but saw their wealth reduced to a collection of tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings known as netsuke. His desire to discover the story of his family led him to investigate how this occurred and write this memoir. It is a beautifully written book that highlights the literary, artistic, and historical events that surround the major figures in the family. But It begins in fin de siecle Paris (where part of the family had moved after leaving Odessa) before moving to Vienna where the family would be ensconced in the Ringstrasse for the early decades of the twentieth century. All that would change with the coming of the Nazis and the destructive force of war in Europe. At their height the Ephrussi were patrons of numerous geniuses – an aunt, Elizabeth, was a correspondent of the poet Rilke. Charles features in a famous Renoir painting and bought a picture of asparagus fresh from Manet’s studio. In their story one can see evidence Thomas Mann’s principle that, in great dynasties, the first generation makes money, the next spends it on art and the final ruin of the house is the last generation who become artists.
What impressed me, as it has other readers, was the importance of art and literature in this family. This is on prominent display in the section set in Paris that describes the family's connections with the impressionist and symbolist movements. The author's own interest in art and ceramics pervades the story and insures that his search will highlight these areas. It is a search that begins in Japan with his Uncle Ignace (Iggie), who died in 1994 in Tokyo. De Waal inherits the collection of netsuke that includes "The Hare with Amber Eyes" and he proceeds to investigate the story of his family and of the netsuke collection that represents their heritage. The memoir is a tale told modestly and subtlety, and its power grows through the small moments de Waal shares as he uncovers his family's history.
After struggling with this for nearly a week, I had only reached 100 pages. I really wanted to enjoy it, I'm a great fan of biographies, but there was just too much information packed in, fact after fact, dry, dusty. The netsuke sound wonderful, I'd like to see some in the flesh. I Googled them and loved all the varied little characters.
I'm told the last 100 pages are excellent and maybe one day I'll go back and have a second attempt, I read a lot of holocaust records and I believe the ending brings us to that era. But there are many excellent books from that time, will I really choose to have another go at this rather than another account?
I hate abandoning books, this is the first one in two years (excluding a couple of audiobooks) but I know what will happen, it will sit on my shelf 'pending', while I could pass it on to someone who might enjoy it...........
Following the recent earthquake, tsunami and the, as I write this review, subsequent and ongoing ‘situation’ with the nuclear reactors at Fukushima Daiichi, I found the description of the hardships post-war Japan very moving , ‘Faced with this hardship, the phrase of the moment was Shikata ga nai. It means “Nothing can be done about it”, with a strong undercurrent of “and don’t complain”.’
Slow, yes, but it caught wonderfully the undercurrent of anti-semitism that swirled around (and eventually submerged) even the most successful and establishment European Jewish families. Also contained a surprisingly large number of words I had to go to the dictionary to look up.
His research becomes more than just tracing the journey made by these netsuke and the vitrine they were placed in. It takes him to the history of the family Ephrussi, from the time they became powerful grain merchants in Odessa, to a powerful dynasty spreading into France and Vienna through the 19th and early 20th Centuries, to the tragedies during the Nazi occupation and the resettlement of various family members across America, Japan and the UK after WWII.
At some point, the netsuke take a back seat to the unfolding family history, but they do remain in the background, never forgotten, and at times they leap back into the spotlight, and the story behind their survival against Nazi looting is short of miraculous.
It had a bit of a rocky start, but smoothed out quite nicely by the halfway point and then it just sailed calmly towards the end. The illustrations and photographs added a nice touch.
Although the writing in the book was easy to read and very descriptive. I felt that de Waal spent too much time covering his research process and what he did in the present to dig up his family's past. This was my bookclub's selection for October and although not everyone loved the book, it did spark some interesting conversation about anti-Semitism throughout the ages.
De Waal, who is an acclaimed potter, comes from an intriguing family. The once-fabulously wealthy began as grain merchants in Odessa and rose to international prominence as bankers at the center of the art world of Belle Epoque Paris (hobnobbing with Proust, Degas, Renoir and other such luminaries) and Vienna just prior to World War II. The author writes about their lives with imagination and elegance. His description of the moments when Vienna fell and the Palais Ephrussi, the family home (albeit an unusually grand one), was overrun by Gestapo is both heartbreaking and horrifying.
The last section of the book, dealing with the author's uncle in Japan is less evocative, and perhaps this is merely because it can't help but pale in comparison to the previous sections. Then, too, de Waal has a moment of odd crankiness when he snaps at a friend who questions his determination to keep the museum-worthy collection rather than return it to Japan. He states he has every right to keep the netsukes.
"No, I answer. Objects have always been carried, sold, bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost. People have always given gifts. It is how you tell their stories that matters."
Is this true? I don't think so, not entirely. The first part is undeniable, but the second -- that it is only the stories that matter -- I cannot agree with. I think of the sacred objects that have been stolen from First Nations people, for example, and I believe they should be returned. The fact people have always stolen, bartered or given them away is not moral justification. I do, as a writer, understand the power of stories, but cannot use this power to negate my responsibilities, not even if Renoir painted my ancestors, not even if Proust wrote about them.
Still, even with this criticism, it is a thought-provoking and interesting read. Highly recommended.
The author, Edmund de Waal, the British-born son of a Dutch clergyman in the Church of England, has inherited a set of 264 small *netsuke* - tiny wood and ivory carvings from Japan - from his great uncle, who lived in Tokyo. De Waal, a ceramicist, is struck by their beauty and decides to trace their origin and journeys over 5 generations through his family. His discovery of the journeys take him to Vienna, Paris, Odessa, and Japan and trace the history of a very prominent, wealthy Jewish dynasty who were decimated by the Nazis during World War II. All that remained of their wealth was this collection of netsuke, hidden and rediscovered, after the war. It took De Waal over 2 years to reconstruct the story and write this book and his obsession to do so is our gain.
While the backcover blurb promised the unveiling of "a story far larger and more dramatic than" the protagonist could ever have imagined, the descriptions of Paris streets and explanations of family empire building, did not enthrall me to the extent that I was willing to waste more of my life wading through dross while waiting for the big picture.
I did not see sufficient promise of a rewarding read in the first 33 pages.
I'm sorry, but no; not for me.