The hare with amber eyes : a family's century of art and loss

by Edmund De Waal

Hardcover, 2010




New York : Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010.


Traces the parallel stories of nineteenth-century art patron Charles Ephrussi and his unique collection of 360 miniature netsuke Japanese ivory carvings, documenting Ephrussi's relationship with Marcel Proust and the impact of the Holocaust on his cosmopolitan family.

Media reviews

Edmund de Waal kreeg van een oudoom 264 gordelknopen. Ze leidden tot het schrijven van de geschiedenis van zijn joodse familie, met mooie verhalen,

User reviews

LibraryThing member Smiler69
When Edmund de Waal inherited a priceless collection of 264 netsukes—japanese miniatures made from ivory depicting animals and scenes of everyday life—from his great uncle, Iggie, who told him how he had played with them as a child in his mother's dressing room with his siblings, the author
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decided to set aside his own work as a world-renowned potter and curator to travel to the places which would help him uncover the rich family history from which he descends, and of which the netsukes were the only memento of the dynasty which were the vastly wealthy Jewish Ephrussi family, rich grain merchants originally from Odessa who had become powerful bankers in Europe and who were peers to the Rothschild family, only to lose everything to the Nazis.

His tale is a sweeping saga, which starts in the 19th century with the magnetic Charles Ephrussi, the original collector of the netsukes, an art collector and patron who admired and promoted the impressionists when they were still considered as radicals, and who purchased some 40 works by Monet, Manet, Degas, Renoir, and Pissarro, among others, and became part-owner and then editor and contributor to the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, the most important art historical periodical in France. As such, he was a welcome guest at some of the most famous salons in Paris and is known to be one of the inspirations for the figure of Swann in Marcel Proust's À la recherche du temps perdu (In Search of Lost Time). He also appears in Le déjeuner des canotiers (Luncheon of the Boating Party) by Pierre-Auguste Renoir as the figure seen from the back wearing a hat. But things abruptly changed with the Dreyfus affair in 1894, when the French took sides and anti-semitism became widespread. Suddenly, many old friends were lost and became sworn enemies.

De Waal continues the family history, following the path of the nestukes, who came into the hands of Charles's niece as a wedding present. Iggie's mother and the author's great grandmother was a great one for going to the opera and dinner parties wearing fashionable gorgeous dresses with perfectly matched hats and gloves, which her maid Anna always knew how to help her choose and bring off with the perfect piece of jewelry, and always, as she dressed, the children were allowed to play on the yellow rug with the priceless collection of tiny netsuke she kept in the cabinet placed in her dressing room which uncle Charles had given her. The First World War had been hard enough to get through, but then the Nazis came into power and for all of them, the enchanted world at the Palais Ephrussi was shattered forever, as they were turned out of their living quarters and their possessions taken over by the Reich, and the horrors of the holocaust forced them to flee in all directions. I rarely cry when reading a book, but I cried when Anna, after the war is over, reveals to Elizabeth, the author's grandmother, how it is she managed to smuggle the netsuke figures one by one from under the Natzi's very noses in safekeeping as a valuable memento she could salvage for the family for which she had worked all her life.
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LibraryThing member tg0610
Verbal masturbation the likes of which the literate will spot from a mile away, The Hare With Amber Eyes is among the most pointless books I have ever read. Here's a handy summary to save the potential reader a bit of time: vapid, materialistic family with few redeeming qualities accumulates a
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fortune; vapid, materialistic family loses everything save a collection of interesting Japanese miniatures which the author fetishizes in exhausting, long-winded detail. Nazis are involved somewhere along the line and show-offy words and phrases pop up every few paragraphs. A truly horrid book.
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LibraryThing member BlackSheepDances
carved of wood or ivory, most were the size of a walnut
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
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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.
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LibraryThing member baswood
On the whole I found Waal’s book a disappointment. I just could not get worked up about a super rich family losing their possessions and this was Waal’s fault because he has made this biography so personal. Any empathy I had for these bankers and their entourage dissipated the further I got
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into the book and I began to find Waal himself just a little annoying. I was not put in the best frame of mind by the self-promotion of his preface.

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
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LibraryThing member NarratorLady
This jewel, this highly personal chronicle of art and history, is quite simply the best book I've read in a long time. Even setting out to write a small review, I know I won't come near to doing it justice.

I had to stop several times while reading to reach for the laptop (bless the internet!) to
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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.
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LibraryThing member jwhenderson
This book combines biography, autobiography, history, anthropology and art history. But above all The Hare with Amber Eyes is the story of a family. It is a memoir about their story over five generations as they moved around the globe from Odessa to Tokyo. It is a story of leavings and
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relationships intertwined with the history of Europe from the end of the nineteenth century through the end of the Second World War. It is also a story of a family whose experience and familiarity with the likes of Proust, Rilke, Japanese art, the rue de Morceau, and the society of the Ringstrasse in Vienna adorn their intimate family memories.
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.
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LibraryThing member Alinea
The potter believes in the existential hum of objects, but this tale of a family heirloom misses the bigger picture
Edmund de Waal is a potter, perhaps the most famous potter working in Britain today. His bowls and beakers, thrown in porcelain and glazed in celadon, are domestic, – in theory, you
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could fill them with hot tea – but they also exist in a more contemplative realm; arranged in pale lines and marked by various dents and asymmetries, they whisper a story of limitless but rather fragile possibility. This is what they say: that the potter may throw any shape he likes; that no two of his pots will ever be precisely the same; and that a pot may disappear – crash! – in an instant. I find them exquisite, but I'm not sure that I would ever want to own a row. As an ever-present metaphor for human endeavour, I fear they would slowly drive me mad.

1. The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance
2. by Edmund De Waal
4. Buy it from the Guardian bookshop

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In his memoir, de Waal alludes early on to the existential hum some objects emit. Things do "retain the pulse of their making" and this intrigues him: "There is a breath of hesitancy before touching or not touching, a strange moment. If I choose to pick up this small white cup with its single chip near the handle, will it figure in my life?" De Waal believes the way objects are handed on has as much to do with storytelling as happenstance. You know the drill: this belonged to your aunt, who looked just like you. But such anecdotes, prettified over time, obscure as well as reveal and this worries him (he's always worrying).

De Waal has inherited 264 Japanese netsuke – wood and ivory carvings of animals, plants and people, none larger than the palm of his hand – from his beloved great uncle Iggie, and though they're a relatively recent arrival at his London home, already he fears their story is growing too "poised". A netsuke is a "small, tough explosion of exactitude". It deserves exactitude in return. "I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers and where it has been." So, leaving his studio in the care of others, off he went. He would tell their story.

Where does it begin? Paris. The netsuke were bought from a dealer there in the 1870s by Charles Ephrussi, a relative of his great grandfather, Viktor. Charles, scion of the fabulously rich Jewish banking family and one of the models for Proust's aesthete Charles Swann, is a collector who once bought a still life of asparagus from Manet at a price so generous the artist sent him a canvas of a further, single stalk in gratitude. Charles bought the netsuke during the craze for Japonisme. They were kept in a black lacquer vitrine until, one day, Charles sent them to Vienna as a wedding present for his cousin Viktor. Why send these rather than, say, a vase? De Waal speculates that they must have been lost among all the tapestries and the Renoirs; probably, Charles had outgrown them.

But at Viktor's home, they were equally out of place. "It looks like the foyer of the opera," said his bride, Emmy, on being shown her new apartment. The vitrine and its homely curiosities – netsuke were originally designed as toggles – were banished to her dressing room, where, in due course, her children would play with them while she chose her jewellery. And there they stayed, a cuckoo in the nest, as the first world war began, and ended, and then, as Austria, unable to feed its people, allowed antisemitism to take hold. In March 1938, the Ephrussi home was invaded by men in swastika armbands. Some things were stolen, others destroyed, but the netsuke remained mysteriously intact.

After the Anschluss, the family fled. Emmy took her own life in the Ephrussi country house in Czechoslovakia. Viktor and his children escaped elsewhere: his daughter, Elisabeth (de Waal's grandmother), took her father to Tunbridge Wells. After the war, she travelled to Vienna to discover what remained of the family's possessions. Not much was the answer, but a maid, Anna, saved the netsuke from the Nazis, hiding them in her mattress.

In 1947, Elisabeth's brother, Ignace (Iggie), visited Tunbridge Wells between postings for an international grain exporter. Should he go to the Congo or to Japan? They looked at the netsuke together and his decision was made for him. And it was in Japan, in 1991, that de Waal first set eyes on his future inheritance, now repatriated by Iggie. The young potter was studying in Japan and every week he lunched with his great uncle. Afterwards, they examined the netsuke, one by one. The hare with the amber eyes. A tiger. A tumble of tortoises.

De Waal has researched his story with obsessive diligence and he tells it with an imaginative commitment – searching, yet wide-eyed – sadly lacking in some of our more wizened biographers. He is wonderful on place, forever turning doorknobs, real and imaginary, and inviting the reader in. But I could not understand, and became annoyed by, his conviction that he is not in the business of memorialising the diaspora. There is something precious about this, as though such territory is beneath him. "I don't really want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss," he says.

The question is: do the netsuke enable him to resist such a tale? No. Their survival is wondrous, but I don't think their presence turns The Hare With Amber Eyes from memoir into book of ideas, as de Waal seems to believe. Sometimes, they are more distraction than narrative thread and the need to return to them often bogs the author down; there are, after all, only so many ways to describe the feel of carved wood and only so many times such an image can be made to work as a symbol of patinated memory without the reader feeling that a point is being laboured. I loved the story of the Ephrussis, but I am mystified by de Waal's insistence on gilding it with his own flimsy abstractions. There is no shame in telling people what happened to Jewish families in the last century. Such elegies, sepia or otherwise, grow every day more vital.
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LibraryThing member jmoncton
The author, Edmund de Waal, becomes the 5th generation in his family to inherit a large collection of Japanese netsuke, small wood and ivory figurines. The collection, obtained by the family in the late 1800's, have an interesting past, including traveling from Japan, to Paris and to Vienna. The
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book traces not only the path of the art objects, but also follows the family's history, from being one of the most influential and wealthy families in Europe to their downfall when the Germans invade Austria during WWII.

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.
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LibraryThing member Laurenbdavis
A wonderful book by a talented writer. Part family memoir, part holocaust narrative, de Waal's meditations on the nature of our relationships with objects is fascinating -- what they displace in the world, what we choose to hold, to touch, how their loss affects us, and how they stand as metaphors
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for how we live. The narrative is framed by de Waal's quest to understand how a collection of netsuke's (the small, intricately carved Japanese objects used to weight the end of obis -- kimono belts), which he now owns, came into the family possession.

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.
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LibraryThing member riverwillow
Edmund de Waal has written a lovely book centred around the history of a collection of Japanese netsuke he inherited from his great uncle. By using the netsuke de Waal has created a book which is both personal, as he explores the daily lives of his various ancestors who owned the netsuke, but also
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universal as politics and economics impact their daily lives. As is inevitable with a story about a wealthy Jewish family living in Vienna, the sections centred around WWII were both horrible and fascinating and de Waal’s anger and frustration at his ancestor’s treatment at the hands of the Nazi’s is compellingly conveyed.

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”.’

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LibraryThing member jessibud2
I found this to be a well-written and thorough personal journey. I happen to really enjoy this genre, especially when there is a family tree at the beginning, to follow the story from generation to generation. Still, I did find it a bit slow at the beginning and actually put it down for a few
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months upon hitting the half-way point. It was good, engaging and I did not want to abandon it. I picked it up again a few days ago and found the latter half of the book much easier and more interesting and was able to finish without any problems.

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.
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LibraryThing member cameling
Having inherited 264 netsuke, Japanese wooden and ivory carvings, Edmund de Waal, a ceramicist, decides to try and trace the origins of these little ornaments. His search and research take him to how netsuke are created and then segues into the history the man who bought and built this collection,
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Charles Ephrussi, the youngest son of the House of Ephrussi from Odessa, the Kings of Grain, the family he belonged to and ends with the author's connection to the family.

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.
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LibraryThing member anyotherbizniz
A beautifully realised book; almost crafted rather written - like a series of netsuke rather than chapters. An intriguing starting point for what is in effect a diasapora history of the last 150 years.

Slow, yes, but it caught wonderfully the undercurrent of anti-semitism that swirled around (and
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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.
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LibraryThing member PennyAnne
Absolutely the best book I have read in a long time. Using the collection of netsuke he inherited as a starting point, the author traces his family history and tells the story of the rise and fall of the Ephrussi dynasty. Much of the book is set in Vienna and, as I currently live in Vienna, I found
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it absolutely fascinating, particularly as many of the buildings, cafes etc mentioned still stand. This book is both history and biography, with a little mystery thrown in - brilliant!
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LibraryThing member michigantrumpet
World class potter de Waal inherits 264 netsuke from his Great-Uncle. An artist himself, he helps us to appreciate the beauty of these small intricately carved objects used to fasten obi sashes. His exposition goes further afield, using the netsuke as a literary device to follow the (mis)fortunes
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of his illustrious Jewish banking family, the fascination of collecting, Belle Époque Paris, pre-WWII Austria, post WWII Japan and the bravery of a determined maid, Anna. There is a helpful family tree at the start and photographs sprinkled throughout. Quite an interesting read.
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LibraryThing member Library_Lin
Objects, like people, have histories. Edmund de Waal's story of the netsuke he has inherited from his granduncle Iggie takes you from Paris to Vienna and from Tokyo to London with a stop in Odessa along the way. I would imagine this would be an interesting story regardless of the family involved in
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the hands of any skilled storyteller.

De Waal's family, however, was anything but average. They were the Ephrussi, a fabulously rich Jewish family of bankers that began its empire in Russia in the mid-1800s. Their banks spread over Western Europe by the late-nineteenth century only to be eliminated in World War II.

Throughout the book, de Waal interweaves stories of his great-great uncles, their cousins, and his great-grandparents with world events. And these he mixes with the everyday lives of his forebears, and the attitudes of Europeans towards the family and Jews in general.

Like the vitrines which hold the netsuke, de Waal's book is itself a cabinet of sorts, allowing us to peek into the lives and times of the people who owned them. I found it a deeply meditative book about the human conditiobn. The Ephrussi are held up as neither great nor as victims, but as real people shaped by their time and place.

The tragedy that visited his family is examined no more sympathetically than the Japanese are during the occupation after World War II. We are all similar, de Waal seems to be saying. We all share, in our humanity, the impulse for good and for ill. And we all suffer or benefit from these impulses from others.
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LibraryThing member DubaiReader
Only managed 100 pages.

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
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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...........
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LibraryThing member mikerr
De Waal inherits a collection of Japanese netsuke (small, intricate decorative objet) from his gay great-uncle, and sets out to trace their history. In so doing, he examines the rise and fall of his family's spectacular wealth, the development of Viennese anti-semitism, and some of the forces that
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have shaped modern Europe.

The book is well-written and interesting - but I didn't find it captivating until about half-way through, when the narrative moves into the 20th century.
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LibraryThing member gypsysmom
I expected to really love this book from the description of it that I first read. Unfortunately it did not live up to my expectations.

Edmund DeWaal charts his family's history by following a collection of netsuke, those small, intricate carvings used by Japanese men on the sash on their kimono.
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His family started as grain sellers in Russia and as their fortunes grew they moved to Vienna and then Paris. In Paris his great-great-uncle (or possibly even more greats than that) became an art collector and writer. A collection of netsuke was purchased by him from a Paris dealer during the height of the japonisme fever. At the turn of the 20th century he sent them to his favourite nephew and his wife as a wedding present. For over 40 years they stayed in Vienna even when the family had to flee during the Second World War. A devoted servant took them under the noses of the Nazis and hid them in her mattress. After the war was over she returned them to the author's grandmother. The grandmother's brother, Iggie, then took them back to Japan when he moved there as a businessman. When Iggie died he left the collection to the author.

I enjoyed the last half of the book more than the first half. I understand the author's motivation to trace the netsuke from the first time they entered his family's ownership because that is probably how he first heard the stories. However, for me, all of the information about his great-great-uncle in Paris (down to the colour of his carpet) did not grab me. I wanted to hear about the netsuke but they are hardly mentioned in the Paris part of the book. Even in the Vienna portion there was a lot more information about his great-grandmother's clothes than the netsuke. And although there are pictures sprinkled throughout the book there are none of the netsuke themselves.

There is no doubt that this family had some very interesting members and their enormous wealth gave them advantages that ordinary citizens of Paris and Vienna would not have had. I found some of that worthwhile to learn but the author seemed to dwell on the wrong people as far as I was concerned. I would have liked to have learned more about his grandmother, Elizabeth, who went to University and became a lawyer at a time when women were seldom educated at all. His own father hardly gets mentioned and yet he became an Anglican minister and held some high offices.

Perhaps I had the wrong motivation for reading this book. I expected to find out more about the history of the netsuke. If I had gone into it with the expectation of learning about a Jewish family's experiences during the last 200 years then I would have gotten more than I was expecting.
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LibraryThing member Edith1
This book grew on me. It has a good concept -- the author is tracing the path of a collection of netsuke that has been in his family for a century and a half, as it travels from one family member to another, and as the family itself moves around Europe as twentieth-century history unfolds -- and
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the author/narrator is likable, but it was only in the second half of the book that the family members and the story came to life for me. I did enjoy reading it, but I wouldn't put it on a must-read list.
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LibraryThing member NeilDalley
Normally the books that inspire me are books about people, their lives and their emotions. It is a collection of objects that are at the centre of this book and for me this meant that the book felt a little bit cold. Certainly it is an interesting story and there are lots of interesting people
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along the way but on the whole they only appear very superficially. The first section in Paris is very dull and I had virtually given up on the book but with the encouragement of others I persevered to read about the time in Vienna. This was the best part of the book and is shocking and challenging because of the family's treatment at the hands of the Nazis. On the whole I would not recommend this book to other people. I feel that some of its popularity is simply because it is a very different approach to biography and art history. If you are someone who normally reads fiction rather than about art I think you will be disappointed by this.
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LibraryThing member Harmonious
This book is written by an artist, a very fine artist of ceramics, and the beauty of his writing is extraordinary. He takes you to Paris, Japan and Vienna, tracing his ancestors and the netsuke's history. Non-fiction at its very best.
LibraryThing member dgbdgb
Excellent read - biography and study of Paris, Vienna and Tokyo at different times, beautifully written, and covering some large themes. Recommended.
LibraryThing member alexrichman
A biography of a collection - it's a good idea and a great read. First we follow a foppish flanuer, then watch as his moneyed family's empire crumbles to dust, and so forth...all endured stoically by the eponymous hare and his friends.
LibraryThing member Meggo
A fascinating story of a family told through the viewpoint of its collection of netsuke - tiny Japanese objets d'art - and their twisted path from the original collector, Charles Ephrussi, to the author, his descendant. From Japan to Nazi occupied Austria, then back to Japan on onwards, these
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precious little sculptures tell stories beyond their size. A fascinating story, well written.
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Costa Book Awards (Shortlist — Biography — 2010)
British Book Award (Winner — New Writer — 2010)
Pol Roger Duff Cooper Prize (Shortlist — 2010)



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