One of the local book groups has obviously selected The Hare with Amber Eyes : A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund De Waal as their next book as people have been coming in for it – I am so pleased! This is one of the best books of the last few years and it is exciting that it is going to surprise and enchant new readers. It is available as a paperback (Vintage) which has some photos, and a rather lovely hardback (Chatto & Windus) which has a lot more.
The amber-eyed bunny is one of 264 smaller-than-a-matchbox Japanese netsuke that renowned potter De Waal first saw at his great-uncle Iggie’s place in Japan. When the nephew inherited the collection he discovered the intriguing, rich and devastating family history behind them.
Iggie (Ignace) was one of the three children who lived in the Ephrussi Palace in Vienna, who played with the charming carvings while mid-20th century Europe began to implode around them. The Jewish Ephrussi family came from Odessa on the Caspian Sea, and at one time were the largest grain exporters in the world; from there they spread out to the glittering capitals of Europe establishing an interconnected banking and trading empire – in Austria, the Hapsburgs ennobled them. In the 1870s, Charles Ephrussi was part of a wealthy new generation settling in Paris. Debonair, charming Charles was one of Marcel Proust’s inspirations for Charles Swann. Charles’s passion was collecting; the netsuke, bought when Japanese objets were all the rage in the salons, were sent as a wedding present to his banker cousin in Vienna.
After March 1938 when the invading Nazi’s took over the palace (which still stands on the Ringstrasse in Vienna), they looted almost all the treasures it contained – except for the cabinets of small, discreet netsuke, which night by night were smuggled out, one or two at a time, in the hem of a servant’s skirt, the remaining pieces being moved around on the shelves to disguise their dwindling. After the war, which many of the Ephrussi did not survive, this brave woman returned them to the family. When Iggie set up home in Tokyo, they returned home after their lengthy and dramatic sojourn.
As I say, and as many rave reviews and awards attest, this is a fantastic book in almost every way. The mix of biography, travel writing, history, personal revelation and art history is deftly woven together and De Waal, who has also written a book about pottery, proves himself an accomplished and beautiful writer. I did find, and warn almost everyone I recommend this to (who tell me that they found it so too), that this is a slow burner – most people find the fist two or three chapters interesting but wonder when the thing that everyone is raving about is going to kick in and then – kapow! – it does and you just LOVE the book and become evangelistic about it yourself.