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Jesse Kornbluth

Jesse Kornbluth

Posted: October 4, 2010 11:11 AM

There are men and women who write beautifully, every word inevitable, the paragraphs building into chapters, the chapters adding up to a great book, and we never suspect that their work is a phenomenal trick -- that they bled over every word, turned every sentence around a dozen times, missed meals with their children, sacrificing all to make their writing look effortless.

And then there are men and women who write beautifully because they're tuned to a different frequency and do everything beautifully. They may work to make their writing better, but they're starting at such a high level they really don't need to -- they're in humanity's elite.

Edmund de Waal is in that second group. And so we start with an irony -- the author of the most exquisite memoir you're likely to read this year isn't a writer. He's a potter, said to be one of the best in England, and Professor of Ceramics at the University of Westminster.

You could say the eye that judges a pot is also a writer's eye.

And you could say a gifted Brit who studied English at Cambridge really should be able to write a compelling family story.

But none of that would explain the fierce attachment early readers of The Hare with Amber Eyes have for it, why they can't help talking about it, why they press copies on friends. (To buy the book from Amazon, click here. For the Kindle edition, click here.]

Let me try. Start here: The Hare with Amber Eyes has, as they say in show biz, everything. The highest echelons of Society in pre-World War I Paris. Nazi thugs and Austrian collaborators. A gay heir who takes refuge in Japan. Style. Seduction. Rothschild-level wealth. Two centuries of anti-Semitism. And 264 pieces of netsuke, the pocket-sized ivory-or-wood sculpture first made in Japan in the 17th century.

It is on these netsuke that de Waal hangs his tale -- or, rather, searches for it. Decades after he apprenticed as a potter in Japan, he has returned to research his mentor. In the afternoons, he makes pots. And, one afternoon a week, he visits his great-uncle Iggie.

Iggie owns a large vitrine, in which he displays his netsuke collection. He has stories about that collection, but then he has so many tales about his family that de Waal delightedly spoons them up -- glorious anecdotes of hunting parties in Czechoslovakia, gypsies with dancing bears, his grandmother bringing special cakes from Vienna on the Orient Express. And then this:

And Emmy pulling him from the window at breakfast to show him an autumnal tree outside the dining room window covered in goldfinches. And how when he knocked on the window and they flew, the tree was still blazing golden.


I shivered when I read that last sentence -- you don't often read a description of real-world magic expressed so magically. And so simply!

All week long, I open books, hoping for a line like that. Mostly, I get well-intentioned banality -- the world viewed through eyes dulled by experience. Bu de Waal is a visual artist; he lives to look, and look hard. And, like a detective, he'll keep looking until he's put the objects of his interest into a kind of order.

His interest: the collection of netsuke bought in 1870 in Paris by Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of his great-grandfather. Because his family is "staggeringly rich," Charles is able to exercise his considerable taste. No holding back with this collector -- in the best story about Charles, he buys a still life of asparagus from Manet at a price so over-the-top that the artist sends a unique thank-you: a painting of a single stalk of asparagus, with a note, "This seems to have slipped from the bundle."

Charles in Paris -- a city of salons, exquisite clothes, complicated relationships. The world of Proust. It's no surprise that Charles and Marcel were friends or that the novelist based a character on him.

"I have fallen for Charles," de Waal writes. Yes, he has, and it shows; there's more here about Charles than most readers will want. Feel free to skim. Skip, if you must. But don't, for the sake of your immortal soul, put the book down, for in 1899, Charles sends his first cousin in Vienna the netsuke as a wedding present and the book goes into a different gear.

In Vienna, de Waal writes, there were 145,000 Jews in 1899 -- 71 per cent of the city's financiers, 65 per cent of the lawyers, 59 per cent of the doctors, half the journalists. Why does he begin this chapter by telling us about the Jews when, as he notes, they were so assimilated? Oh, you know why; it just takes three-and-a-half decades for the anti-Semitism he chronicles to reach a boil.

I've studied World War I, as you have, but not from the point-of-view of a rich Jewish banker in Austria. I'm obsessed, as you may be, with the rise of the Nazis, but -- silly me -- I somehow thought that Jews who owned palaces were exempt. So you will encounter nail-biting terror here. And you'll be brought up short: How did a book about an collection of objects take such a radical turn? And how, amid the horror, did 264 pieces of netsuke survive intact?

England, Japan, Russia. The research unhinges de Waal: "I no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or if it is a book about small Japanese things." Curiously, that is to the book's advantage; it's really up to the reader to take what meaning he or she can from this story of objects gained, lost, found.

What are objects to us? Do they change when we hold them, display them, give them value? Do they "retain the pulse of their makeup?" If we didn't collect anything, how would we remember who we were?

Edmund de Waal and his wife live with their three young children -- and the vitrine of netsuke. The kids sometimes play with the little pieces. "But there is no aesthetic life with small kids around," de Waal has told interviewers. "They want that plastic tiara, or Disney water pistol -- and you remember what it is to start accumulating things in your life." The implication is clear: Eventually those kids will understand and appreciate what it means to hold the objects of their ancestors.

My ancestors are dust. At most, there are a few photographs. So for me, the moral of this book is that everything matters but nothing lasts. Cherish beauty, but keep it private. And, if you are a Jew, always be prepared to pack and flee on an hour's notice.

Your take will be just as personal. And you might as well accept that going in -- this is not a book about Japanese art objects.

[cross-posted from HeadButler.com]