The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss
Edmund de Waal
The Hare with Amber Eyes is the story of a Jewish family, the Ephrussis; they are wealthy grain merchants turned financiers. A descendant, the well known potter, Edmund de Waal, sets out to trace the history of his legacy, 264 Netsukes, bequeathed to him by his great uncle Iggy. There is no documentation so it is a monumental research project which becomes a labor of love; his investigation turns up a treasure trove of information about his family and their lives over the last century. Originally purchased in the 1870’s, de Waal traces the path of the Netsukes over several generations and discovers the rich and diverse history of his ancestors. There is not a wasted word or a description I would change. The vocabulary is impeccable and the prose is perfect. The story takes on a life of its own. It becomes a mystery the reader wishes also to solve.
The tone and emphasis of the reader of this audio, expressed his own interest fully, and as he read the book to me and shared the pleasure of each new discovery, his excitement was contagious. I was drawn into the tale with a power that held me fast until the end. This was a story which could have been boring, laden with facts that were tedious, but instead, it was lit with the fire and inspiration of the author .
The words of the author and the reader’s passionate presentation, took me to the world of the Ephrussis where I traveled with them, from Russia, to Vienna, to Paris, to Czechoslovakia, to Japan and other places too numerous to mention. I walked alongside famous artists and writers in the cities they lived. I traveled with Charles Ephrussi, the art collector, the first owner of the Netsukes. I met glamorous personages: Proust, Degas, Renoir, Whistler, Monet. I visited the rooms filled with small miniature buttons, Netsukes, lacquers in brilliant colors, and other examples of Japanese art and carving. I entered their former homes in London, Paris and, Vienna and walked the halls with them. The art was described and I saw the paintings visible before me, hanging on the walls.
The family tree continued to grow, spreading out and becoming ever more complicated. The author examined letters and archives and found images of his relative in famous paintings, characters in books fashioned from their characters. He found the glass vitrine which housed the Netsukes, so long ago, and he traced its history as well. He followed it from household to household through letters and receipts. He discovered more about his heritage then he believed possible. His was a famous family, and he learned of their connection to the Dreyfus Affair. I experienced their rise and fall with him, as he followed them through both World Wars. I felt the shame and humiliation heaped upon them by the Nazis. Their complete assimilation into the society was resented and considered reprehensible. They had to pay for their crimes against the Aryan people.
As I continued to listen to the story unfold, I became a witness to the dismantling of a family and its fortune. The author, so wonderfully expressive with words and the reader with expression of emotion, transported me to that time and place and I felt the tension, the fear, the desperation and hopelessness of those who waited too long to leave Vienna.
After the Germans invaded Austria, the Ephrussis were in grave danger. Like the Rothschilds, they were a well-to-do and well known, Jewish banking family, but unlike the Rothschilds, they did not leave Austria in time. They did not escape and they were subjected to ridicule and abuse. Their home was raided, their possessions were confiscated and they set out wandering, hoping to escape to a safe country. The times grew more and more dangerous as Hitler’s snare became ever more encompassing.
The author had great insights and his suppositions about the family’s joys and tragedies, gleaned from extensive research, seem credible and authentic. The setting of the family memories, in their many palatial estates, is magnificent. It is an exquisite memoir examining the birth, rise and then slow and subtle destruction of the Ephrussis. Many lives were snuffed out during the war, their fortunes stolen; but their memory lives on with this book. How absolutely wonderful it is that the author has provided this gift to the world and his family. I have a small Netsuke collection of my own and this book has given me a renewed respect and admiration for each of them.