This year, after many years shying away from such things, I subscribed to a lot of literary magazines including the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, and the New York Review of Books. Maybe it’s just that they all sent me seductive introductory offers, maybe it’s that I now have a partner who doesn’t think I’m being a showoff if I look up from a review publication to discuss whatever it is that’s caught my eye, but when I got to the pile of year-end issues, one book kept popping up in everyone’s capsule descriptions of what they’d loved reading: Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss.
A ceramicist by trade, de Waal inherits a set of 264 netsuke from his great-uncle Iggie, and sets out to explore what they are, how they came into the family, and how they survived the cataclysm of both world wars, wars that destroyed the fortune and palatial home of the Austrian branch of his family. For de Waal is descended from the Ephrussi family, one of the great 19th and early-20th century Jewish banking families who emerged from the Ukraine after making a fortune in grain and oil, and his story follows the contours not only of aesthetic history, but also history of the more tragic kind.
It’s a mesmerizing read that seems to shift seamlessly from discussion of the rise of the great Jewish merchant banks, to the aesthetic fashions of 1870s Paris, to his great-uncle Iggie’s settled life in Japan with his younger boyfriend, to the story of Iggie and de Waal’s grandmother growing up in Vienna, to his own journeys in search of these stories. I’ll admit part of my fascination is that I have any number of talismans of my own vanished family wealth, wealth that emerged from the gears and grain capitol that was Chicago in the 1870s: a diamond ring I was given by my grandmother “because you’re the only one who cares about the story,” a set of silverware engraved with the initials of the great-grandmother after whom I was named, various bits and bobs of china that survived the century since that fortune went down with my great-great grandfather on the Lusitania.
But there was something more to this book than just a simple memoir, de Waal’s writing about the netsuke, enacts the same sort of pleasure as the one he describes as being at the core of the enduring appeal of the nestuke. He writes like a man turning small treasures over and over in his hand, treasures he’s happy to describe and to share. Describing the netsuke in their first home, the home of Charles Ephrussi (one of Proust’s models for Swann), de Waal also describes what is so seductive about his own book:
“But the vitrine — as opposed to the museum’s case — is for opening. And that opening glass door and the moment of looking, then choosing, then reaching in and then picking up is a moment of seduction, an encounter between a hand and an object that is electric.
A good story is also both seductive and electric in this way, and this is the effect of de Waal’s prose. It is as though he brings out a series of objects and shows them to one, tells their stories, not parsing their meanings in a reductive way that closes off meaning, but discussing them in the best discursive manner, in a way that leaves meaning open and continuous. Like any objects that have survived cataclysm, the stories attached to them are not always pleasant, but the experience of hearing these stories, of turning them over and over in ones’ mind, this is an experience not to be missed.