“What did these small things mean? Why does touch matter? And what survives?” — Edmund de Waal

A nibbling rat. A cluster of tortoises. And of course, a pale ivory hare with amber eyes. All of these intricately carved figures – netsuke – were the subject of our latest Brown Baggers’ read, The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal.

The Ephrussi family was once as powerful and wealthy as the Rothschilds, a well-known European business and banking dynasty. With roots in Odessa (then part of Russia), the family had started spread out across Europe. Charles Ephrussi was a friend and patron of the Impressionists, but when the craze for Japanese art and culture swept Paris, Charles was not immune. He acquired a collection of over 250 netsuke, small carved toggle-like objects used to fasten outer pockets onto kimonos. De Waal, a descendant of the Ephrussi clan, uses these intricate, touchable objects as a connecting thread to trace his family history.

The Brown Baggers enjoyed a lively discussion about this book and the historical events it touched on. We noted that De Waal’s writing style was fairly unique. A few members struggled to finish after a slow start, but others found the latter half held our interest once it picked up speed. De Waal shied away from recreating conversations or inferring too many sentimental scenes as he noted other nonfiction books do, but still managed to create vivid glimpse into the lives of the Ephrussi family. Focusing on a specific collection of objects was an interesting way to highlight different points in both the family’s history and the larger story of Europe. In an interview, De Waal stated, “Nostalgia feels an easy route into family memory and I wanted something harder and more exacting. That’s why I expressed my ambivalence so strongly. I really didn’t want to channel some sepia melancholic bit of memoir… I can see my family as a real group of people, living in extraordinary times.”

A large portion of our discussion also focused on the treatment of Jews across Europe during the book’s time frame. Despite their great wealth, the Ephrussi clan was still socially limited to an extent. In 1938, the grand Palais Ephrussi in Vienna’s Ringstrasse was raided and “Aryanized.” Under Gestapo threats, the building and all its contents were signed away. By showing not only some of the horrifying cruelties along with the earlier history of Jewish society in Europe, we were able to get a better picture of the foundation of these attitudes. While the Ephrussis may have had a vague idea of the trouble ahead, we discussed how serious or early the warnings must be for them to be acted upon. Where is that line?

Art and its importance was another topic we enjoyed discussing, from the intricate netsuke to the Impressionist painters that popped up as characters. We learned that Charles Ephrussi is actually the dark, top-hatted figure in the back of Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party and one of the main inspirations for Proust’s Swann. De Waal himself is a well known potter, with many ceramic exhibits in British museums and galleries. We took advantage of the wireless connection in our meeting room to view many of the netsuke, other paintings in Charles Ephrussi’s collection, and the stunning former Ephrussi homes.

Further reading and information:

Edmund de Waal’s website has a wealth of information, from press and interviews to a beautiful gallery of the netsuke.

In Search of Lost Time by Marcel Proust

The Victim’s Fortune: Inside the Epic Battle Over the Debts of the Holocaust by John Authers and Richard Wolffe

The Rothschilds: A Family of Fortune by Virginia Cowles

International Netsuke Society

One thought on ““What did these small things mean? Why does touch matter? And what survives?” — Edmund de Waal

  1. Fascinating stuff, a good review and some great additional resources- thanks!
    For all the book lovers, I listen to The Book Report, which is a weekly radio show with interesting content, author interviews and audio book previews. You can check it out on bookreportradio(.)com for broadcasting details but site visitors can also listen to show recordings online. I see this is one of the books in the line-up of today’s show…I’ll have to take a listen, and compare notes. 🙂

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