Edmund de Waal, The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), The White Road (2015), and Letters to Camondo (2021).
A gift from a good friend, The Hare with Amber Eyes arrived as I was working slowly through Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time (by the way, 12 years later, still not finished). When de Waal inherits a collection of 260 netsuke from his Great Uncle Iggie Effrussi, he decides to learn how these gorgeous tiny carvings came to be in the Effrussi family. The book traces his family from its origins in Odessa to Paris and Vienna, then London and, eventually, Tokyo, where Iggie Effrussi lived for half a century.
My friend knew what she was about, because Iggie’s cousin, Charles Effrussi, had known Proust, and been at least part of the inspiration for Charles Swann. Other real-life people also inspired characters, and de Waal never hesitates to point them out.
But that’s just a piece of this book, which ranges across European history (mid 1800s to mid 1900s), anti-Semitism and the Holocaust, art and architecture, Nazi theft of artworks, and the role the ultra wealthy played in building art collections and endowing museums in Vienna and Paris.
A current exhibit at the Jewish Museum in New York City displays about 150 of the Effrusi netsuke until early June. These are the ones remaining in de Waal’s possession. Others were auctioned to raise funds for refugees, or donated to museums. I was pleasantly surprised to see a large number of people at the museum, bent over display cases to examine the tiny carvings. The photos below, which I took, give you no idea of the size of these pieces, but each of these could easily fit inside a 3-inch cube.
De Waal revisits Paris of the Belle Epoque up to WWII in his third book, Letters to Camondo, about the wealthy Camondo family, whose mansion in Paris is now a museum, donated to France in 1936 by M. Camondo. (It was this donation that saved the building and its contents from the Nazis, and today it remains almost completely unchanged.) The Camondos and the Effrussis lost all their wealth after the Nazi invasions of Austria and France, and the Camondo family didn’t survive Auschwitz. Both books are heart breaking.
I’m only just now reading de Waal’s second book, The White Road, in which he traces the history of porcelain clay. He calls himself a ceramics artist who also writes books, and most of his work is with porcelain. His interest, then, comes from his work, and I expect to learn much as he tracks down the origins of porcelain, starting with China.
Forty years ago, I took some pottery classes and tried working with porcelain clay. It was lovely, smooth and light. Yet too delicate for a beginner like me. None of my pieces survived the wheel. Reading this book will probably make me want to try again. It will be easy to resist, since the nearest studio and kiln are miles away. But we’ll see.