Edmund de Waal

The Hare With Amber Eyes

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The Hare With Amber Eyes Summary

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The Hare with Amber Eyes is a 2010 family memoir written by Edmund de Waal. A fifth-generation inheritor of a collection of tiny but invaluable wood and ivory carvings called netsuke that originated in the dynasties of pre-modern Japan, he tracks the movement of his collection through time from nineteenth-century Europe to his present day in 2009. In doing so, he also traces the evolution of his own lineage and the various fissures induced by crises of identity and war. The book is a meditation on the elegant narrative threads that connect art, history, and family, persisting across large spans of time.

De Waal begins with a description of the netsuke collection’s previous owners, the Ephrussis, an extremely wealthy Jewish banking family, often identified as similar to the Rothschilds, who lived in Paris and Vienna in the nineteenth century. The reign of the Ephrussis was brief, owing to the quick rise and decline of their banking empire. By the end of World War II, most of their estate had been sold off throughout the world, rendering their various artifacts impossible to trace. What remained was their netsuke collection. Totaling 264 carvings made of wood and ivory, they were maintained up until de Waal, the fifth generation of the family, inherited them.

De Waal provides vivid descriptions of the items making up the netsuke collection. Reflecting Eastern imagery, such as drunken monks, plums that look as if they are at the idyllic and precarious onset of ripeness, prowling tigers, and a hare with amber eyes from which the memoir takes its name, De Waal says that Charles Ephrussi collected them at the height of the popularity of Japanese art in Paris, whose elite coveted these relics, driving up their value. De Waal articulates the personal background of Charles: having rejected the space made for him in the family banking business, he left to study art and determine his own life course guided by aesthetics and other more globalist aspects of intellectual life. De Waal discovers that Charles was the friend, patron, and subject of many artists. He supported the Impressionist movement before it was popular at the turn of the twentieth century, and even appears in a painting by Renoir called Luncheon of the Boating Party. The writer Marcel Proust, too, observed Charles closely, using him as a model for the aesthetician character Swann in Remembrance of Things Past.

In his research, de Waal learns that Charles sent the carvings to Vienna, Italy, where they went to his cousin Viktor as a wedding gift. Viktor allowed his children to play with the netsuke when they wanted toys to pass the time as their mother, a baroness named Emmy, tried on dresses for various balls. The Ephrussi family, meanwhile, rode on the tailwind of their former glory in nineteenth-century Europe, struggling to adapt their identity to the changes happening in contemporary European life. This struggle manifested as rebellion in some of the children; for example, Emmy’s eldest daughter went on to dislike the world of fashion and elite society. She wanted instead to become a writer, beginning a correspondence with the writer Rilke, who stimulated her poetic mind. Emmy’s break from the family precluded a larger fracturing in the family identity, catalyzed by the onset of World War II and extending into the present day.

The Anschluss, wherein Austria was annexed to Nazi Germany, shattered the Ephrussis’ conception of the world. Charles and his urban family were either imprisoned or scattered around the world, and a member of Hitler’s inner circle took over their opulent palace on the edge of the Ringstrasse. A huge library of tomes, many of them priceless, was confiscated and destroyed by the Nazi regime. Luckily, the netsuke were hidden in a straw mattress, and then covertly moved by a maid loyal to the Ephrussis named Anna. After the war ended, Anna found a way to return them to the family, serving them even during their banishment. World War II having finally ended, the Ephrussis faced the dissolution of their banking empire. The collection miraculously remains intact in the author’s possession.

The Hare with Amber Eyes is a remarkable story about a work of art surviving intact through the radical social and political transformations of time. Though the netsuke’s original lineage is beyond the hope of tracing back to its original Japanese ownership, it survives to become part of the emotional fabric of another, more recent story. De Waal’s research on its passage through Europe into his possession in the present day constitutes not only art history research but also part of the universal human attempt to reassemble a fractured past into its own aesthetic object from which one can derive beauty and meaning.