Small and perfectly formed

 

FAMILY HISTORY: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance, by Edmund de Waal Chatto 334pp £16.99

BUILDINGS TELL STORIES, as do objects, no matter how small. The journey of an inanimate artwork can tell the story of a life or, more often, of several lives, from the makers and on to the various custodians over time. Passed down through families, a simple thing, be it valuable or modest, gathers histories. Netsuke, miniature carvings of ivory, bone and wood, are very small indeed. But for the British potter Edmund de Waal, who inherited a collection of 264 netsuke – strange, wonderful works of art, animals and human figures, as diverse as the imagination of the artists who made them – it becomes a quest. There is a witch trapped in a temple bell; acrobats in midtumble; beggars; tiny craftsmen intent in their work; lovers. Such a collection would fill a life, never mind a childhood, while de Waal, who writes with an artist’s eye, invests such wonder that these pieces come to life; they dance on the page through this beautiful, rather magnificent odyssey.

De Waal has spent his working life creating art. His pottery is sublime. Now, on the evidence of a book so elegiac, so memorable, he is also a writer and researcher of rare gifts. It was this collection of netsuke, initially purchased in Paris in the 1870s by Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of de Waal’s great-grandfather, that led him to explore his family. Ephrussi, the man on whom Proust modelled his Charles Swann, had bought the collection from an art dealer at a time when Japanese art was all the rage in Paris. Ephrussi was an art critic and something of a scholar; he was also a most appealing individual and very popular. De Waal tells the story not as an adoring descendant but as a skilled investigator with a flair for narrative. Be warned: anyone who opens this book will read on to the final page, as I did. No sleep will be taken; no food eaten. It is an incredible journey, not only for several generations of a Jewish merchant family, hailing from Odessa, that moved on to Vienna as well as Paris, and beyond because of the war, but also for de Waal.

The objects, the tough little netsuke, were originally intended as toggles for bags, and are well crafted. Their resilience is tested by war, never mind time. De Waal has his favourites: the ivory hare, the faun resting on leaves, the brindled wolf and, of course, the tiger that he at times carries in his pocket. Although aware of his rich family history, one that spanned Europe and experienced its own wartime sorrows, he grew up in England and by 17 was devoted to his art.

Inheriting the collection that he had known from visits made to Japan as a student proved the motivation for the book. He had looked at the pieces during stays in Tokyo with his great-uncle Iggie, who had brought the collection back to Japan. Before that the little figurines, much admired for many years in Paris, and kept in a glass cabinet, had been given by Charles, who knew Renoir and appears in one of his paintings, to a cousin, Viktor Efrussi – note the name change – as a wedding present.

Viktor, a wealthy banker, was living in Vienna, where he headed the Efrussi Bank, well known to readers of Joseph Roth (1894-1939), the definitive chronicler of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Viktor’s much younger bride, Emmy, was only 18. It is 1900, and Emmy is a determined, fashionable girl with strong ideas about how to arrange her vast new home, so grand she said it looked “like the foyer of the opera”. The collection was shipped from Paris still in the vitrine. For a moment it seems that Emmy, engaged with a string of lovers, may not be worthy of the gift. She does not give the collection a prominent position in her saloon. Instead it is placed in her dressing room. But this is more important than first appears. Given to changing her clothes several times a day, she spends a great deal of time in there. It is also where her three children most see her. They play with the pieces, and the little carvings also inspire the stories she tells them.

All the while de Waal is building his elegant, many layered tale; researching material, visiting places, reading documents, while also responding to the literature of the era. He evokes the dying days of the Austro- Hungarian Empire, notes the smugness of a Vienna still unaware of its approaching collapse. He makes effective use of moving between the past and present tenses. The members of his family emerge as characters from a vividly written novel while the history writing is sharp, detailed, brilliantly sustained. There is no sentimentality; only curiosity, sympathy, immense dignified sadness and an almost philosophical feel for the impact events have on individual lives. It is as if de Waal has read the work of WG Sebald, the great German original, and learned well. This is a book that Sebald would have loved.

Just as the reader becomes drawn into the narrative, and its loops and detours, de Waal is entranced, occasionally realising it has taken over his thoughts. Instead of making pots he is reading old letters, visiting archives. Children grow.

Emmy has a daughter, Elizabeth, de Waal’s grandmother. She was a clever girl, academic, not a beauty like her mother. She trains to be a lawyer, and in time it is she who marries a Dutchman, hence de Waal’s name. Elizabeth is essential to de Waal’s being able to piece so much together. She was an Austrian Jew who lived to be 92 and had settled in England, happily becoming very English.

The opulence enjoyed by Elizabeth’s parents during their Vienna life, with servants and a home filled with art, is dramatically stolen as the Nazis move in. De Waal describes the brutal end of the old world. Anti-Semitism becomes increasingly vicious; the Jews begin to fear for their lives. As the war pushes more and more eastern Jews into Vienna, the more assimilated Jewish community is wary. De Waal quotes Roth from that time: “It is terribly hard to be an Eastern Jew: there is no harder lot than that of the Eastern Jew newly arrived in Vienna.” But no Jews are safe. Raids begin on the fine house in Vienna; ultimately, it is confiscated. Only Anna, a loyal maid who had tended Emmy, remains. It is Anna who removed the netsuke, piece by piece, while the Nazis were preoccupied with the larger, more obvious artworks. Anna stored the collection in her mattress. After the war she gives the pieces back to Elizabeth, who returned to Vienna briefly, and then brought the collection back with her to England.

But this move is not final. Great Uncle Iggie, who had abandoned Vienna to pursue a career in fashion in the US, had joined the American army, come to England as a soldier and accepted a post-war posting to Japan. He took the collection with him.

And so the netsuke return home. It is there that de Waal first sees them. In time he will travel back to Japan to bring them to London, where his own children play with them. Life is never simple; de Waal’s marvellous tale is both quest and meditation on change and the passing of time. It is an amazing story; rich, tragic, human. And it took an artist to write it. De Waal feels for the individuals, but it is obvious that he would have conveyed this empathy had they all been complete strangers and not linked to him by blood. Yes, think of Sebald; think also of Claudio Magris’s Danube (1988) and Gregor von Rezzori’s The Snows of Yesteryear (1989). It is as haunting as Roth’s classic The Radetzky March (1932). Few writers have ever brought more perception, wonder and dignity to a family story as has Edward de Waal in a narrative that beguiles from the opening sentence.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent of The Irish Times