This blog is dedicated to the amazing staff at the New Canaan Public Library in New Canaan, Connecticut.

Monday, April 30, 2012

The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund De Waal, 2010, * * * *

Edmund De Waal, the most renowed ceramacist in England today, became the fifth generation to inherit an exquisite collection of 264 netsuke, miniature sculptures carved from ivory or wood that were invented in 17th century Japan.  None of the sculptures is larger than a matchbox.  I first learned about this book after reading a column in the New York Timesby Roger Cohen entitle "The Netsuke Survived" which described the survival - not only of a collection of netsuke ("prounounced netski") but also of the European Jewish family through whose various hands the objects passed. De Waal's research sidetracked him for two years and turned into an obsession.  The story is at once absorbing and moving and follows the Ephrussi family as they work their way to fame and fortune in Paris and Vienna in the late 1800s.  The fortune derived from their prodigious success in the banking business - a success that initially gave its members access to social elites and cultural salons - the family was friends with Proust, Renoir, Degas etc. Following "l'affaire Dreyfus" and its opening of the deep vein of envy and distrust of Jew in French society , the family was now personae non grata.  The Anschluss, the occupation and annexation of Austria into Nazi Germany in 1938 changed their world beyond recognition.  The Ephrussi family appropriated their possessions and homes and the netsuke survived only due to a loyal maid who smuggled them in a mattress.  The survival of the netsuke is wondrous but sometimes they are more distraction than narrative.  The story of the Ephrussis is amazing but the netsukes are often belabored.  Despite that, it is still a rich and absorbing read.

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