Jun 6, 2011

The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

The Hare With Amber Eyes

Edmund de Waal’s multiple award winning The Hare With Amber Eyes is an enthralling combination of memoir, family biography, history and art history. The title of the book comes from one of his collection of netsuke – two hundred miniature Japanese figures which have been in his family’s possession since the nineteenth century. Using the netsuke as a point of departure, de Waal traces his family’s journey from Odessa to Paris, to Vienna, to London and to Tokyo, across two world wars, a Europe increasingly fraught with anti-Semitism, and a quickly changing world.

In fin de siècle Paris we meet De Waal’s great great uncle Charlie, a salonist, patron of the arts, and friend of Proust, Renoir and Degas; in early twentieth-century Vienna we accompany his great grandparents Viktor and Emmy as they are forced from a life of luxury to the cruelties of prejudice and war; in England we get to know de Waal’s grandmother, correspondent of Rainer Maria Rilke; in post-war Japan we follow his great-uncle Iggie, the last owner of the netsuke before de Waal himself.

De Waal’s family is unarguably one of countless artistic and literary connections, as well as a family whose privilege allowed it to experience all the splendours of the Belle Époque at its best. However, there is a lot more to The Hare With Amber Eyes than glamour or nostalgia. Edmund de Waal is no Juliet Nicolson – if there’s regret in this book, it’s for what these real human beings lost and what these losses meant to them; not for the social structures that the wars changed or for mythical “simpler times”.

The hare with amber eyes
The hare with amber eyes

Pre-war nostalgia has been known to rub me the wrong way, but de Waal is too sensitive a writer not to get it right. Time and again he rescues his narrative from any potential pitfalls. He brings his ancestors to life with extraordinary skill, but making them sympathetic doesn’t preclude acknowledging the dark underbelly of their glamorous pre-war lives. This sensitivity also shows in how de Waal writers about the netsuke themselves – he’s always aware of the dangers of romanticising the survival of these objects when so many human beings didn’t survive. He says:
I know too much about the traces of my gilded family, but I cannot find out anymore about Anna.
She is not written about, refracted into stories. She is not left money in Emmy’s will: there is no will. She does not leave traces in the ledgers of dealers or of dress-makers.
(…)
Here, in this house, I am wrong-footed. The survival of the netsuke in Anna’s pocket, in her mattress, is an affront. I cannot bear for it to slip into symbolism. Why should they have got through this war into a hiding-place, when so many hidden people did not? I can’t make people and places and things fit together any more. These stories unravel me.
Anna is the servant who rescues the netsuke from the family’s Nazi-occupied Viennese palace by taking them away one by one in the pockets of her apron. De Waal doesn’t hesitate to draw the reader’s attention to the fact that this is the kind of anecdote that, while memorable, should be given a second and closer look. Likewise, he freely acknowledges that detailed family histories are a luxury closely tied in with money, class and literacy; a luxury which the majority of us don’t have.

The world of The Hare With Amber Eyes evokes the world of A.S. Byatt’s The Children’s Book (I was not surprised to see Byatt thanked in the acknowledgements), which to me was an immediate reason to love it. In addition to that, I loved that this book takes such a personal look at history. I’d never read any non-fiction that achieved quite what de Waal achieves here. To say that his approach is novelistic would be somewhat misleading, but nevertheless he captures that close sense of involvement with subject and setting that the best historical fiction is all about.

netsuke
More netsuke

The Hare With Amber Eyes is a gripping and occasionally very moving analysis of history, nationality, identity, belonging, and the role of art and aesthetics in our lives. It may sound like an unlikely bestseller, but it’s certainly very deserving of all the accolades it has received.

A few mote interesting bits:
Does assimilation mean they never came up against naked prejudice? Does it mean that you understand where the limits of your social world were and you stuck to them? There is a Jockey Club in Vienna, as in Paris, and Viktor was a member, but Jews weren’t allowed to hold office. Did this matter to him in the slightest? It was understood that married Gentile woman never visited Jewish households, never came to leave a card, never visited on one of the interminable afternoons. Vienna meant that only Gentile bachelors, Count Mendsorf, Count Lubienski, the young Prince Montenuovo, left cards and were invited. Once married they never came, no mater how good the dinners were, or how pretty the hostesses. Did this matter at all? These seem such gossamer threads of rudeness.

Together, they would take down the heavy picture books with their rich maroon covers: Edmund Dulac’s Midsummer Night’s Dream, Sleeping Beauty, and, best of all, Beauty and the Beast with its figures of horror. Each Christmas brought the new Fairy Book of Andrew Lang, ordered from London by the children’s English grandmother: Grey, Violet, Crimson, Brown, Orange, Olive and Rose. A book could last a year. Each child would choose a favourite story: “The White Wolf”, “The Queen of the Flowery Isles”, “The Boy Who Found Fear At Last”, “What Came of Picking Flowers”, “The Limping Fox”, “The Street Musician”.
Other points of view:
Page 147
Winstondad’s Blog
Desperate Reader
Savidge Reads
Vulpe Libris

(Yours?)

17 comments:

  1. I've been meaning to read this for ages now. Its getting such good press everywhere.

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  2. I must read this! I've been meaning to get this for ages but thought I'd wait until the hype died down a bit (well, and plus I've got lots of other things to read at the moment, heh). I saw a collection of netsuke at the Ashmolean last year which were beautiful.

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  3. For some reason I have been avoiding this book - I'm not sure why I felt from other reviews it would be irritating - but you have inspired me to give it a try!

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  4. This sounds like an intriguing combination of stories, and like something that might interest me. I don't often read books like this, but something about your review makes me take pause in relation to this book. But then again, you could sell me on any book, Ana! Wonderful and detailed review on this one. Thanks!

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  5. Why haven't I heard about this before? It sounds wonderful. Interesting to see the comparison to The Children's Book - that one is near the top of my tbr pile.

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  6. This sounds like a beautifully written book and the netsuke tying everything together is very interesting as well. Fantastic review :D

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  7. I ordered this yesterday, just because I found it online very cheap and the title intrigued me. I think I made a correct guess. I am actually proud because I bought something you liked without knowing it in advance.

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  8. I've never heard of this book and I'm wondering why. I love memoirs and when they also capture a time in history, I find them simply outstanding.

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  9. This sounds really good! I remember hearing about it somewhere, but I forgot about it. Too many things going on.

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  10. I so want to read this - I don't know what's holding me back. Oh that isn't quite truthful; I do. I think I'm afraid it will be so brilliant I will hang up my pencil case and not bother to write anything again myself! But that's something I ought to get over - no point in allowing ego to spoil a wonderful read.

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  11. I loved this book Ana ,man thanks for the mention ,I hope he tries something else along this line maybe focuses on one of his extraordinary family members from the book ,all the best stu

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  12. Wonderful review of a wonderful book, Ana! I loved this line from your review - "he freely acknowledges that detailed family histories are a luxury closely tied in with money, class and literacy; a luxury which the majority of us don’t have." I loved the cover picture of the book that you have posted and I also loved the pictures of the netsuke. I also loved the mention of Andrew Lang :)

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  13. Thanks for the link, Nymeth. This was definitely one of my favorite books from 2010.

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  14. This one sounds fascinating, I should give it a try.
    And I can quite understand that sentimentality can rub you the wrong way.I love Golden Age fiction in which characters are forever mourning those golden days before the war, I think I'm nearly immune to that drivel now ;)

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  15. This sounds like just the thing I would like. I've almost bought a copy many times now. Thanks for the review -- I'll make sure to get to it one day!

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  16. Despite the accolades and praise from other realy trustworthy sites this is the first time I've really felt like this book could be for me, not just something I should be curious about.

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  17. This book just came through in donations at our library and we added it--now I'll have to be the first person to check it out! Thanks for the review.

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Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.