Friday, March 4, 2016

The Hare with the Amber Eyes, by Edmund de Waal

I stumbled across this book when I began focusing on memoirs. I'd just read Mary Karr's brilliant The
Art of Memoir, in which she talks about credibility and authenticity, why we believe one memoirist, and another sounds pompous and insincere. From beginning to end, Edmund de Waal won me with his insecurities. Given the man's history and pedigree, I might have expected a more name-dropping account of his family history.  The names dropped, but always in a casual way. I was deeply moved by his angst about how to write this story, using a set of inherited Japanese netsuke as the vehicle to describe a vast, international, multi-generational family history. I loved the ways he addressed his readers when he got stuck, wondering how to approach the whole thing.
And what there is to go on -- the number of manservants and the slightly stock story of the gift of a coin -- seems held in a sort of melancholic penumbra, though I quite like the detail of the Russian flag. I know that my family were Jewish, of course, and I know they were staggeringly rich, but I really don't want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss. And I certainly don't want to turn Iggie into an old great-uncle in his study, a figure like Bruce Chatwin's Utz, handing over the family story, telling me: Go, be careful. It could write itself, I think, this kind of story. A few stitched-together wistful anecdotes, more about the Orient-Express, of course, a bit of wandering round Prague or somewhere equally photogenic, some clippings from Google on ballrooms in the Belle Epoque. It would come out as nostalgic. And thin. And I'm not entitled to nostalgia about all that lost wealth and glamour from a century ago. And I am not interested in thin. I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling between my fingers -- hard and tricky and Japanese -- and where it has been. 
I struggle to say why the following passage affected me. I suppose I like the contrast of the vagueness of melancholy with the Japanese precision of the netsuke. Melancholy is a fog. I wonder if the people who carved or wore these netsuke pondered them as an antidote to this emotional muck.
Melancholy, I think, is a sort of default vagueness, a get-out clause, a smothering lack of focus. And this netsuke is a small, tough explosion of exactitude. It deserves this kind of exactitude in return. 
I'll write soon about The Art of Memoir, but in it, Mary Karr says she knows she's gone pretentious when she hears herself spouting philosophy. Edmund de Waal also catches himself going off-track, and I love passages like this that violate the fourth wall but reveal so much about the writing process.
One evening I find myself at a dinner telling some academics what I know of the story, and feel slightly sickened by how poised it sounds. I hear myself entertaining them, and the story echoes back in their reactions. It isn't just getting smoother, it is getting thinner. I must sort it out now or it will disappear.
Another example, but a very evocative one.
I get particularly hooked by the listings of wedding-presents at society marriages, telling myself that this is all good research on cultures of gift-giving, and waste an embarrassing amount of time trying to work out who is being over-generous, who a cheapskate and who is just dull. My great-great-grandmother gives a set of golden serving dishes shaped as cockle shells at a society wedding in 1874. Vulgar, I think, with nothing to back this up.
I do love any book that boosts my vocabulary.
He is a mondain art historian with a secretary. 
1. a man who moves in fashionable society
2. characteristic of fashionable society; worldly

And again, the use of exactly the right word. Oh, to have a word like 'flâneur' at my fingertips. But somehow it fits someone who loafs at the opera so much better than 21st-century slackers.
Charles might be a flâneur, might take his time in the salons, be seen at the races and the Opera, but his 'vagabonding' is done with real intensity.
1. an idler or loafer

de Waal travels to Paris to investigate the ancestor who first began to collect the netsuke, Charles Ephrussi. Charles collected art avidly, and he had catholic tastes. Edmund admits to trying to create order in the narrative, to create a pattern where none exists.
I make the familiar trip to Paris and stand beneath Baudry's ceilings in the Opera and then rush over to the Musee d'Orsay to look at Charles's single asparagus stem by Manet and the pair of Moreau pictures they now own, to see if it all coheres, if it all sings, if I can see what his eye saw. And, of course, I cannot, for the simple reason that Charles buys what he likes. He is not buying art for the sake of coherence, or to fill gaps in his collection. He is buying pictures from his friends, with all the
complexities that brings with it. Charles has many friendships...
Edmund had imagined a somewhat precise itinerary around Europe, gathering data and impressions about this ancestor and then that one but quickly discovers that this sort of research takes on a life and a pace of its own.
I wonder if I should take my white netsuke of the hare with amber eyes in my pocket to reunite object and image. For the span of a cup of coffee I mull this over as a real possibility, a way of keeping moving. My timetable has disappeared.
The Ephrussi were originally a family of Jewish grain merchants from Odessa. The patriarch's sons migrated to Europe, Charles to France. As sentiments changed in Europe, of course, their vast wealth, opulent homes and extensive art collections drew unwelcome attention.
Drumont, the editor of a daily anti-Semitic newspaper, acted as the marshaller of opinion into print. He told the French how to spot a Jew -- one hand is larger than another -- and how to counter the threat that this race posed to France. His La France Juive sold 100,000 copies in its first year of publication in 1880. By 1914 it had gone into 200 editions. Drumont argued that Jews, because they were inherently nomadic, felt they owed nothing to the State.
I force myself to read this stuff: Drumont's books, newspaper, the endless pamphlets in numerous editions, the English versions. Someone has annotated a book on the Jews of Paris in my London library. Written very carefully and approvingly next to Ephrussi is the word venal pencilled in capitals.
As Jews fell out of popular fashion in France, so too did Japonisme, the attraction to Japanese art and style, such as, for example, Charles' collection of netsuke.
"Everything," said Alexandre Dumas in 1887,"is Japanese now." Zola's house outside Paris, awash with Japanese objets, was considered slightly risible.
This memoir is a treasure trove of architectural and decorative vocabulary: a series of enfilade roomsgarnitures of Sèvres and Meissen porcelain, Charles replaces his lit de parade with an Empire bed; it is a lit à la polonaise hung with silks...

enfilade:A suite of rooms with doorways in line with each other
garniture: A set of decorative accessories, in particular vases
lit de parade: Four-poster bed
lit à la polonaise:

(Ah, so that's what they call those things.)

Charles, however, had a reason for redecorating in an undeniably French style.
It was also a claim on an essential Frenchness, on belonging somewhere properly. And perhaps a way of putting more space between those first, jostlingly heterodox rooms and his authoritative life as an arbiter of taste. Empire is not le gout Rothschild, not Jewish. It is patrician, French. 
de Waal's vocabulary often catches the reader's eye, much like that yellow armchair.
His rooms in the rue de Monceau had not "learnt their optical catechism"; they were cut through by the note of the yellow armchair. They were congeries of different things to pick up and handle.
congeries:  a collection of items or parts in one mass; assemblage; aggregation; heap:

Charles Ephrussi, the collector of the netsuke, gave the collection to his nephew Viktor in Vienna as a wedding gift. There, too, anti-Semitism was bubbling.
In 1899, the year that the netsuke arrived in Vienna, it was possible for a Deputy in the Reichsrat to make speeches calling for Schussgeld -- bounties -- for shooting Jews. In Vienna the most outrageous statements were met with a feeling from the assimilated Jews that it was probably best not to make too much fuss.
Throughout the memoir, de Waal frets that the netsuke are an unreliable vehicle for his story. He catches himself meandering off-track (but not too soon, thankfully for those of us who relish his tangents). He makes me realise that non sequiturs can be charming if carefully chosen and handled. I love his self-awareness. Unlike Casaubon, I trust that he'll finish his book, and it will be a winner.
I realise at this point that I am beginning to obsess hopelessly about what is fast becoming my very special subject, the vitrines of the fin de siècle. On Freud's desk is a netsuke in the form of a shishi, a lion. My time-management skills are seriously awry.
I keep hoping that the netsuke will be a key that unlocks the whole of Viennese intellectual life. I worry that I am becoming a Casaubon, and will spend my life writing lists and notes.
The hare with the amber eyes is a trinket that made its way through the family homes of a wealthy, historic European family alongside many other things both more glorious and more mundane. When the people are declared worthless (or worse yet, vermin), though, it all falls into a new category: stuff.
And it not just their art, not just the bibelots, all the gilded stuff from tables and mantelpieces, but their clothes, Emmy's winter coats, a crate of domestic china, a lamp, a bundle of umbrellas and walking-sticks. Everything that has taken decades to come into this house, settling in drawers and chests and vitrines and trunks, wedding-presents and birthday-presents and souvenirs, is now being carried out again. This is the strange undoing of a collection, of a house and of a family. It is the moment of fissure when grand things are taken and when family objects, known and handled and loved, become stuff.
I  am one person, not multiple generations of a family, and certainly not of a family along the lines of the Ephrussis, but I left my native country twelve years ago and haven't returned. At this point it's unlikely I ever will. I will probably spend the rest of my days in southeast Asia, moving from one country to the next when the visa requirements change or political shifts demand. I can't for a moment compare my circumstances to those of the Ephrussi -- it's not genocidal hatred driving me from one home to the next. I do, however, relate powerfully to this sentiment, my passport to hand, keeping much private.
It makes me wonder what belonging to a place means. Charles died a Russian in Paris. Viktor called it wrong and was a Russian in Vienna for fifty years, then Austrian, then a citizen of the Reich, and then stateless. Elisabeth kept Dutch citizenship in England for fifty years. And Iggie was Austrian, then American, then an Austrian living in Japan. You assimilate, but you need somewhere else to go. You keep your passport to hand. You keep something private.