Sunday, April 22, 2018

The Hare with the Amber Eyes: Edmund de Waal April 20 2018

The Hare with the Amber Eyes proved popular with our Book Group. Written by Edmund de Waal, it is his family memoir tracing the history of his family, the Ephrussi, from 1871 to 2009. The Hare with the Amber Eyes is a netsuke from Japan; a small, carved ornament, worn as part of Japanese traditional dress. It was a toggle on the sash, to which an object might be attached. In his book, de Waal uses the netsuki, and the collection of which it is a part, as the thread that runs through the story, and holds it together. Really very appropriate, considering the use of a netsuki.

Professor Michael Manley-Casimir, who had suggested the book, led us in an extremely interesting discussion. Everyone had enjoyed reading it. In fact, I had sat up late one evening because I couldn't put it down. We liked Edmund de Waal's writing style, and found the book easy to read. His talent for creating an environment, and bringing alive the atmosphere, was much admired. His description of Charles Ephrussi's salon in Paris, with mention of the art hanging on its walls, evoked Paris in the time of the Impressionists. As I read, I enjoyed looking up the art on my Chromebook, as it was mentioned by de Waal: Renoir; Manet; Monet; were the names ringing down through the centuries. Charles Ephrussi knew them all, and was a patron.

Palais Ephrussi, Vienna, Austria
The Ephrussi had begun their business activities as grain merchants in Odessa, in the Russian Ukraine. The family made its fortune from that hard work, and moved to Paris, France, where they became bankers and financiers. de Waal's ancestor then moved to Vienna, Austria, and built the Palace Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse. The Ringstrasse was just being built at that time, toward the end of the eighteen hundreds, and it is still there. Part of the upper echelon of Austrian society, peers of the Rothschild family, they felt they were Austrians like everyone else. During the Second World War, when Hitler aryanized the property of the Ephrussi, the family only escaped Dachau by signing away their property, including the Ephrussi Bank. No one with Jewish ancestry was exempt from Hitler and the Nazis. 

Another thing that our Group liked, was that, although this book was set in the time leading up to two world wars and during the wars, and touched on anti-semitism, it did so objectively. There was no hint of victimization or self-pity. His vivid description of what it must have been like for the Ephrussi to lose their home and possessions, made that unnecessary. The appalling facts spoke for themselves.

Michael had certainly suggested a book we all enjoyed reading. It's a brilliant book, gives lots of food for thought, and lively debate.

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