"The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss" is the story of the Ephrussis, a great Jewish family that lived in Austria but was displaced with the advent of the Nazis. De Waal tells us the story of the family by recounting the history of a collection of Japanese figurines called netsuke. Made of wood and ivory, the netsuke were first purchased by Charles Ephrussi who was a connoisseur of art and had a collection that included many great European artists such as Manet and Renoir.
After owning the netsuke for a few years, Charles sent them as a wedding gift to his cousin Viktor who was the second son of the head of the Ephrussi family. However, when Viktor's older brother ran off with his father's mistress, he was disinherited, and Viktor was groomed to take the old man's place. Viktor took on the financial responsibility of the empire and married Emmy with whom he had a large family. Although Emmy had a number of lovers, she was a good mother and spent many languorous evenings reading with her children.
Unfortunately, this was when the Nazis struck and all the family valuables were destroyed except for the netsuke which were hidden by a faithful maid in the household. Emmy killed herself, and Viktor and his daughter Elizabeth managed to escape to England with very little. Two of the sons made their way over to the US, including Ignace or Iggie who became a member of the intelligence corps due to his flair for languages. Iggie eventually went to Japan where he became a financier and found a long-term partner. The netsuke were in his possession but eventually made their way over to Edmund de Waal, the grandson of Viktor's daughter, Elizabeth, and this was what prompted his writing of the family history.
This is indeed a fascinating tale in which fortunes grow and shrink. People go through good times and are then brutally attacked; everything that they own goes down the drain, and yet, they survive and move on. In a reversal of roles, the black sheep of the family, Iggie, eventually became the successful one. The Hare with Amber Eyes, (which refers to one of the figurines), is written with artistic flair and shows a connoisseur's pleasure in beautiful things. At the same time, it's nostalgic and can't help looking back at the great days of the Ephrussis with a kind of longing.
Edmund de Waal was born in Nottingham, England, the son of Esther Aline and Rev. Dr. Victor de Waal and grandson of Elizabeth and Hendrik de Waal. He became interested in ceramics at an early age, learning to make pots and deferred his college studies to become more involved in ceramics and visit Japan. He then attended Cambridge and studied English, following this with a diploma in the Japanese language from Sheffield University.
Today, de Waal is known as one of the foremost potters in England; his porcelain pots, essentially classical-looking but with minor irregularities have made him well known in the art world. He has also written two books, the first about the ceramicist Bernard Leach and the second about the Ephrussi family, The Hare with Amber Eyes. The latter has received several awards including the Ondaatje Prize and the Costa Book Award.
Download The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss from The Audio Bookstore and follow the fate of these Japanese figurines from the time they were first bought by the Ephrussi family to the present.
The Ephrussis were a grand banking family, as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, who "burned like a comet" in nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna society. Yet by the end of World War II, almost the only thing remaining of their vast empire was a collection of 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox.
The renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal became the fifth generation to inherit this small and exquisite collection of netsuke. Entranced by their beauty and mystery, he determined to trace the story of his family through the story of the collection.
The netsuke—drunken monks, almost-ripe plums, snarling tigers—were gathered by Charles Ephrussi at the height of the Parisian rage for all things Japanese. Charles had shunned the place set aside for him in the family business to make a study of art, and of beautiful living. An early supporter of the Impressionists, he appears, oddly formal in a top hat, in Renoir's Luncheon of the Boating Party. Marcel Proust studied Charles closely enough to use him as a model for the aesthete and lover Swann in Remembrance of Things Past.
Charles gave the carvings as a wedding gift to his cousin Viktor in Vienna; his children were allowed to play with one netsuke each while they watched their mother, the Baroness Emmy, dress for ball after ball. Her older daughter grew up to disdain fashionable society. Longing to write, she struck up a correspondence with Rilke, who encouraged her in her poetry.
The Anschluss changed their world beyond recognition. Ephrussi and his cosmopolitan family were imprisoned or scattered, and Hitler's theorist on the "Jewish question" appropriated their magnificent palace on the Ringstrasse. A library of priceless books and a collection of Old Master paintings were confiscated by the Nazis. But the netsuke were smuggled away by a loyal maid, Anna, and hidden in her straw mattress. Years after the war, she would find a way to return them to the family she'd served even in their exile.
In The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal unfolds the story of a remarkable family and a tumultuous century. Sweeping yet intimate, it is a highly original meditation on art, history, and family, as elegant and precise as the netsuke themselves. Download and start listening now!