Sunday 4 December 2016

Elegant tale of a mighty trading family

The Hare With Amber Eyes

James Pressley

Published 18/08/2011 | 05:00

Edmund de Waal

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IT took 30 seconds to snap my thigh bone in a cycling accident and three hours of surgery to bind the splinters. The healing is expected to last months.

Hospitalised and dulled by pain, I wasn't yet up to digesting my usual ration of books on finance and economics. So between shots, X-rays and intravenous bags dripping, I read a beguiling memoir of a Jewish banking dynasty crushed in the 1938 Anschluss.

'The Hare With Amber Eyes' by Edmund de Waal is part personal odyssey, part saga and a meditative history of the once mighty Ephrussi trading and banking family. It defies literary pigeonholes.

The hare in the title is one of 264 netsuke, matchbox-sized Japanese carvings made of ivory and boxwood. De Waal, a British ceramicist who makes minimalist pots, inherited the pieces through a great-uncle in Japan.

That sounds straightforward enough until he begins investigating the lives of family members who, starting in the high noon of Impressionist art, came to own the hare, the snarling tiger, the brindled wolf and the rest.

De Waal's research propels him from late 19th-century Paris to wartime Vienna and on to Tokyo during the US occupation. At each stop, he arranges his fragmented findings into a mosaic depicting the expansion and brutal contraction of the Ephrussis, a force in European grain and finance for almost 100 years.

Like the Rothschilds, the Ephrussis were wealthy and urbane. They possessed palaces, estates and vast art collections. Family members migrated with the seasons, spending January in Nice or Monte Carlo, August along Lake Lucerne in Switzerland. The Ephrussis struck deals with governments, entered into ventures with archdukes and became intimates of artists and authors.

De Waal's journey begins with Charles Ephrussi, the Parisian connoisseur who purchased the netsuke. He inspired Marcel Proust's character Charles Swann and became a patron to Manet, Renoir and Degas.

The collection next went to Viktor von Ephrussi, who led the family business in the early 20th century. Viktor moved in a Viennese circle that included playwright Arthur Schnitzler.

Viktor's daughter Elisabeth, De Waal's grandmother, studied under economist Ludwig von Mises and corresponded with poet Rainer Maria Rilke. The background heaves with the music of Richard Strauss and the sexual obsessions of Egon Schiele and Sigmund Freud.

As seductive as these glints of a glamourous past are, De Waal evinces zero interest in "writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss."

His is a quieter quest, as he thumbs through old volumes of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts -- "like some sad art-historical gumshoe," he says -- and ducks into a gossipy Viennese genealogical society.

"I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden object that I am rolling in my fingers -- hard and tricky and Japanese -- and where it has been," he says.

What emerges is a tactile story of an assimilated Jewish elite living through dazzling days and disturbing nights, with virulent anti-Semitism festering beneath: Pogroms, the Dreyfus Affair and the Holocaust intrude on the Ephrussis, disrupting the stately rhythms inside their gilded homes.

Days after the Anschluss, the Gestapo arrived at the Palais Ephrussi in Vienna to catalogue and crate up Old Masters, rare books and jewellry. As the Nazis fixated on grand pieces, a family maid, Anna, spirited the netsuke away in her apron.

Elegant and unsettling, this is an ideal book to read while convalescing or, more luckily, vacationing. It thrums with a hushed suspense yet invites you to soak up one atmospheric paragraph at a time, relishing images of marble-clad interiors and a staircase "curling up like a coil of smoke through the whole house".

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