Book Review: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal

Author of the best selling memoir Hare with the Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal spoke at the Jewish Museum in Vienna

Restitution of Memory

“My way into the world is through touch,” Edmund de Waal, author of the award-winning family memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), told a rapt audience at Vienna’s Jewish Museum on 20 Oct.. “That’s my way of understanding who I am.”

An acclaimed British ceramicist, de Waal was inspired to investigate his family history when he inherited a collection of 264 netsuke, intricately carved kimono ornaments made of wood and ivory. Curiosity about these tiny works of art, smooth as silk yet hard as stone, launched de Waal on a journey across Europe in search of their story, and his own. The resulting book is an intimate chronicle of the rise and fall of the Ephrussi dynasty, once one of Europe’s most prominent Jewish families, as well as a nuanced social and cultural account of the vagaries of 20th-century European history. (See “The Ephrussi Family Legacy,” The Vienna Review, June 2011.)

“Today is an extraordinarily complicated, an extraordinarily moving day,” admitted de Waal, the first guest speaker at the newly renovated Palais Eskeles, the Jewish Museum’s Dorotheergasse location, officially reopened on 19 Oct.  by Austrian President Heinz Fischer. His presence at the Museum was a step toward restituting his family to Vienna, he said. So too was his visit earlier in the day, accompanied by his father and his two sons, to the Palais Ephrussi, the massive Ringstrasse mansion that was their ancestral home.

The Hare with Amber Eyes is about trying to understand people through the objects they owned, de Waal said, insisting that it is “a polemic against nostalgia, and against melancholy.” But the scale of his ancestors’ wealth was so vast that he had to “navigate through the stuff to get to the story.” Otherwise, he added dryly, “it would have been a book about shopping.”

De Waal first encountered the netsuke at age 17 during a visit to Japan. They belonged to his great-uncle Iggie – Baron Ignace von Ephrussi – who had lived in Tokyo since right after the war. Today de Waal is 47, but he still has something of the teenager about him: his dark suit hung loosely on his lanky frame and his unlined face belied his silvery hair. He folded himself awkwardly into his chair, perhaps uncomfortable in the limelight.

His initial impression of the netsuke, he confessed, was that they were “precious, fiddly, horrid little objects.” At that time he understood neither their beauty nor their family significance.

“This journey into the family is partly a journey of what I could find,” de Waal said. He tracked down artworks, objects, letters and documents in archives and museums across Europe, as well as in his father’s closets. But his was also “a journey into spaces and silences.”

Charles Ephrussi – Parisian art historian, patron of the Impressionists and Proust’s model for Charles Swann – was the first family member to own the netsuke. He acquired the collection in the 1870s, displaying them in a salon whose walls were crowded with works by Degas, Manet, Monet and Renoir.

In the 1890s, Charles sent the netsuke as a wedding gift to a Viennese cousin and his elegant wife (Iggie’s parents). As children, Iggie and his sisters (one of whom was de Waal’s grandmother) played with the netsuke on the floor of their mother’s dressing room in the Palais Ephrussi.

De Waal spent time steeping himself in the cities where his family had lived – Paris, Vienna, Odessa – trying to locate “those pulses of memory, those traces, those fugitive feelings that are still there.” In many instances, where he should have found vestiges of his family he encountered only blank spaces and gaps in history.

“When I first came to Vienna,” he noted, “no one knew where the Palais Ephrussi was.”

Eventually he found it: Today it is headquarters of Casinos Austria, overlooking the Schottentor station. He described the “English hesitancy” that almost kept him from entering the building for the first time, aware that “this was the last moment when I could safely walk away from the story.” He steeled himself and went in. Greeted by a statue of Apollo – one his grandmother had talked about – he knew that he was home.

Although the Ephrussis escaped Austria before the transports of Jews had begun, they were forced to turn over everything to the Nazis – properties, artworks, the contents of their home.

In December 1945, De Waal’s grandmother returned to Vienna to see what might be reclaimed. The Palais Ephrussi was occupied by American forces, but one person from the old days was still there – Anna, an elderly maidservant. To his grandmother’s astonishment, Anna gave her the netsuke, which she had kept hidden in her mattress throughout the war.

The family regained little else besides the netsuke. De Waal asserted that the Austrian authorities, relying on pettifoggery and legal dodges, made it all but impossible for Jewish families to prove ownership claims, and he did not hesitate to call this “a crime.”

He was not surprised that his grandmother, a lawyer, eventually gave up on restitution, devoting her energies to raising her family instead.

But “restitution has many cadences,” de Waal said. By returning the netsuke, Anna gave his grandmother “the story, the continuity, right back into her childhood, and with incredible open-handedness.”

When asked how writing the book had affected him, de Waal hesitated a long time before answering, then confessed he didn’t know. “I am the same person, and I am a different person. I make the same pots, and they are very different. I think about diaspora, place, stories all differently.” He laughed. “I’m one hell of a muddled man.”
The Hare with the Amber Eyes:

A Family’s Century of Art and Loss
by Edmund de Waal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2011)
available at Shakespeare & Co. Booksellers
1., Sterngasse 2, (01) 535 5053

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