Sometimes a surname lodges in my mind and I had some back tracking to do when I first came across The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal.
I recognised Edmund de Waal as the potter who had assisted A.S.Byatt with many technical aspects of The Children's Book, and I also made an instant connection with Esther de Waal's tranquil and beautifully contemplative book A Seven Day Journey With Thomas Merton which I owned and read many times back in the 1990s, and now can't find anywhere. Thomas Merton one of those meditative heroes of mine, and Esther de Waal I think mother of Edmund, the author of this book, and it seems fitting that a book that has been alongside me for several months seems to have become a treasured meditation of its own along the way.
The Hare With Amber Eyes, and I have it in this exquisitely minimalist hardback edition, included in so many end of year 'Best Reads of 2010' and for me it will have to be in my 2011 one. I started the book way back in January and have been reading it very slowly, a chapter at a time and with a pause inbetween to wander off on the trails that Edmund de Waal offers the interested reader who likes a diversion, so I feel as if I have been in the company of the netsuki (pronounced netski) and Family Ephrussi for a very long time.
Every chapter enthrals with Edmund de Waal's account of his family history via the legacy of the netsuki collection, the tiny Japanese ivory carvings and, wrapped around these precious objects, the lives of Family Ephrussi, wealthy Jewish bankers who had amassed untold riches as grain merchants in Odessa in the nineteenth century before establishing themselves in Vienna.
And there was so much to fascinate and divert me...
I wanted to know much more about the netsuki of course and their place in the family (you can see some of the collection here) but also more about the fabulous impressionist artworks once in the family's possession, paintings by Morisot, Cassatt, Degas, Manet, Monet, Pissarro and Renoir. And given the furore that the Impressionists were causing in Paris with all those blobs, how ahead of his time was the family's First Collector, and what does it feel like to know that there is that very same ancestor depicted in Renoir's famous painting Le Dejeuner des canotiers...
Then there was the new-to-me concept of the literary feuilleton, the essays and social commentaries printed in the newspapers and which, dare I suggest it, sounded to me very much like a nineteenth century form of blogging.
I needed to find out about Cafe Griensteidl too, the hub of fin de siecle literary Vienna and the daily cafe culture that prevailed for those who could afford it, and for many impecunious writers who doubtless could not) ...
Hoffmanstahl and Schnitzler would take their melancholy souls there, an insidious and ever-present anti-semitism is taking a firmer hold, the culture of suicide as the grand gesture prevails and Family Ephrussi are moving in the midst of it all. Stefan Zweig (often read and mentioned chez dovegrey) was a Cafe Griensteidl regular and I knew I had heard the Ephrussi name elsewhere on my reading travels too. An evening with a pile of mitteleuropean books and I had pinned it down to Joseph Roth, also written about on here a great deal in the past.
The Efrussi [sic] family feature either as jewellers or bankers in several of Roth's Vienna-based novels and I kept having eureka moments as I found them in Napoleon's Tomb, (Joseph Roth's 'sequel' to The Radetzky March) and A String of Pearls.
So, there I am having a lovely frolic of my own with this incredible book and I love that real sense of bonding when a book like this comes along, and I had picked it up again as usual when my leisurely rather languid and relaxed approach dissipated in an instant at this moment...
'The last door they reach is Emmy's dressing-room in the corner, the room with the vitrine containing the netsuke, and they sweep everything off the desk she uses as a dressing table...and they drag the desk out into the corridor.
They push Emmy and Viktor and Rudolph against the wall, and three of them heave the desk and send it crashing over the handrail until, with the sound of splintering wood and gilt and marquetry, it hits the stone flags of the courtyard below.
The desk... takes a long time to fall. The sounds ricochet off the glass roof. The broken drawers scatter letters across the courtyard.'
After all our desk eulogizing a while back I think we'd better have a moment's silence to cope with that.
The Nazis have arrived in Vienna and the persecution of the Jews is reaching its zenith. Frozen and rife with indecision about whether to flee and if so where to, Viktor and Emmy can only stand by and watch as Palais Ephrussi, the opulent family home on Vienna's grand and wealthy Ringstrasse is about to be ransacked. Except the Nazis know the value of this home when they see it, the contents will be catalogued and removed whilst Hitler decides which items he would like in his personal collection and which will go to museums.
'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.'
Well there's me sitting in the midst of a very down-market version of all that, but I have often wondered at what point our treasures, mostly of purely sentimental value, will become 'stuff', and I sat up late into the night experiencing a devastating literary Ephrussinacht version of Kristallnacht, whilst knowing I now couldn't possibly put the book down and wouldn't sleep a wink until I had finished it. I wasn't going to sleep much when I had either but needed to see this through with Edmund de Waal and his family, because whilst I'm also deeply embroiled in all this and can't bear to let these netsuke out of my sight, I am desperately fearful for Viktor and Emmy and also wondering quite what effect researching and discovering all this is having on the author.
Surely, if I'm feeling this upset, he must be quietly unravelling in the midst of this too?
And then it happens and I won't reveal why but Edmund de Waal is suddenly overcome with tears.
He has remained remarkable objective in my eyes as I've read, far more objective than I have felt but gradually words like 'terribly' and 'calumnies' and 'venemous diatribes' and 'appalling' seep into the narrative and at this point the book seems to enter a new and extremely moving final phase.
'I knew the story. I didn't feel the story until my third visit to Vienna when I was standing in the courtyard of the Palais...'
'Here in this house I am wrong-footed... I can't make people and places and things fit together any more. These stories unravel me....'
Well that makes two of us Edmund because the injustices that follow, though well-known on a larger historical scale, are so much harder to credit when invested with the detail of the personal.
Viktor's extensive library is scattered to the four corners, its contents still largely unknown, lists unhelpfully lost by bureaucrats or incomplete, whilst in contrast the objects taken from the house are meticulously recorded and handled with inordinate care, many now residing in galleries and museums around the world. Reparation? Well don't get me started, the injustice is profound and Edmund de Waal does well to rein in his deepest feelings... me, I was livid verging on inconsolable.
Edmund de Waal makes a startlingly honest and profound observation.
'Jews matter less than what they once possessed. It is a trial of how to look after objects properly, care for them and give them a proper German home. It is a trial of how to run a society without Jews.'
The statistics are bleak too.
'There were 185,000 Jews in Austria at the time of the Anschluss. Of these only 4,500 returned; 65,479 Austrian Jews had been killed.'
I don't think it's a spoiler to say that the netsuke do live happily ever after (no netsuke, no book after all) and remain in the family's possession, but you will have to read the book to discover the remarkable story of how they survived that ransacking of the Palais Ephrussi in 1938, or alternatively don't miss The Hare With Amber Eyes as BBC Radio 4's Book of the Week from today
In the end there was only one place to take my reading and that bereft feeling I sense on turning the final page of a book that has somehow possessed me for so long, and because I had to acknowledge my dependency and couldn't quite let go of Family Ephrussi, it was to Joseph Roth's final novel, The String of Pearls.
'The pearls were lodged with Efrussi's bank, there was no need to worry about them.'