A Book of Sighs

The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance by Edmund De Waal is one of those magnificent stories that made me sigh at every turn.

I sighed with pleasure; I sighed with sorrow; I sighed with delight; I sighed with horror; I sighed with anticipation and I sighed with satisfaction.

I hugged this book to my chest. I sniffed the pages. I caressed the cover (a goregous textured hardcover) and poured over the photos and illustrations. The Hare with the Amber Eyes was a full body experience!

The Ephrussi family were an amazing group of people.

Hard-working, well educated, socially connected. They embraced the times they lived in wholeheartedly – they mixed with artists, poets and politicians. They were collectors of books, art, furniture and property. They lived through some of the most extraordinary periods of history in some of the most extraordinary cities of the world.

De Waal’s device of following the trail of the netsuke through the generations was a lovely way to provide this story with a structure and a purpose. However this is not just another ramble through a family history. This is an extraordinary tale of family, love and loss. 

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.

6 thoughts on “A Book of Sighs

  1. Interesting that the two of you had such different responses. I wonder if colour photos make a difference? (I am assuming, Josh, that you read the paperback. I know Brona read the full colour gift edition). Obviously this would only be one piece of the puzzle and not the entire reason behind liking or disliking the book, but what do you two think?


  2. Family history/bio is not every one's cup of tea I guess. And De Waal could ramble at times, but I forgave him these minor excursions and they never got in the way of my complete enjoyment.


  3. I read this a few weeks ago and it has been one of the better reading experiences recently and I enjoy memoirs. I think it made a difference that I knew quite a lot about this family as I began to discover as I read it.My book group were split over it, but most were happy to have read about the family, life and times.Thanks for visiting my blog. I'm half way through The Distant Hours as it's a chunkster by my standards. I'm reading it as a book group choice and we meet on Friday so I won't be writing about it until I have thought more about it for myself when I get to finish it!


  4. Pingback: 2022 in Review

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