Archive for December, 2011


The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal, came highly recommended to several bookgroupers by several different people. It was also the subject of a lot of talk in Sydney in 2011. Can you believe the hype?

It is the history of the Ephrussi, a jewish family, and some japanese netsuke owned by the family. These pictures show the netsuke and the family.

The author is a world renowned potter, and the book opens with him in Japan, making pots. This introduction tries to explain the potters’ obsession with things, physical objects and how they feel. He inserts this introduction to justify writing a whole book about 250 small, old, objects. This justification is not successful at this point in the book. However, it quickly becomes clear that from the point of view of the reader, the book is a lively and engaging history of many of the key places and events of the last 150 years, so no further justification is needed. The author remains focussed on the Netsuke, but the reader need not.

The real interest in the book, and the reason it has drawn such high praise from so many, i think is that many of its central characters are at the same time heroic, but also deeply puzzling. Many of their efforts and achievements are very impressive, whilst at the same time some of their key life choices seem so obscure and quirky.

The first and possibly best example being Edmund, the author. We see him obsessing about Japanese pot manufacture, and willing to devote years out of his successful potting career to write a history of these objects – the netsuke. These seem like dubious choices but he turns them in to triumphs, as the book is huge success, and he remains a very successful potter.

The other key characters in this mould include:
– Charles in 1860s and 1870s paris. He could have been a dissolute wealthy young man, but he becomes a patron of obscure artists, and many of them go on to be famous. He becomes so successful in this role that Proust bases his legendary character ‘Charles Swann’ from La Recherche du Temps Perdu on him.
– Viktor, the intellectual third son of fabulously wealthy Ignace. Being the third son he sets his sights on a life of literature and culture in Vienna, but suddenly his father and brothers die or flee. He then takes on the the entire empire, apparently uncomplainingly, and marries a young beautiful fashionista and carries on the family business – only to stay far too long in Vienna and lose it all to the Nazis.
– Iggie the gay wannabe fashion designer who goes to tokyo immediately post war – and stays to build a successful life.
– Elizabeth, a jewish woman who becomes a lawyer in anti-semitic, anti-woman post WW1 Vienna.

Apart from these characters the other key attraction of the book is the times and places in which it is set. The Paris of Proust, the Vienna of Freud and Einstein and Klimt, the Vienna of Hitler, and post Hiroshima, American occupied, then booming 20th century Tokyo.

As the family is wealthy and famous there are public records of the day to day activities of these characters, in these times and places. This detail brings these places to life in way i had not previously experienced, and made the book a great way to get a much more vivid, fleshy, understanding of some of the key events of modern history.

For the keen students there is lots more info out there on the book and the issues it raises. For example:
This episode of All in the Mind about Freud shows how he went thru almost exactly the same things in the late 30s as the Ephrussi in order to get out of Vienna and none of his family ever went back, much like the Ephrussi.
This episode of The Philosophers Zone shows what an amazing collection of characters there were in Vienna at the turn of the 20th century. As the book says, Vienna at that time invented the 20th century both its best and worst bits.
This segment of Saturday Extra backs up that point, arguing that even though we in the anglophone west speak english we think german.
– This episode of the bookshow on radio national, was all about the book.


December 31, 2011 at 7:01 am Leave a comment


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