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Edmund de Waal's 'The Hare With Amber Eyes,' a family history through art

By Michael Dirda
Thursday, September 2, 2010; C04

THE HARE WITH AMBER EYES

A Family's Century of Art and Loss

By Edmund de Waal

Farrar Straus Giroux. 354 pp. $26

For nearly 100 years the Ephrussi family was a major force in European grain, shipping and banking, with offices in Odessa, St. Petersburg, Vienna, Paris and London. Their wealth and urbanity rivaled that of the Rothschilds. Isaac Babel and Sholom Aleichem include rich Ephrussis in their short stories. Proust modeled his hero Charles Swann in part after the Parisian connoisseur Charles Ephrussi, patron of Manet, Degas and Renoir and owner and editor of the Gazette des Beaux Arts. Viktor -- the head of the family in the first half of the 20th century -- counted among his Viennese friends the writers Hugo von Hofmannsthal and Arthur Schnitzler. His poetical daughter corresponded with Rilke. The monumental Palais Ephrussi, employing 17 servants, was located on the Ringstrasse, not far from the offices of Sigmund Freud.

"The Hare With Amber Eyes" tells the astonishing story of the Ephrussis' fortunes, in both senses. Its author, distinguished English potter Edmund de Waal, is the great-grandson of Viktor, but his essayistic exploration of his family's past pointedly avoids any sentimentality over the vanished pomps of yesteryear. Nonetheless, a kind of lyrical artiness in the writing style, along with a bizarre refusal to identify the sources of quoted material, may take some getting used to.

But stick with the book: "The Hare With Amber Eyes" belongs on the same shelf with Vladimir Nabokov's "Speak, Memory," André Aciman's "Out of Egypt" and Sybille Bedford's "A Legacy." All four are wistful cantos of mutability, depictions of how even the lofty, beautiful and fabulously wealthy can crack and shatter as easily as Fabergé glass or Meissen porcelain -- or, sometimes, be as tough and enduring as netsuke, those little Japanese figurines carved out of ivory or boxwood.

For only the netsuke survive from the once vast Ephrussi collections of paintings, furniture and bric-a-brac. When the Nazis took over Vienna, the family's loyal maid Anna simply hid these miniature works of art in her mattress, some 264 pieces depicting turtles and tigers and rats, a boy with a helmet and samurai sword, a naked woman and an octopus, a hare with amber eyes. Edmund de Waal eventually inherited the collection, and it serves to link the various parts of his story as he traces how the netsuke pass from one family member to the next, like the lovers in Arthur Schnitzler's play "La Ronde."

Charles Ephrussi first acquired the collection during a boom in "japonisme" in late-19th-century Paris. Charles was the art expert, having written a book on Dürer and employed the poet Jules Laforgue as a secretary. He was even included -- in the background, wearing an incongruous top hat and black suit -- in Renoir's "Luncheon of the Boating Party" (now the most famous painting of Washington's Phillips Collection.

When Charles?s taste eventually switched to 18th-century French art, perhaps in an effort to play up his Gallic bona fides during the Dreyfus Affair, when Jews were under suspicion and worse, he decided to give the netsuke as a wedding gift to his cousin Viktor in Vienna. Viktor was scholarly and artistic, the family?s younger, spare, son ? until his older brother, the intended heir to the family business, suddenly absconded with their father?s mistress and was quickly disinherited. Then, like Michael Corleone in "The Godfather,? Viktor found himself forced to become the head of the family, against his own studious inclinations.

In those days, writes de Waal, many sons of successful Jewish fathers, "had a common anxiety about their futures, lives set out in front of them on dynastic tram-lines, family expectations driving them forward. It meant a life lived under the gilded ceilings of their parents? homes, marriage to a financier?s daughter, endless dances, years in business unspooling in front of them. It meant pomposity, over-confidence, the parvenu. It meant billiards in the billiard-room with your father?s friends after dinner, a life immured in marble, watched over by putti."

For Viktor, "all those dreams of writing a magisterial history of Byzantium were lost." Instead, the former cafe bohemian bowed to necessity, put on a suit and took a desk at the Ephrussi bank, soon marrying 18-year-old Emmy, the daughter of a baron. The beautiful Emmy enjoyed finery ? she would change three times a day ? and took a succession of lovers, but seems to have been a good mother, enjoying quietly languorous evenings spent reading aloud with her sons and daughters:

"Together they would take down the heavy picture books with their rich maroon covers. Edmund Dulac?s Midsummer Night?s Dream, Sleeping Beauty and, best of all, Beauty and the Beast with its figures of horror. Each Christmas brought the new Fairy Book of Andrew Lang, ordered from London by the children?s English grandmother: Grey, Violet, Crimson, Brown, Orange, Olive and Rose. A book could last a year."

Such douceur de vivre never lasts. deDe Waal?s chapter about what happened to Viktor and Emmy when the Nazis paraded into Vienna is, for all its sickening familiarity, still deeply horrifying. The Jews are targeted. A brownshirt mob ransacks the family?s apartments and heaves an exquisite Louis XVI desk through an upper-story window. The Gestapo beats and harangues the elderly Viktor until he signs away his home, property and business. Emmy commits suicide. Fortunately, their younger son, Rudolf, manages to flee to the United States, because a friend offers him a job working for, of all things, a cotton company in Paragould, Ark.

Only through the legal brilliance and persistence of their older daughter, Elisabeth ? the first woman to receive a doctorate in law from the University of Vienna ? is Viktor able to make his way with a single suitcase to England, where he ends his life in Tunbridge Wells, living with Elisabeth and her Dutch husband, Hendrik de Waal.

During World War II itself, Viktor?s older son, Iggie, who had earlier run away "to New York, to boys and to fashion," joined the American army, where the Ephrussi flair for languages ? everyone in the family spoke fluent German, French, English and Russian ? made him a valuable member of the intelligence corps. At the start of the 1950s, the rootless Iggie then moved to Japan, where he worked for a Swiss banking firm ? blood, it seems, will out. There he found peace and happiness with a loving Japanese partner. In their elegant apartment he displayed the netsuke collection in a special case.

Today, the netsuke reside in Edmund de Waal?s London home, where his children occasionally, and surreptitiously, play with them. Sometimes, de Waal thinks back over all the artists and painters and lovers and aristocrats and businessmen who have handled and admired these "small Japanese things," which have come to represent the concentrated essence of his family?s tumultuous history. Still this enthralling book leaves one oddity unexplained: Why doesn?t it include any close-up pictures of the miniatures themselves, especially of the titular "Hare With Amber Eyes"? Join Dirda's online book discussion at http://washingtonpost.com/readingroom.

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