I have rarely trusted an author as implicitly as I trusted Edmund de Waal, after reading the preface to his book, The Hare With the Amber Eyes. The eponymous hare is carved out of ivory, and fits in the palm of your hand. It is one of a collection of 264 such figures, called netsuke in Japan, where they were carved, now owned by de Waal.
The netsuke collection was passed to de Waal from his great-uncle Iggy, who inherited it from his parents, who received it as a wedding gift from their cousin Charles Ephrussi, who collected them in Paris in the late 19th century, when japonisme was all the rage. The Hare With the Amber Eyes is therefore the story of the Ephrussi family, filthy rich bankers from Odessa who sent their sons and grandsons to Paris, Vienna, and London to establish a financial empire.
As de Waal says in the preface, “It could write itself, I think, this kind of story. A few stitched-together wistful anecdotes, more about the Orient Express, of course, a bit of wandering round Prague or somewhere equally photogenic, some clippings from Google on ballrooms in the Belle Epoque. It would come out as nostalgic. And thin.”
De Waal is a professional potter, and his impression of any environment – even a remembered or imagined one – is very tactile. When he enters a room, he notices its objects, their textures, who must have made them, and when. When he thinks of the netsuke’s previous owners, he wants to know where they kept the collection, how often they picked up the carvings and rolled them around in their fingers. He will have no nostalgic, sepia-toned portraits of Charles Ephrussi dandying around Paris. He looks into the past, at his great-grandfather’s cousin, and wonders: if this man bought these carvings a century ago, and I’m holding them in my hands, how are we connected?
Charles is a fine man to be connected to. Even as a Parisian transplant, living on Rue “New Money” Monceau, he worked his way to the center of fashionable society. He loved art. He collected it – Manet, Renoir, Degas – and wrote about it, as the editor of the Gazette des Beaux-Arts. His rooms in the Ephrussi household were carefully curated, ever in flux and a la mode.
Charles was known to be one of two models for Proust’s Swann – “the lesser it was said, of the two” – and intimately connected to Proust himself. I have a soft spot for Proust – I think anyone who has read his novel feels proprietary towards the world of it. Finding him and a version of Charles Swann walking around in de Waal’s family history was like bumping into an old friend. Ephrussi and Proust were friends. Charles advised him on his translation of Ruskin, let him use the library at the Gazette, and invited him to the Rue Monceau to see his collection.
Descriptions of Charles’ paintings, and of his cameo in Renoir’s Boating Party (he’s the one in back in the top hat) make it into Proust’s work, but there’s no evidence in his writing or letters that he saw the netsuke, although a simple timeline would suggest he did. Among Charles’s impressive collection, the netsuke were an anomaly. Japonisme had been fashionable for a few seasons, but Charles seemed to retain a fondness for them. When his younger cousin Viktor Ephrussi was married in Vienna, he sent the entire collection, in its vitrine, as a gift.
Charles and Viktor were each the youngest boy in their family – the boys that weren’t groomed for finance. From among Charles’s noteworthy collection, sending Viktor a case of odd, whimsical figures – the ivory hare, the persimmons, the turtles, the peasant woman, a coiled rope – seems like a wink. “You might find these interesting,” I can hear him say. And indeed, as the mighty Ephrussi dynasty was scattered and depleted throughout the 20th century, the netsuke were kept close to the chest – hidden by a family servant while Nazis plundered the rest of the collection, given to Iggie, Viktor’s shy, sensitive son, and finally to de Waal.
We can never know the people who came before us, but we can own their dining tables, walk the streets they walked, put the Japanese knick-knacks they bought in our pockets, and infuse them with meaning. De Waal frequently carried the hare with him while he traveled to Paris, Vienna, London, and Tokyo researching the book. While hunting down the details of their lives, he had a constant reminder that it was a story leading to his own.
After having fallen in love with Charles Ephrussi while reading The Hare With the Amber Eyes, I learned that a painting he owned, Renoir’s Two Sisters, now hangs in the Art Institute of Chicago, across the street from my office. I stopped by after work one night to look at what Charles looked at. I got up close, examining the brush strokes, imagining him standing in his rooms in Paris showing it to Proust. Or perhaps the two of them in a different corner, discussing translation, while the two sisters watched silently. What does this mean, my brain struggled to conclude, what am I feeling? It was free night at the museum, which shares an ambiance with a mall food court, so the mystical me-Charles-Proust connection eluded me. But I was satisfied to know that the life of Renoir’s painting now included both Proust and myself. This may be why we love to keep things, and pass them on. As the netsuke do for the Ephrussi family, the objects that survive are what prove that we’re part of each other’s stories.