Friday, 17 February 2012

Review: 'The Hare With Amber Eyes' by Edmund de Waal

I found this very hard to get into. It's a dry-as-dust history of the author's family, based around a surviving fragment of their at one time vast art collection. The academic style and lengthy descriptions of architectural features plus the use of words and expressions unknown to my dictionary made it heavy going. Occasionally there would be a shaft of light - a picture of one of the people talked about, or talk of a lover - which brought these long dead characters to life somewhat.

Gradually, however, as the decades pass and the author reaches a generation he knew personally, people who left diaries and postcards and letters and word of mouth descriptions, the book becomes a little less heavy-footed. Even then, even when the tragedy of the First World War rolls over the family and flattens them, it is hard to sympathise over much. Yes, they lost a lot of money, and the footmen were all called up, there was no fuel to run the car and it was impossible to get to the country house or visit the cousins, but still, they all survived, they had enough to eat (unlike millions of others), they still lived in their vast Palais in the centre of Vienna with all its paintings and books and sculptures intact.

Eventually, we reach the moment which has been inevitable from page 1. For this particular family is Jewish, living right in the centre of the maelstrom of Hitler's Europe, and it was impossible for them to emerge unscathed. This part of the story is deeply moving, as all such stories are, and the author underscores the tragedy by the contrast between the life they lived before the war, with its endless round of social occasions, the arrays of costumes necessary, the lavish food and drink, the minutiae of the wealthy bourgeois daily and yearly round, and the transition to modest suburban life, virtually all their possessions lost, extended family scattered around the globe or dead.

The final part of the book takes the collection of 'netsuke' (carved toggles designed to be hung on kimono sashes) back to their origins in Japan, and this is a more upbeat read. Despite all that has happened, there is still the same acquisitive purchasing of art going on, the same moving through a landscape of social functions and mingling with the great and good of the art world which has characterised the family since the netsuke were first purchased in Paris close to a century earlier. This is not a family which is sliding into obscurity, despite its trials.

On the whole, I found the snippets of family life more interesting than the endless catalogue of furniture, architecture, art works and decoration. As an insight into the treatment of Jews, it probably does not add much to the canon, although the snapshot of a certain way of life has its interest. The book would be enjoyed best by those more knowledgeable about art and history than I am. Three stars.

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