by Edmund De Waal
My early doubts about this book were soon dispelled. The author, Edmund de Waal is well known as a potter and the introductory content and cover image relates to netsuke (many of us probably first encountered them on the ‘Antiques Roadshow’). The feeling was that this might become and esoteric paean of praise for things artistic but proves to be much much more. ‘There is a breath of hesitancy before touching or not touching, a strange moment. If I choose to pick up this small white cup with its single chip near the handle, will it figure in my life?’ A family collection of 264 netsuke collection is an entry point into the fabulously rich world of turn-of-the 19thC grain and banking business Jewry. The collection creates a trail through the members and fortunes of the Ephrussi family from that time through two World wars and their almost total dissolution by the evil of Nazi Germany.
There is much that is enjoyable reading about places especially Paris, Vienna and Tokyo, a truly exotic lifestyle with all its accoutrements and an enjoyable tale of family tree tracing (lots of resonances for this writer). We visit the worlds of Classicism, early Impressionism, architecture and interior design (japonism), even a gay uncle and his appropriately Japanese lover who were temporary netsuke custodians. In fact, I thought the Japanese episode was quite revealing about a time and culture about which I knew nothing.
The dark issue that constantly backgrounds this tale and the lives it documents is that of anti-Semitism. Some time and reflection is spent on its historic pathways while the ultimate horrors of WWII are well-handled. There are lots of ironies thrown up such as the fact that the author is a direct Ephrussi descendant yet has an impeccable Dutch/English Anglican background and the ultimate irony that the touchstone collection of netsuke would never have been resurrected if it had not been for the simple honesty and loyalty of an unpaid working-class Austrian maid.
De Waal says ‘I don’t really want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss’ and he does not fall into that vein. However, one issue that rang true for me brought back echoes of Peter Singers’ family story ‘Pushing Time Away: My Grandfather and the Tragedy of Jewish Vienna. In case of both of these tales it is remarkable how Jews who had lived within the Austro-Hungarian Empire as loyal citizens and often serving soldiers simply could not comprehend what lay ahead for them and delayed and stayed until the ultimate price was paid.
One worthy aside I can report is that the book de Waal refers to being written by his Aunt Elizabeth in the 1950s was finally published in 2013-14 and has been well received.