The Hare With Amber Eyes. Edmund de Waal.

De Waal, Edmund. The Hare With Amber Eyes. Picador 2010. Biography, 10/13.

I can’t avoid feeling ambiguous about this interesting and deeply relevant story. The family, venue, and being (partly) Jewish resonate with my own family’s experience. But the author is at his best when he sticks to the tactile-object aesthetic in which he made his name, and I don’t think he adequately connects that world to his tragic or symbolic intention. His style is also inconsistent, and finally it isn’t clear what he’s really talking about. It’s flawed enough that I wonder how much of its success it owes to holocaust content for which there is, however properly, an insatiable public appetite.

The netsuke that de Waal falls heir to are beautiful, and he invokes Proust to deepen our sense of the magic of holding lovely objects along with that of his family’s special status: it’s compelling that his family connects directly with all sorts of famous artistic figures and that they actually appear in certain works of art. But also that de Waal fears their artistic objects and the family themselves becoming mere symbols. I found it exciting to imagine that the objects, people, and ideology in his story are going to cohere in a more-than-symbolic way and a bit disappointing when for me his fears are realized and the objects and people don’t quite cohere, even as symbols.

I had in fact a funny reluctance to start this book, which I’m not suggesting had any mystical basis but which turned out perhaps by coincidence to be borne out like a suspicious smell on entering a restaurant. I guess I sensed I was going to confront an intriguing narrative like a wonderful-looking menu but was wary of getting dragged into the author’s possibly unsatisfying interpretation, like somebody in the kitchen burned the sauce.

Still on I went, and it wasn’t long at all before I had the same sinking feeling that grabbed me when the girl in the movie Million Dollar Baby got head-injured halfway through an adequately-enthralling sports story. Oh no! I thought I was onto something uniquely intriguing and original, but it’s just this, again. Illness and the right to die. The holocaust. Racism or sexism in the workplace. The stuff we are not allowed to have any but the scripted response to which includes praising the movie/essay/book. Damn.

And don’t get me wrong, I do have the scripted response to the real events of these repeatedly-exploited terribly important and emotional truths. I just don’t find the experience entertaining or thought-provoking on fictional or biographical repetition.

My Jewish family also centered in Vienna during the 1920s, were successful businessmen, partly got out of Europe in the 1930s and partly didn’t, and ended up at my level of the tree Jewish and not. Mostly not. There were collectors, even of small and beautiful objects, and one cousin, Dr. Peter Eppel, spent his career identifying Jews’ lost treasures and returning them to their owners. But nobody so far has got as obsessively and emotionally into scholarly pursuit of what really happened as de Waals did. And I find his patient persistence (obviously including putting a very rewarding career on hold) in doing that admirable and endearing.

But trouble starts when he the Cambridge English major sits down to write the book. The most enthralling passages are descriptions of art objects, especially the palace in Vienna. These fabulously valuable and gorgeous things seem to me to capture our narrator’s imagination more completely than the characters, and some plot elements don’t ring with the same conviction as his description of the palace’s interior. The conceit of the trail of those netsuke, presented for example as a magnificently generous wedding gift from Charles to Viktor and Emmy looks factually more like an out-of-vogue castoff by a rich Parisian art connoisseur received with insufficient enthusiasm to generate a place of honour in the recipients’ massive home. Vienna’s invasion is handled like a historical thriller, and I wondered whether a kindly ghost had helped the momentum along. Either way the gentile Anne (surname not Frank) as the critical conduit for the precious pieces feels either contrived or just random instead of… symbolic? mystical? a consequence of a lifelong loyalty?

These beloved objects are the story’s central symbol, however strenuously the author argues otherwise, but their dramatic importance doesn’t support a coherent finale. And as if to confirm this impression, something quite strange happens in chapter 33: basic writing skill and progress of ideas seem suddenly to collapse. Several times the idea of “the real Tokyo” is introduced and several times it isn’t finished. Dangling modifiers appear with sudden noticeable frequency. Again I wonder who wrote and who edited this.

And as he wraps up (giving some contemporary family members perfunctory short shrift) I just couldn’t pull together what this otherwise fascinating story was about. The glory that once was Ephrussi? Anti-semitism and the economic holocaust? The deep significance of tactile experience of beautiful made things? The famous family rising from the rubble in the form of his pottery? Something mystical in the survival of the 240 netsuke?

I wish the scholar and artist had been able to make it work, because it came very close to home for me personally. Hard to score numerically for obvious reasons but about in the high 7s as my overall impression.

About John Sloan

John Sloan is a senior academic physician in the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia, and has spent most of his 30 years' practice caring for the frail elderly in Vancouver. He is the author of "A Bitter Pill: How the Medical System is Failing the Elderly", published in 2009 by Greystone Books. His innovative primary care practice for the frail elderly has been adopted by Vancouver Coastal Health and is expanding. Dr. Sloan lectures throughout North America on care of the elderly.
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