I can’t believe that I haven’t already written about The Hare with the Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss. I loved it so much I was sure that I had written a review of it, but it must have slipped between the cracks, which I cannot allow to happen. This book has been all over the place lately so I know I’m not exactly letting you in on a secret with this recommendation, but sometimes books are popular for a good reason. This is a non-fiction family memoir written by an English ceramics artist whose family was one of the richest, most powerful Jewish banking families in Europe in the 19th century. He traces the history of his family as they climbed to the top of European society, and then were devastated by two World Wars and the anti-Semitism that was always waiting just under the surface of polite society. (As I said to my sister when I was about 2/3rds of the way through the book, “This has been really enjoyable so far, but now it’s 1930 and they’re Jews in Austria. I feel like things are about to take a turn.”)
There are plenty of WWII memoirs out there–what makes this one stand out is that the story is all told in the context of the family’s art. Specifically, de Waal traces a collection of small Japanese carvings known as netsuke–how his family obtained them, how they fit into the rest of the family’s collection, and how they survived the twists and turns of history to end up in his possession. Political events are a major part of the story, but even those are filtered through the lens of how they affected the family’s patronage and collection of art. The book is more art history than history, and it makes what is a familiar story feel fresh and interesting. One thing did puzzle me: the book did not include any pictures of the netsuke. Lengthy, lengthy descriptions of the tiny carvings and pictures of the family, but no pictures of the carvings themselves. That seems like it must be a deliberate decision, to make sure that the readers’ focus is on the family and the people instead of on the things, even though the fate of the netsuke is the hook the entire book is based around. I ended up going to Wikipedia to find out what these things actually looked like, and then falling down an internet-rabbit hole about Japanese art. If you’d like to see some very detailed pictures of netsuke, let me recommend JapaneseNetsuke as a starting point.
Also, although I linked to the Amazon page, I would recommend not reading the reviews there before you read the book, because they give away some of the major twists. I’m not someone who gets overly concerned about spoilers, but I went into this book blind and I think that especially well. I knew that the netsuke collection survived the wars, but I learned how that happened as the author did, and I think that made the experience more powerful. It can be hard when reading history to remember that the things that happened in the past were not inevitable or destined, but that life at those moment in the past was just as fluid and unpredictable for the people living it as our lives feel today. Having only a general sense of what was going to happen made following the story of this one family, and this one collection of tiny objects, feel like a thriller.
I have a kind of funny story about Netsuke, actually. Rebecca and I were visiting my grandparents in San Diego and we were strolling downtown on our own one afternoon looking at the various art galleries. There was one with a selection of about a dozen soft-core porn Netsuke in the window, and being the ignoramus I am, I didn’t recognize the art form and thought they would be really funny gifts for people.
We went inside to inquire about them, and were informed that they were $800 a piece, but before we could politely withdraw from the store, the proprietor started bringing out more hard-core Netsuke and kind of staring at us in a really uncomfortable way each time he brought one out until we just pretty much fled from the store.
So, I bet this book isn’t about that kind of Netsuke, but it sounds very interesting and I would like to check it out. I kind of assume since you’ve already stated that you don’t like stories about the tragedy of life that this is one of the more upbeat stories about Jews in the world wars?
Yeah, this book isn’t really about those netsuke, but now I’m laughing at you and Rebecca and your uncomfortable netsuke interaction.
And I would say that this is defintiely one of the less traumatic Jewish WWII stories I have read, and I think the focus on the art provides a sense of remove. But, you know, these stories are never going to involve a whole lot of happy endings.