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Authors: Edmund de Waal

The Hare with Amber Eyes

BOOK: The Hare with Amber Eyes
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The Hare with Amber Eyes
Edmund de Waal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2010)

The Ephrussis were a grand banking family, as rich and respected as the Rothschilds, who “burned like a comet” in nineteenth-century Paris and Vienna society. Yet by the end of World War II, almost the only thing remaining of their vast empire was a collection of 264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them larger than a matchbox.The renowned ceramicist Edmund de Waal became the fifth generation to inherit this small and exquisite collection of netsuke. Entranced by their beauty and mystery, he determined to trace the story of his family through the story of the collection.The netsuke—drunken monks, almost-ripe plums, snarling tigers—were gathered by Charles Ephrussi at the height of the Parisian rage for all things Japanese. Charles had shunned the place set aside for him in the family business to make a study of art, and of beautiful living. An early supporter of the Impressionists, he appears, oddly formal in a top hat, in Renoir’s Luncheon of the Boating Party. Marcel Proust studied Charles closely enough to use him as a model for the aesthete and lover Swann in Remembrance of Things Past.Charles gave the carvings as a wedding gift to his cousin Viktor in Vienna; his children were allowed to play with one netsuke each while they watched their mother, the Baroness Emmy, dress for ball after ball. Her older daughter grew up to disdain fashionable society. Longing to write, she struck up a correspondence with Rilke, who encouraged her in her poetry.The Anschluss changed their world beyond recognition. Ephrussi and his cosmopolitan family were imprisoned or scattered, and Hitler’s theorist on the “Jewish question” appropriated their magnificent palace on the Ringstrasse. A library of priceless books and a collection of Old Master paintings were confiscated by the Nazis. But the netsuke were smuggled away by a loyal maid, Anna, and hidden in her straw mattress. Years after the war, she would find a way to return them to the family she’d served even in their exile.In The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal unfolds the story of a remarkable family and a tumultuous century. Sweeping yet intimate, it is a highly original meditation on art, history, and family, as elegant and precise as the netsuke themselves.

The Hare with Amber Eyes
The Hare with Amber Eyes


Edmund de Waal

Farrar, Straus and Giroux
New York

For Ben, Matthew and Anna, and for my father


‘Even when one is no longer attached to things, it’s still something to have been attached to them; because it was always for reasons which other people didn’t grasp…Well, now that I’m a little too weary to live with other people, these old feelings, so personal and individual, that I had in the past, seem to me – it’s the mania of all collectors – very precious. I open my heart to myself like a sort of vitrine, and examine one by one all those love affairs of which the world can know nothing. And of this collection to which I’m now much more attached than to my others, I say to myself, rather as Mazarin said of his books, but in fact without the least distress, that it will be very tiresome to have to leave it all.’

Charles Swann

Marcel Proust,
Cities of the Plain


The Hare with Amber Eyes

In 1991 I was given a two-year scholarship by a Japanese foundation. The idea was to give seven young English people with diverse professional interests – engineering, journalism, industry, ceramics – a grounding in the Japanese language at an English university, followed by a year in Tokyo. Our fluency would help build a new era of contacts with Japan. We were the first intake on the programme and expectations were high.

Mornings during our second year were spent at a language school in Shibuya, up the hill from the welter of fast-food outlets and discount electrical stores. Tokyo was recovering from the crash after the bubble economy of the 1980s. Commuters stood at the pedestrian crossing, the busiest in the world, to catch sight of the screens showing the Nikkei Stock Index climbing higher and higher. To avoid the worst of the rush hour on the underground, I’d leave an hour early and meet another, older scholar – an archaeologist – and we’d have cinnamon buns and coffee on the way in to classes. I had homework, proper homework, for the first time since I was a schoolboy: 150 kanji, Japanese characters, to learn each week; a column of a tabloid newspaper to parse; dozens of conversational phrases to repeat every day. I’d never dreaded anything so much. The other, younger scholars would joke in Japanese with the teachers about television they had seen or political scandals. The school was behind green metal gates, and I remember kicking them one morning and thinking what it was to be twenty-eight and kicking a school gate.

Afternoons were my own. Two afternoons a week I was in a ceramics studio, shared with everyone from retired businessmen making tea-bowls to students making avant-garde statements in rough red clay and mesh. You paid your subs and grabbed a bench or wheel and were left to get on with it. It wasn’t noisy, but there was a cheerful hum of chat. I started making work in porcelain for the first time, gently pushing the sides of my jars and teapots after I’d taken them off the wheel.

I had been making pots since I was a child and had badgered my father to take me to an evening class. My first pot was a thrown bowl that I glazed in opalescent white with a splash of cobalt blue. Most of my schoolboy afternoons were spent in a pottery workshop, and I left school early at seventeen to become apprenticed to an austere man, a devotee of the English potter Bernard Leach. He taught me about respect for the material and about fitness for purpose: I threw hundreds of soup-bowls and honey-pots in grey stoneware clay and swept the floor. I would help make the glazes, careful recalibrations of oriental colours. He had never been to Japan, but had shelves of books on Japanese pots: we would discuss the merits of particular tea-bowls over our mugs of milky mid-morning coffee. Be careful, he would say, of the unwarranted gesture: less is more. We would work in silence or to classical music.

I spent a long summer in the middle of my teenage apprenticeship in Japan visiting equally severe masters in pottery villages across the country: Mashiko, Bizen, Tamba. Each sound of a paper screen closing or of water across stones in the garden of a tea-house was an epiphany, just as each neon Dunkin’ Donuts store gave me a moue of disquiet. I have documentary evidence of the depth of my devotion in an article I wrote for a magazine when I returned: ‘Japan and the Potter’s Ethic: Cultivating a reverence for your materials and the marks of age’.

After finishing my apprenticeship, and then studying English literature at university, I spent seven years working by myself in silent, ordered studios on the borders of Wales and then in a grim inner city. I was very focused, and so were my pots. And now here I was in Japan again, in a messy studio next to a man chatting away about baseball, making a porcelain jar with pushed-in, gestural sides. I was enjoying myself: something was going right.

Two afternoons a week I was in the archive room of the Nihon Mingeikan, the Japanese Folk Crafts Museum, working on a book about Leach. The museum is a reconstructed farmhouse in a suburb, which houses the collection of Japanese and Korean folk crafts of Yanagi Sōetsu. Yanagi, a philosopher, art historian and poet, had evolved a theory of why some objects – pots, baskets, cloth made by unknown craftsmen – were so beautiful. In his view, they expressed unconscious beauty because they had been made in such numbers that the craftsman had been liberated from his ego. He and Leach had been inseparable friends as young men in the early part of the twentieth century in Tokyo, writing animated letters to each other about their passionate reading of Blake and Whitman and Ruskin. They had even started an artists’ colony in a hamlet a convenient distance outside Tokyo, where Leach made his pots with the help of local boys and Yanagi discoursed on Rodin and beauty to his bohemian friends.

Through a door the stone floors would give way to office linoleum, and down off a back corridor was Yanagi’s archive: a small room, twelve feet by eight, with shelves to the ceiling full of his books and stacked with Manila boxes containing his notebooks and correspondence. There was a desk and a single bulb. I like archives. This one was very, very quiet and it was extremely gloomy. Here I read and noted and planned a revisionist history of Leach. It was to be a covert book on
, the way in which the West has passionately and creatively misunderstood Japan for more than a hundred years. I wanted to know what it was about Japan that produced such intensity and zeal in artists, and such crossness in academics as they pointed out one misinterpretation after another. I hoped that writing this book would help me out of my own deep, congested infatuation with the country.

And one afternoon a week I spent with my great-uncle Iggie.

I’d walk up the hill from the subway station, past the glowing beer-dispensing machines, past Sengaku-ji temple where the forty-seven samurai are buried, past the strange baroque meeting hall for a Shinto sect, past the sushi bar run by the bluff Mr X, turning right at the high wall of Prince Takamatsu’s garden with the pines. I’d let myself in and take the lift up to the sixth floor. Iggie would be reading in his armchair by the window. Mostly Elmore Leonard or John le Carré. Or memoirs in French. It is odd, he said, how some languages are warmer than others. I would bend down and he’d give me a kiss.

His desk held an empty blotter, a sheaf of his headed paper, and pens ready, though he no longer wrote. The view from the window behind him was of cranes. Tokyo Bay was disappearing behind forty-storey condominiums.

We’d have lunch together, prepared by his housekeeper Mrs Nakano or left by his friend Jiro, who lived in the interconnecting apartment. An omelette and salad, and toasted bread from one of the excellent French bakeries in the department stores in the Ginza. A glass of cold white wine, Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé. A peach. Some cheese and then very good coffee. Black coffee.

Iggie was eighty-four and slightly stooped. He was always impeccably dressed; handsome in his herringbone jackets with a handkerchief in the pocket, his pale shirts and a cravat. He had a small white moustache.

After our lunch he’d open the sliding doors of the long vitrine that took up most of one wall of the sitting-room and would get out the netsuke one by one. The hare with amber eyes. The young boy with the samurai sword and helmet. A tiger, all shoulder and feet, turning round to snarl. He would pass me one and we’d look at it together, and then I’d put it carefully back amongst the dozens of animals and figures on the glass shelves.

Iggie with the netsuke collection in Tokyo, 1960

I’d fill the little cups of water kept in the case to make sure the ivories didn’t split in the dry air.

Did I tell you, he would say, how much we loved these as children? How they were given to my mother and father by a cousin in Paris? And did I tell you the story of Anna’s pocket?

Conversations could take strange turns. One moment he would be describing how their cook in Vienna would make their father
for his birthday breakfast, layers of pancakes and icing sugar bathed in a syrupy liqueur; how it would be brought in with a great flourish by the butler Josef into the dining-room and cut with a long knife, and how Papa would always say that the Emperor couldn’t hope for a better start to his own birthday. And the next moment he would be talking about Lilli’s second marriage. Who was Lilli?

Thank God, I’d think, that even if I didn’t know about Lilli I knew enough to know where some of the stories were set: Bad Ischl, Kövecses, Vienna. I’d think, as the construction lights on the cranes came on at dusk, stretching deeper and deeper into Tokyo Bay, that I was becoming a sort of amanuensis and that I should probably record what he said about Vienna before the First World War, sit at his elbow with a notebook. I never did. It seemed formal and inappropriate. It also seemed greedy: that’s a good rich story, I’ll have that. Anyway, I liked the way that repetition wears things smooth, and there was something of the river stone to Iggie’s stories.

Over the year of afternoons I’d hear about their father’s pride in the cleverness of his older sister Elisabeth, and of Mama’s dislike of her elaborate language. Do talk sensibly! He often mentioned, with some anxiety, a game with his sister Gisela, where they had to take something small from the drawing-room, get it down the stairs and across the courtyard, dodge the grooms, go down the cellar steps and hide it in the arched vaults under the house. And dare each other to get it back, and how he lost something in the dark. It seemed an unfinished, fraying memory.

Lots of stories about Kövecses, their country house in Czechoslovakia. His mother Emmy waking him before dawn to go out with a gamekeeper with a gun for the first time by himself to shoot hares in the stubble, and how he couldn’t pull the trigger when he saw their ears tremble slightly in the cool air.

Gisela and Iggie coming across gypsies with a dancing bear on a chain, camping on the edge of the estate by the river, and running all the way back terrified. How the Orient Express stopped at the halt and how their grandmother, in her white dress, was helped down by the stationmaster, and how they ran to greet her and take the parcel of cakes wrapped in green paper that she’d bought for them at Demel in Vienna.

And Emmy pulling him to the window at breakfast to show him an autumnal tree outside the dining-room window covered in goldfinches. And how when he knocked on the window and they flew, the tree was still blazing golden.

I washed up after lunch while Iggie had his nap, and I would try to do my kanji homework, filling one chequered paper after another with my jerky efforts. I’d stay until Jiro came back from work with the Japanese and English evening newspapers and the croissants for tomorrow’s breakfast. Jiro would put on Schubert or jazz and we would have a drink and then I’d leave them be.

I was renting a very pleasant single room in Mejiro, looking out over a small garden filled with azaleas. I had an electric ring and a kettle and was doing my best, but my life in the evenings was very noodle-focused and rather lonely. Twice a month Jiro and Iggie would take me out to dinner or a concert. They would give me drinks at the Imperial Hotel and then wonderful sushi or steak tartare or, in homage to banking antecedents,
boeuf à la financière
. I refused the foie gras that was Iggie’s staple.

That summer there was a reception for the scholars in the British Embassy. I had to make a speech in Japanese about what I had learnt during my year and how culture was the bridge between our two island nations. I had rehearsed it until I could bear it no longer. Iggie and Jiro came and I could see them encouraging me across their glasses of champagne. Afterwards Jiro squeezed my shoulder and I got a kiss from Iggie and, smiling, complicit, they remarked,
“Jōzu desu ne?”
– Good, isn’t it? – telling me that my Japanese was expert, skilled, unparalleled.

They had sorted it well, these two. There was a Japanese room in Jiro’s apartment with tatami mats and the little shrine bearing photographs of his mother and Iggie’s mother, Emmy, where prayers were said and the bell rung. And through the door in Iggie’s apartment on his desk there was a photograph of them together in a boat on the Inland Sea, a mountain of pines behind them, dappled sunshine on the water. It is January 1960. Jiro, so good-looking with his hair slicked back, has an arm over Iggie’s shoulder. And another picture, from the 1980s, on a cruise ship somewhere off Hawaii, in evening dress, arm in arm.

Living the longest is hard, says Iggie, under his breath.

Growing old in Japan is wonderful, he says more loudly. I have lived here for more than half my life.

Do you miss anything about Vienna? (Why not come straight out and ask him: So what do you miss, when you are old and not living in the country you were born in?)

No. I didn’t go back until 1973. It was stifling. Smothering. Everyone knew your name. You’d buy a novel in the Kärntner Strasse and they’d ask you if your mother’s cold was better yet. You couldn’t move. All that gilding and marble in the house. It was so dark. Have you seen our old house on the Ringstrasse?

BOOK: The Hare with Amber Eyes
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