Edmund de Waal is a ceramicist who graduated from Cambridge with a degree in English. He inherited a collection of netsuke — miniature Japanese carvings — from his uncle, virtually the only things which survived from the fabulous wealth of his father’s family, the Ephrussi, cosmopolitan Russian Jews whose banking and shipping empire rivalled the Rothschilds (and with whom they intermarried).
De Waal (whose father was an Anglican minister) writes about the netsuke and their history in his family with extraordinary clarity. The Hare with Amber Eyes reads like a novel, fusing emotion and sensation with art, dramatic moments and personalities.
As a potter, de Waal understands and exquisitely describes the power of the carvings to evoke joy and wonder. He recreates how, as exotic objects from the closed world of Japan, the netsuke offered a glimpse of the other for his great-grandfather’s cousin, an editor of an art magazine, who bought them in the 1870s. Of course, the great irony is how “other” the Ephrussi were always perceived, no matter how powerful, secular, and wealthy.
Each stop along the way for the netsuke — from Paris to Vienna at the turn of the 20th century to Tokyo after World War II — is recreated with depth and imagination. We see, feel, know the original owner, Charles, who was a patron and friend of Proust and Renoir and served as a model for them both. Charles gives the netsuke to his nephew Viktor in Vienna for a wedding present, and we are present as the Ephrussis’ world crumbles, slowly, beginning with World War I; we feel the bewilderment, the terror, the destruction, the deprivation of two wars.
The netsuke survive the war (like many of the Ephrussi palaces, where de Waal finds traces of the vanished family, but unlike many of the family themselves). The carvings are taken back to Japan by de Waal’s Uncle Iggie, after he becomes a U.S. citizen and fights with the army through Normandy. He and de Waal’s mother had played with the netsuke in their mother’s dressing room in Vienna; Iggie decides to take a job in Japan based mainly on his connection to the carvings, and his vanished family. De Waal, who studied ceramics in Japan and became close to his uncle there, is the logical inheritor of the legacy, as well as a gifted interpreter of a tumultuous century and one family’s extraordinary journey.
The following is a comment from an article in The Guardian from The Hare With Amber Eyes author Edmund de Waal regarding the netsuke pictured above: “This is the hare that I named the book after. It’s the magic lunar hare which keeps turning up in Japanese mythology and it’s the whitest netsuke in the whole collection by far, made of the purest ivory. Like all netsuke, it’s about an inch long.”