liv: Bookshelf labelled: Caution. Hungry bookworm (bookies)
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Author: Edmund de Waal

Details: (c) Edmund de Waal 2010; Pub Chatto & Windus 2010; ISBN 978-0-701-18417-9

Verdict: The hare with amber eyes is a fascinating and gorgeously written family history.

Reasons for reading it: My parents have been raving about this for ages, and presented it at their bookclub recently.

How it came into my hands: They talked me into borrowing their copy last time I was in Cam.

The hare with amber eyes doesn't really sound like it should be interesting: de Waal inherited some antique Japanese miniatures from his great uncle, and decided to trace the history of these netsuke, which is also the history of his family. But it turns out that de Waal, though he's famous for being a potter, is also an amazingly good writer. As an artist his physical descriptions are very vivid without being lush or overwritten. And it happens that his background was very interesting; I suppose it's not just any old person who would inherit a collection of 264 very high quality antiques, many of them priceless.

The writing is very reflective, with de Waal telling you about his own reactions to discovering his family background and the reasons behind his writing decisions. So it's a very personal piece of writing, and also very conscious. It seems that he started out vaguely aware that his father came from a rich Jewish family, but hadn't really understood until he started researching just how rich, or what the implications were of being Jewish in western Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries. Of course, it's very convenient for an amateur historian if your relatives were painted by Renoir and depicted by Proust (the original owner of the collection seems to have provided the inspiration for Swann) and generally rich and influential enough to be mentioned in lots of official documents and records. So de Waal finds out lots of quite amazing stuff, but he's also very aware that not everybody has that amount of data available. And he's very careful not to turn the book into a pedantic investigation of lots of archives with overwhelming scholarly detail. Instead tHwAE gives a series of snapshots of people's lives over 5 or 6 generations, with lots of emphasis on their art collections and on personal experiences and presenting an emotionally vivid picture.

The first section covers the end of the 19th and early 20th century, when the family were in Paris, using their vast wealth to support the Impressionist movement. This period has been written about a lot, of course, but de Waal brings a fresh insight because he's not quite an art historian or a typical genealogist, but a rather original combination of the two. With reference to the netsuke there's some fascinating discussion of the European obession with Japanese culture; you can just see the origins of the whole otaku thing that's still around today!

The middle section, covering the middle of the 20th century, mostly in Vienna, is unavoidably grim. It's not a look how terrible the Holocaust was type of book, by any means, but it's still pretty terrible. The writer's family were able to get out of Austria after the Anschluss, basically by means of turning over their entire wealth, the family business and nearly all their art to the Nazis. So in a few years they went from being among the richest people in Europe, to being refugees who ended up as lower middle-class nobodies in Britain and various parts of America. The netsuke were saved by a non-Jewish servant, and therefore just about the only part of the family's fortune returned to de Waal's grandmother after the war. It would be easy to make a sentimental story out of that, but de Waal is very careful to avoid it; he comments both on the fact that it's absurd to the point of offensive to celebrate the survival of the treasures when the family's entire social circle including most of the extended family were murdered along with millions of others, and the fact that he doesn't even have a surname for the heroic servant, let alone archival materials to discover her history. He allows himself to express anger at the way the Austrian authorities blocked any possibility of meaningful reparations after the war, but when it comes to the actual Holocaust he lets the facts speak for themselves, though between the lines it's very clear that he was pretty shocked and upset to start delving into some of the detail of that horrendous event.

Still, there's as much detail as could decently be included about his great-grandparents' on the whole happy life in the inter-war years, his grandmother's fight for an academic and professional career in an era when this was not the expected route for women (much less for Jewish women), his great-uncle's escape from his expected job as a financier in the family firm in order to become a fashion designer, the amazing explosion of secular and Jewish cultural life in early 20th century Vienna, and so on. Apparently when the parents presented this book at the bookclub, there was an stand-up argument between people who personally remember interwar Vienna, and like de Waal's family managed to escape to Britain and made a life here, about whether Viennese society was in fact antisemitic during this period, or whether Jew-hatred was a purely foreign concept forced on Austrian society by the Nazis.

The last section, as well as the intro explaining why he undertook this project, covers his great-uncle's life in Japan where he ended up after the war. Again, it's not a history of the American expat community in occupied Japan, but a personal reaction to some of the unearthed details about that life, with a bit of commentary about the weirdness of American attitudes towards the Japanese in this era. The great uncle adopted his male life-partner as a son, since there wasn't any other legal way to formalize their relationship. I sure there is more detailed academic non-fiction about this element of history, but I learned quite a lot as I personally don't know anything about post-war Japan.

So yes, I wouldn't have expected to get into this book, but I can definitely see why my parents were so excited about it.

(no subject)

Date: 2015-02-26 04:14 am (UTC)
starlady: a circular well of books (well of books)
From: [personal profile] starlady
I feel like the book club argument is possibly an answer to de Waal's question about whether it was possible to ignore the anti-Semitism in interwar Viennese society.

Adopting your lover is still the only way to formalize a gay relationship in Japan, and it's always with the foreigner acting as the parent, to my knowledge--I don't know whether that's purely due to age dynamics, or whether it's also due to the ways the household registry (koseki) system works. Probably both.


Miscellaneous. Eclectic. Random. Perhaps markedly literate, or at least suffering from the compulsion to read any text that presents itself, including cereal boxes.

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