I read Edmund De Waal’s family biography after seeing a rave review of it over at Eve’s Alexandria. Victoria loved this book about the Ephrussi family’s generations-long ownership of 264 Japanese netsuke, loved it so much that she didn’t want to put it down, and I was completely convinced. When I saw it on my library’s shelf, I popped it in my bag without hesitation (and without the years-long audition I usually give recent books.)
Netsuke are tiny, button-sized carvings of ivory or horn or wood, works of art that may take weeks or months to complete. They are made to be used — often they are toggles on clothing or bags — and de Waal (a museum-quality potter himself, who thoroughly understands objects) describes them wonderfully as “tiny explosions of exactitude.” He himself wishes to honor them by being exact in his narrative, not vague and melancholic.
To de Waal — again, someone well-versed in the importance of objects and the stories objects have to tell — this exactitude very much means following the netsuke through the rooms they occupied. The Ephrussi family was a fabulously wealthy Jewish banking family, on a par with the Rothschilds, and had branches in most major European cities. The netsuke were first bought by Charles Ephrussi in the 1870s, a response to the raving japonaiserie that was the fad at the time. He was a collector, Charles was, and de Waal also walks us through his roomfuls of Impressionist art, has us examine his furniture, and peeks into his astonishing sixteenth-century bed.
We then follow the netsuke to Vienna, where they were demoted from collectibles to toys. Again, we see the palace, with its art and its furniture. Emmy Ephrussi’s clothing, and their summer home, and the children who played with the tiny hare and the brindled wolf. Here they witnessed the meteoric downfall of the Ephrussi family. Vienna was a bad place to be a wealthy Jew — well, any kind of Jew — after the first World War.
I have to say that up to this point, I did not have the same reaction Victoria had to this book. De Waal did not have much material to go on about his family — no diaries, for instance, or much in the way of letters — and he also seems to be sensitive to the point of squeamishness about emotion (which he calls melancholy) or trespassing on their personal space. The book deals with objects, with furniture, with rugs and with buildings. The people, not so much. We never hear their personal voices, and rarely does he even wonder how they felt about, say, the terrible anti-Semitism of postwar Vienna. If he does wonder, he doesn’t follow it up. I felt this approach to biography was off-puttingly chilly, as if I were walking through a house in a 19th-century novel with no one in it, except for perhaps paper dolls to wear the clothes.
Once the terrible days of the second World War occur, however, the tone of the book changes, too. Suddenly the objects are all gone, and not only that, they don’t matter.
Here, in this house, I am wrong-footed. The survival of the netsuke in Anna’s pocket, in her mattress, is an affront. I cannot bear for it to slip into symbolism. Why should they have got through this war in a hiding-place, when so many hidden people did not? I can’t make people and places and things fit together any more. These stories unravel me.
When the netsuke travel next to Tokyo with de Waal’s beloved Uncle Iggie, it’s clear that objects matter little. He is telling stories he’s heard directly from his uncle. (There are no notes in the book at all, which made me nearly insane. He quotes poetry, letters, art journals, dozens of sources, all without attribution of any kind, so it’s impossible to tell what he’s just heard from his uncle and what he actually knows to be true.) This is what life was like just after the war there. This is what Iggie and Jiro made of it together, with the netsuke in a vitrine in the corner. There’s a lot of love in this portion of the book, which makes it come alive. Suddenly, there’s someone in the house.
I suppose my main question about the book is this: why not write about melancholy? In his introduction, he says,
I know that my family were Jewish, of course, and I know they were staggeringly rich, but I really don’t want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss…. A few stitched-together wistful anecdotes, more about the Orient Express, of course, a bit of wandering round Prague or somewhere equally photogenic, some clippings from Google on ballrooms in the Belle Epoque. It would come out as nostalgic. And thin.
My question is: for God’s sake, why not write a narrative of loss? That’s what this is. The Ephrussis were hugely, enormously successful. They supported the arts, music, the society they lived in, the synagogue, the business community, their several countries. And hatred took it all from them, everything, everything, everything. How can you not be sorrowful? Why be contemptuous of emotion for that? Why the sneer? In what way is that thin? I know objects tell stories, and that it matter who gives what to whom, and why. This was a lovely book, well-written, very interesting, and I learned a lot about netsuke. But the narrative of loss happens every day. Show me the people. It will never be thin.
p.s. Can you see the double E of the Ephrussi on the cover? I noticed it just as I was returning it to the library!