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Thursday, February 16, 2012

Literature and Memory III: The Hare with Amber Eyes

Ideas seem to ricochet through my nind like bullets in a steel-lined elevator.  For my book on Woolf, I re-read Percy Lubbock's 1921 The Craft of Fiction, which Woolf said was the first book (after James's prefaces, of course) to call the novel an art.  Lubbock was an acolyte of James's, and much of Lubbock's attempt to illustrate the resources of point of view makes use of examples from the master.  Talking about The Ambassador, Lubbock notes that James's use of Strether as a narrator provides us with a kind of doubled layer of narrative.  One layer concerns Chad Newsome and the European life Strether hopes to rescue him from.  The second layer concerns Strether's thoughts, reactions, analysis of the events that are unfolding.  Lubbock's suggestion that James had managed to make someone's thoughts and reactions the centre of a narrative primed me in some ways to read deWaal's The Hare with Amber Eyes.  I read it partly for pleasure, partly because it's written by a fine ceramicist who has a wonderful way of describing the lives of objects, the way objects circulate in people's lives and in material culture.  It's research for Soul Weather.  Hence the ricocheting bullets.

De Waal's narrative is, on the surface, a simple if twisted one.  When he inherits 264 pieces of Japanese netsuke from his uncle, he wants to know the history of the collection.  So he learns about Charles Ephrussi who is the intellect and art historian of the unimaginably wealthy Jewish Ephrussi family who managed to turn their handling and shipping of grain from Odessa into a banking empire that rivalled the Rothschilds'.  During the nineteenth-century Parisian craze for japanisme, Charles (who is part of Proust's source for Charles Swann and can be seen in Renoir canvases), began amassing his collection of netsuke, in between collecting Manet, Monet, and Renoir.  He was an important part of the Parisian art scene, writing about art in the best journals and often serving as the patron who gave financial help when needed, or encouraged an artist to finish a canvas.  When Charles's Viennese cousin Viktor marries, he sends Viktor and his new wife Emmy the collection, which is then housed in Emmy's dressing room where the children come to see their fashion plate mother every night as she dresses to go out.  While she's undergoing her hour-long encasement in layers of undergarments, the children play with the netsuke and she tells them stories about the lively, imaginative figures.

About the time the children leave home to go about their lives, the Nazis march into Vienna.  Mayhem ensues, and families like the Ephrussis have their "ill-gotten" collections confiscated for museums or for the personal pleasure of high-ranking Nazis.  Emmy commits suicide, but Viktor and the children escape, settling down in Mexico or America or Britain.  When the war ends, Elisabeth, deWaal's grandmother, who studied law in Vienna, revisits that city to see if she can reclaim any of the family's property or their shares in the bank that was made over to their father's Gentile partner.  But Vienna doesn't like unpleasantness or uncomfortable memories.  So the partner says he doesn't remember any Ephrussi (whom he worked with every day for years) and Elisabeth returns to England only with a suitcase full of netsuke.  Emmy's maid Anna confiscated them piece by piece as she worked for the Nazis and sewed them up in her mattress for the duration of the war. 

Seen through the lenses of anti-Semitism, the story is anything but simple.  Attempting to understand Charles's social life, de Waal read some of the French anti-Semitic literature, learning, for example, that even in a culture that thrived on duels, Jews were outsiders.  After all, a Jew has no honour; he can hardly duel to get it back.  Jews are insatiable; their taste in bric-a-brack is the taste of children.   Newspaper articles speak slyly or venomously about the various members of the Ephrussi family.  De Waal even finds in his London library a translation of one of the books on the Jews of Paris; next to the paragraph on the Ephrussis, someone has written in block capitals "venal."  De Waal writes "I wonder how these brothers lived their lives in these conditions.  Did they shrug their shoulders, or did it get to them, this incessant hum of vilification, mutterings about venality, the sort of constant, bubbling animosity that the narrator in Proust's novels remembers of his grandfather" (94-5)

Several years ago I went to a concert of Strauss waltzes and music from Viennese operettas.  I remember thinking, careless of my history, that I was hearing the beginnings of Nazism.  There was something about this enthusiastic delight in the saccherine or the sentimental that I suspected was ripe for turning mean.  Yet the picture that de Waal gives us of Austria's rapid capitulation to Hitler, of buses and police cars that are marked with Swastikas mere hours after Hitler begins his march to Vienna, of the Viennese delight in breaking into the houses of wealthy Jews and looting and destroying as if they've been granted permission to be drunken adolescents suggests I wasn't terribly far off.  This was a side of Nazism I knew nothing about.  I mostly knew about Kristallnacht, and imagined small shopkeepers threatened and destroyed; and of course I've read The Diary of Anne Frank and I've seen the shocking footage taken when Allied soldiers open up the death canps.  But even money didn't protect you from anti-Semitic opportunism,  reminding me that it's important to see events like the Holocaust from as many directions as you can.  Emmy's suicide notwithstanding, none of the Ephrussis we come to know died.  But de Waal does not allow the miracle of the netsuke's survival to be some kind of life-affirming, art-affirming miracle or redemption:  "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" (283).

What is redemptive in this story, and what Lubbock made me attuned to, is de Waal's narration.  The Hare with Amber Eyes isn't simply about the historical context for the netsuke's movement from Japan to Europe and back to Japan before de Waal inherited it. De Waal is a dogged, imaginative researcher and does everything possible to situate these tiny, lively objects in the cultures which appreciated them.  But the most remarkable moments are those where he stops to attempt to understand the inner lives of the people who owned them, like that passage above about the way Charles and his brothers coped with the anti-Semitism that pervaded Paris.  Here is another:  "I have Viktor's passport and a thin shake of letters between members of the family, and I put these out on my long desk.  I read them again and again, willing them to tell me what it was like, what Viktor and Emmy feel as they sit in their house on the Ring.  I have folders ot notes from the archives.  But I realise that I can't do this from London, from a library.  So I go back to Vienna, to the Palais [the Ephrussi family hom in the Ringstrasse]" (248).  There, standing on the balcony, using the details of the story that have come down to him--the six members of the Gestapo in their perfect uniforms who walk straight in, the looters that threw Emmy's dressing table over the balcony and laughed when it smashed, Viktor comes as close as he can to understanding the experience of his family.

It's the attempt to understand someone besides yourself that serves as one of the best ways of preventing holocausts or pogroms or acts of terrorism, and this attempt is threaded through de Waal's narration.   The final part of the story shows de Waal doing this with the lightest hand.  De Waal often travels to Japan, sometimes simply to see his great uncle Iggie, sometimes to work on his ceramic practice, and he comes to know his uncle and his uncle's partner Jiro Sugiyama quite well.  Their living arrangements are carefully described and there are photographs of the two of them, but de Waal never uses the word "homosexual."  Because that's a label like the word "Jew"; it allows you to put someone in a box, to write them off.  Rather, these are two men who went to the opera, bought some land outisde Tokyo for a cottage and bought a plot for their tombs.  Jiro is an excellent cook.  In a moment of remarkable cleverness, Iggie adopts the younger Jiro.  Again, de Waal doesn't comment, but this is clearly a way of getting around inheritance laws.  If Jiro can't inherit as Iggie's partner, he can do so as his son.

It is possible to see netsuke as mere bibelots, tiny, clever carvings.  But de Waal tells a story of a carver who disappeared for several days into the forest and came back to explain he had wanted to watch the deer, which he then proceeded to carve with an elegant, intimate understanding of them.  It's that curious, that close attention to the particulars of someone or something other than yourself that helps us be more humane.

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