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Viccie

The Hare With Amber Eyes

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264 wood and ivory carvings, none of them bigger than a matchbox: Edmund de Waal was entranced when he first encountered the collection in his great uncle Iggie's Tokyo apartment. When he later inherited the 'netsuke', they unlocked a story far larger and more dramatic than he could ever have imagined.

 

From a burgeoning empire in Odessa to fin de siecle Paris, from occupied Vienna to Tokyo, Edmund de Waal traces the netsuke's journey through generations of his remarkable family against the backdrop of a tumultuous century.

 

I'm amazed there isn't a thread already on this book unless it disappeared in the crash for I know several BGOers loved this book, it won the Costa Biography award and got rave reviews but I found it really hard to get on with;

 

It may have been that I approached it with too high expectations, it's been in the TBR bookcase for some time and I was really looking forward to reading it for the book group because we have brilliant discussions which really add to the understanding of a book, but I began to struggle almost from the beginning.

 

It should have been fascinating, it covers so many interesting topics, the Japanese netsuke, Parisian life in the 1880s and 90s for a very rich, very cultivated collector of beautiful things whose wealth didn't protect him from anti-Semitism, Vienna up to the Second World War, the fall of a vast banking fortune.... but a lot of the time despite the subjects it was rather dull.  The first section in Paris was far too long, it was full of suppositions 'Charles would have walked...' which were supposed to add life to the narrative I think but slowed it down instead and Charles Ephrussi may have had a wonderful eye for art but he wasn't interesting to read about at length. 

 

If I hadn't been reading it for the book group I might have abandoned the book in Paris which would have been a shame as the section on Vienna is easily the most interesting part of the book, both for the descriptions of how the Viennese Jewish community tried to assimilate completely into Austrian life - and failed for many reasons and for the inexorable rise to power of the pro-Nazi factions in Austria.  The third section on Japan after the war went back to being far too full of extraneous detail about mundane things with far too little detail on the netsuke are supposed to be the thread that binds all the disparate parts of the book together.

 

I think - and so did several members of the book group when we met yesterday - that though Edmund du Waal is a perfectly competent writer he isn't good enough to tie all the disparate elements of a huge story like this and weld it into a really compelling narrative.  It was interesting, I'm glad I read it all and kept with it, I learned a lot and I'll remember it but I'm rather puzzled about why it garnered all that adulation and for me this certainly isn't a keeper.

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There was a thread.  I think I started it and if I didn't, I contributed to it.  I thought this book was excellent and recommended it highly.  But I loved the part in Paris and Charles Ephrussi's eye for art and the meandering review of Proust's books, etc.  I heard from others that they found that a bit of a slog, too.  I even enjoyed the part in Japan.  

 

But I completely agree that the part in Vienna and the back story of their start in Odessa were the most interesting parts of the book and the most heart-breaking. They were so rich and lived such fascinating lives and then with some--but not a lot--of warning, it was all wrenched from them.  Their refusal to act when all of their friends had fled was so heart-breaking to those of us who knew what was coming next.  And when they didn't leave in time and were completely ostracized from everything--even sitting on benches in the park--but were not permitted to leave, I really began to understand the minutiae of hatred.  Oh, and the disloyalty of people they thought felt affection or loyalty to them.  What a circle of hell.  The heroism of their maid being the only bright spot and very touching.  

 

I have recently even used what I learned from this book while watching the most recent season of "Downton Abbey."  When Rose introduces her new swain to the Russian refugees and gets such a funny reaction, she's mystified and he discloses that they are from Odessa.  Rose is still mystified, but I wasn't and said, "Oh.  He's Jewish."   My mother, daughter, and daughter's boyfriend, following Rose's lead, all said, "how do you know that?"   And so I told them that reading this book made me realize that almost all of those rich Russian Jewish families started in Odessa because it was in the Pale of Settlement (which I then had to explain to my daughter and her boyfriend) and then for various reasons, they left for the west and generally succeeded as well as they had in Odessa.  

 

I read this about the same time as I read In the Garden of Beasts, which was a good combination.   

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Interestingly enough the only person in the book group who really enjoyed the Paris section was a frighteningly well-read Russian who adores Proust.

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I also contributed to the original thread on this book but can't remember anything I might have said about it other than to rave about how good this book is. 

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I had a search on my computer and found what would appear to be my original post on this and a quote from Binker. I hope you don't mind me re posting it Binker? 

 

 

Quote:

Originally Posted by Binker

De Waal's particular strengths are making you feel as if you know all of these people and giving you a very clear view into these lives that are so different from your own. I'm sure he's a terrific potter, but I think he may have missed his true calling as a writer. I have rarely had history come so alive. 

I agree with Minxminnie that it made the experience of Jews in the Holocaust seem so immediate because we had gotten to know this family so well.


Recently finished listening to this on an audio book so was unable to make any notes but suffice to say I also loved this book. 

As Binker says I felt I knew these people and also the times and places they lived in. I've read plenty of novels where the author has failed to capture the essence of a city or country, an era or event in history but here De Waal moved seamlessly from Paris to Vienna and onto Japan. Crossing borders, continents and the decades with apparent literary ease.


More Mr De Waal, more.

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