This winner of the 2010 Costa Biography Award was fervently recommended by my sister-in-law, so I decided to give it a try – although to be honest, the blurb didn’t fill me with enthusiasm.
264 Japanese 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 siècle 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.
In my humble opinion, the blurb doesn’t do the book justice. However, I have a fair amount of sympathy with the publishers. How do you explain or sum up this story that spans three generations of a family caught right in the middle of the most turbulent events of the last two centuries? For de Waal, a noted potter in his own right, just happens to belong to one of the major Jewish banking families who operated out of Vienna, Paris and London at the height of their powers. Fabulously wealthy and highly influential, Charles Ephrussi, the younger son who didn’t go into the family banking business, collected and commissioned artworks from the likes of Manet, Degas and Monet. It is this section of the book that really sings off the page as de Waal is clearly entranced by Charles, both as an art collector and person. He charts Charles’ life and his collecting habit – including his long-term affair with Louise Cahen d’Anvers, until his collection of netsuke is given as a wedding present to his cousin, Viktor and his beautiful young wife, Emmy.
The special cabinet, known as a vitrine, that houses this collection ends up in the corner of Emmy’s dressing room and these small, valuable Japanese pieces become the playthings of the Emmy’s children. de Waal is particularly good at describing objects – not just their appearance, but their feel and quality along with the emotions they engender. He produces slices of the family history as Vienna is rocked by a series of world-shaking events.
However, the middle part of the book is the least satisfactory. While we get tantalising details of Emmy’s beauty and fashion sense, the candour he displays about Charles’ life is lacking. There is a sense that he has edited swathes of detail out of his great-grandparent’s lives. His grandmother, Elizabeth, clearly a remarkable woman, is also depicted with a frustrating amount of information omitted. Her persistent refusal to languish in depressed misery in England when the Nazi looting of her family home is airbrushed out of German history by an insultingly low offer of compensation had me initially convinced that she would be a major protagonist in this amazing story. She isn’t.
That honour goes to Uncle Iggie, another resourceful and remarkable member of the family, who becomes the custodian of the netsuke and finally takes them with him when he settles in Japan in the mid 1950’s. Once more, the narrative picks up and becomes rich with detail and anecdotes as the painful subject of World War II recedes, and de Waal recounts his uncles life and times.
So, given the sketchiness of some of the most catastrophic events in the family’s history – does de Waal do justice to his family’s unique and remarkable story? The answer has to be – a qualified yes. Using a collection of objects as the nucleus of the narrative was inspired and probably made it possible to consider recounting the trauma caused by the Nazi’s aggression and the vicious anti-Sematic comments and open prejudice that winds a dark thread through this account. Overall, though, this book is a testament to the sheer resilience and toughness of a family who have managed to not only endure being ripped apart, stripped of all their property and evicted from their country of birth – but thrive. Along with their collection of Japanese figures.