Friday, October 12, 2012

Jane Goodall gazes into the hare's amber eyes

Netsuke hare

Writer Jane Goodall reads Edmund de Waal's The Hare With Amber Eyes,
making it clear how this book can change the way we "see" through our own eyes.

This is a very big story about some very small objects. The hare with amber eyes is a miniature ivory sculpture made to be held in the palm of the hand, one of a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke bequeathed to Edmund de Waal by his great uncle Iggie, who had been living in Tokyo. Knowing they were acquired by an ancestor in Paris over a century ago, de Waal decided to find out what had happened to them during the three generations they had been in the family.

His idea, he says, was to take leave from his work as a professional ceramic artist, go to Paris and Vienna, visit a favorite uncle in Tokyo, and wrap up the whole project in six months. But in a public lecture given a year ago, following the sudden and extraordinary success of his book [published in 2010], he made an admission. ‘The reality is that if I had realized six, seven years ago when I began this journey to understand what I had been given when I was given these little things, I would have run away.’ Unaware of what they might be getting him into, he was irresistibly lured by the strange little subjects of his narrative.
As he holds one of the netsuke in his hand, its ‘small, tough explosion of exactitude’ compels him to use the same exactness and determination in tracking its story. This involves so much more than tracing the events of the past; it means realizing the past as a succession of present moments, in which the way things are handled becomes the expression of a whole living world of sensations, reactions, imaginings.
The question of how objects are handled, he says, ‘is my question.’ It bears on his vocation as an artist who himself makes personal objects from the raw matter of clay and porcelein. And there is a strange and mysterious art at work in de Waal’s writing, just as there is in the netsuke, as if he is tapping into live currents of energy at every point of contact with those who have held the little things in other times and places.

In the early chapters of the book, the scene is Paris in the 1870s, one of those periods in history that seems to have been preternaturally alive with the energies of change and renewal. We are introduced to the twenty-three-year-old Charles Ephrussi, who visits salons where he meets Marcel Proust and encounters the paintings of Degas, Manet and Renoir while they are still on the easel as works in progress. A craze for all things Japanese is part of the sensory adventure, and Charles, with an increasingly expert eye and an almost unlimited supply of ready money from his wealthy family, buys the netsuke as a job lot from one of his more enterprising dealers.
So the little objects themselves become part of a resurgent cultural scene, an expression of the zeitgeist. I’ve always been fascinated by that word zeitgeist. ‘Spirit of the age’ is an accurate enough translation, but loses the effect of the single word coinage, which more directly suggests a kind of consciousness at work, something that stirs the energies of the moment and gives them a special edge of vitality. It’s something as subtle as breath. While reading the opening section of De Waal’s book, you can feel that you are also breathing the euphoria of the age.
Perhaps too, though, readers in our own time have an instinct that euphoria is not to be entirely trusted, especially when it arises from a sense of the glamour of times past. Woody Allen captures its absurdity with a wonderful light touch in Midnight in Paris (an excellent companion to The Hare with Amber Eyes), but cultural euphoria can be shadowed by more deeply troubling undercurrents. It is shocking to be reminded that anti-Semitism was already taking hold in Europe during the Belle Epoche, and that such figures as Renoir and Cezanne were caught up in it. The Ephrussi family were Russian Jews, and the wealth and style that had made them prominent citizens of Paris now also made them a target for a steady stream of racial abuse.
When the netsuke travel to Vienna at the turn of the century, as a wedding gift from Charles to his cousin, the shadow travels with them. Through the descriptions on the page, you can almost see the picture darkening. The family wealth, expressed in marble pillars, ornate hangings, solid silver table ware and the elaborate social costumes of his great grandmother Emmy, is becoming literally more cumbersome. Yet Emmy herself exudes ‘a sort of luminosity.’ She takes over from Charles as the compelling human presence in the lives of the netsuke, which are kept in her dressing room, where her children are allowed to play with them as she is outfitted for the several occasions a day for which dresses, gloves, hats, fans and shawls must be exactly selected.
As readers, we know that this way of life cannot last. It is, in our terminology, unsustainable. Political tensions rise, the outbreak of the first world war is imminent, food runs short in a terrible winter. None of this affects the netsuke, so compact and durable in themselves; but as family possessions, they are a target along with everything else associated with Jewish prosperity. Nazi flags are everywhere, and mobs gather in the streets. The visionary immediacy that Edmund de Waal has brought to the earlier, happier chapters of his chronicle here becomes frightening. ‘How can I write about this time?’ he asks.

In March 1938, the Ephrussi Palais is invaded by brownshirts. There follows an orgy of trashing and looting. Somehow, the intruders miss the netsuke and they are left behind when their owners make their escape across the border. Their smallness is their lifeline. I won’t tell here the story of how they are rescued, and returned to the possession of de Waal’s grandmother Elisabeth, because that needs to unfold as part of your own relationship with the book, but the fact of their survival is worth dwelling on.
On one level, this book is a family history, one that those of us interested in our own ancestral stories might only dream of: a grandmother who was a poet and corresponded with Rainer Maria Rilke; a great grandmother who cut a figure amongst the most elegant fashionistas of the early twentieth century; and a more distant forebear who was a gifted and influential art critic. On another level, it is a story of how the things that people create and own can be part of the living current of experience that passes through time.
At one point, the dealer who sold the netsuke to Charles Ephrussi tells him about meeting an old man sitting on a doorstep in Japan, working on a netsuke that appeared to be almost finished. The dealer offered to buy it, but the man said he might not be able to complete the work for another eighteen months because he could only work at on certain days, when the mood of things left him feeling ‘gay and refreshed.’ Perhaps what is at stake here is a sense of zeitgeist in miniature, as a passing moment of inspiration, made permanent through the exacting work of the human hand and eye.

Jane Goodall speaking at a celebration of the work of Rainer Maria Rilke.
Jane Goodall is a writer and literary critic with a special interest in theatre, aesthetics and the power of language. We are delighted that she has agreed to be a regular contributor to the Universal Heart Book Club.
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  1. I really enjoyed your review. Isn't it a wonderful book, a slow build... so intricate. I've taken a look at the book on my blog, too. You might enjoy it!

  2. Jane is such a good writer and we are thrilled to have her as a regular contributor here. We are also keen to bring readers' attention to worthwhile books that are not simply the latest, but some of the most interesting. Please keep commenting and letting us know what you most enjoy.