This is one of those rare things – an author’s first book that does not read like a first book. It is neither amateur nor self-conscious. Not only is it beautifully produced and printed, lovely to hold and look at, but De Waal’s style is smooth and engaging, with perfectly timed pauses and flashbacks. He takes the reader on a journey that is a cross between a detective novel, a family history and a study of art.
Whenever the reader feels that all the similar names are becoming confusing and there seems to be no point to the search, he pauses, and reflects, and – echoing his own life – takes the story in another direction.
Plot and setting
This is about De Waal’s inheritance of a collection of Japanese netsuke, and his search to find out where they, and his family, came from. (Netsuke are carved toggles on the cords that that held containers for people’s personal items, that hung from their robes’ sashes. They can be made from various types of wood or ivory.) He travels to Europe and Japan to find out where his ancestors lived, how they lived, and how and why the netsuke always stayed in the family, no matter how tastes in art and collecting changes, and no matter how the fortunes of his family changed.
Most of us, when we are ageing, want to find out where we came from, and can hope simply for some captioned photos, a few documents and perhaps a piece of furniture or two from the past. De Waal’s family was stupendously, fabulously wealthy, having made their money with the import and export of grain. Their wealth was on par with those of the Rothschilds, the Rockefellers, the families whose wealth impacted the economies of nations. De Waal could go and look at the mansions where they lived, at the opulence, now diminished but still traceable in the “Ephrussi” initials in marble on gates and above doors.
The history of the netsuke collection
De Waal himself inherited not this wealth, but artistic talent and an affinity for art, and is now a famous and acclaimed ceramic artist in the UK. You look at the photos of his Japanese netsuke with some amazement – that they can be that small and intricate, and so lifelike – and so alien to European culture in the 19th century.
From the physical traces, family documents, family lore and legal records, De Waal reconstructed the journey of the Ephrussi family from Vienna in the early 1800s, to his uncle Ignace, who died in Tokyo in 1994 and left him the collection of 264 netsuke. The characters in his family are described in such detail and with such insight that they appear as real today as they were then, when they were famous, rich and, for one reason or another, dedicated to keeping the netsuke collection safe. How the netsuke survived and stayed in the family during WWII is an amazing and moving part of the story.
But this isn’t only about netsuke, or art, or pottery. It is about De Waal finding his identity, learning about the prosecution and hatred suffered by his Jewish ancestors, and finding out how each of them found a place for themselves where they could have peace.
“I find all this stuff about restitution exhausting. I can see how you could spend your life tracking something down, your energy sapping away with all these rules and letters and legalities. You know that on someone else’s mantelpiece is chiming the clock from the salon, with the mermaids twined languidly around its base. You open a sales catalogue and see two ships in a gale, and suddenly you are standing by the door to the stairs with nanny wrapping a muffler around your neck ready for your walk along the Ring. For one held breath you can piece together a life, a broken setting for a diasporic family.” (p. 335)
At times the story is so achingly sad that you are tempted to stop reading, and you are reminded that this is a memoir. But then De Waal himself states why you should continue reading, and why he undertook the journey of discovery, and why he wrote this book:
“Objects have always been carried, sold bartered, stolen, retrieved and lost. People have always given gifts. It is how you tell their stories that matters.” (p. 402)
This is a heart-rending story that is beautifully, engrossingly and movingly told – and it matters a great deal. I cannot recommend it highly enough.
Author profile – Wikipedia
Edmund Arthur Lowndes de Waal, OBE (born 1964) is a British ceramic artist, and author of The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010). He has worked as a curator, lecturer, art critic, art historian and was Professor of Ceramics at the University of Westminsteruntil 2011. He has received several awards and honours for his work. Read more at www.edmunddewaal.com…