According to wikipedia, a netsuke is a miniature sculpture. It goes on to explain that it was invented for a practical purpose: to hang an object such as an inrō box from a belt. In reality, that practical purpose was mostly just an excuse to own a netsuke; a simple piece of wood would have worked just as well. So, a netsuke is a piece of art, and like all art it is intended to be examined, admired, discussed, or at least despised.
When the British potter Edmund de Waal inherits a collection of 264 netsuke from great-uncle Iggie, he already knows some of the history behind them, but
Owning this netsuke – inheriting them all – means I have been handed a responsibility to them and to the people who have owned them.
As part of this responsibility he decides to unravel the history of these netsuke, and thereby clarify his family’s history. The family history is that of the Ephrussi, a Jewish family of traders and bankers who grew fabulously rich in the early 20th century, with possessions in Odessa, Paris, and Vienna, and other places.
Originally, the research is supposed to take only a few months, but Edmund gets drawn into the history, and in the end it takes him two years of reading, traveling, talking, and searching in libraries to satisfy his curiosity. The book The Hare With Amber Eyes describes his research.
Edmund the potter makes minimalist pottery; Edmund the writer writes tactile and sparse prose:
Some of the netsuke are studies in running movement, so that your fingers move along a surface of uncoiling rope, or spilt water. Others have small congested movements that knot your touch: a girl in a wooden bath, a vortex of clam shells. Some do both, surprising you: an intricately ruffled dragon leans against a simple rock. You work your fingers round the smoothness and stoniness of the ivory to meet this sudden density of dragon.
The netsuke are bought in the 1870s, probably for a very large sum, by Charles Ephrussi from a Parisian dealer in Japanese art objects. At the time Charles is fairly young, starting into what will be a life-long career as art connaisseur, and Japonism has swept him away. Later, when his tastes in art have evolved, he gives the netsuke to his cousin Viktor von Ephrussi who lives in Vienna, on the occasion of Victor’s wedding to the Baroness Emmy Schey von Koromla.
The netsuke become private artistic gems that are only shared between Emmy and her children, including Edmund’s uncle Iggy. Immediately after Austria’s Anschluss the Ephrussi home in Vienna is confiscated and plundered, but the netsuke are secretly gathered and hidden by Anna, a maid in the house, and returned to the Ephrussi family after the war. (Embarrassingly, Edmund cannot discover Anna’s last name, and she disappears from the story after returning the netsuke.)
Edmund’s great-uncle Iggie settles after the war in Tokyo with his life-long companion Jiro. He takes the netsuke to Tokyo. There they are evaluated by a Japanese expert:
He had, he said, asked Mr Yuzuru Okada of the Tokyo National Museum in Ueno, the writer on netsuke, to come and examine the collection. […] [H]e glanced at about three hundred netsuke spread out on a table as if he were sick of seeing them…Mr Okada picked up one of my netsuke. Then he began to carefully examine the second one with his magnifier. At last, after he had examined the third one for a long time, he suddenly stood up and asked me where I got them…
The netsuke stay in a vitrine in great-uncle Iggie’s house until he dies in 1994, and Edmund inherits them.
The book leads the reader from Belle Époque Paris, to Vienna of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the Anschluss, to post-war Tokyo, and eventually to Odessa, the place where the Efrussi family of grain traders became the Ephrussi family of rich bankers. And as much as the family tries to assimilate, their Jewishness plays an important part in the story.
For each place Edmund paints a careful picture of the present
Rue de Monceau is a long Parisian street bisected by the grand boulevard Malesherbes that charges off towards the boulevard Pereire. It is a hill of golden stone houses, a series of hotels playing discreetly on neoclassical themes, each a minor Florentine palace with heavily rusticated ground floors and an array of heads, caryatids and cartouches. Number 81 rue de Monceau, the Hôtel Ephrussi, where my netsuke start their journey, is near the top of the hill.
and of the past
Vienna means dinner parties. There are endless discussions of placement. Every afternoon the butler and an assistant footman lay the table with a tape measure. There are discussions of whether it is safe to get ducks from Paris, if they come crated the day before on the Orient Express.
Overall the book is a detailed slice of history, a loving homage to a Jewish family, and a refined homage to a large collection of refined pieces of Japanese art.
Reading the book
The book is available in many editions and has been translated into many languages. For example, there is an English-language paperback edition; there is also an illustrated hardcover edition. The eBook version is available both with and without illustrations.
Credits: all quotes are from the book; the image is from wikipedia, showing the The Hare with Amber Eyes netsuke, by Masatoshi, Osaka, ca. 1880, signed; held in the collection of Edmund de Waal. Ivory, amber buffalo horn. Photo by CC BY-SA 4.0