I came to the book as the result of reading a column by Roger Cohen in the New York Times before we left for Europe last month, and ordered it in time to take it with us on our trip. But I didn’t get to actually read it until this past week. The column was called “The Netsuke Survived”, and Cohen’s description of the book intrigued me. It was a story of the survival—not only of a collection of Japanese netsuke...
... but of the European Jewish family through whose various hands it passed, the family of which De Waal, brought up as the son of an Anglican minister, was the barely informed scion. His research soon turned into an obsession that sidetracked him for two years from his own work as an artist.
The story, as it eventually revealed itself to him—and now, in turn, to us—is at once absorbing and increasingly moving as it progresses. The Ephrussi family, originally from Odessa, worked its way to fame and fortune in Paris and Vienna in the late 1800s. The fortune derived from its prodigious success in the banking business—a success that initially gave its members access to the social elites and the cultural salons. This part of the story involves associations and friendships with artists Renoir, Degas and others; with giants of the literary scene like Proust and the (virulently anti-Semitic) Goncourt brothers. Until “l’affaire Dreyfus,” and its opening of that deep vein of envy and distrust of Jews in French society—a time at which the family seemed suddenly to have outlived the welcome they had worked so hard to foster since arriving from the East. Once great and powerful social hosts and patrons of the arts, they found themselves all too soon personae a lot less grata. De Waal’s descriptive narrative places us there, in the center of it all, at this turbulent time.
The scene, along with ownership of the netsuke collection, shifts to pre-World War I Vienna and its social whirl, where another branch of the Ephrussi family has also established a foothold in the banking business; their massive mansion occupies a significant site on the Ringstrasse, and their role in the business and socio-economic establishment seems assured. They have become the proverbial pillars of society, living a life of extraordinary privilege and wealth. Patriots, too, they give generously of their wealth and power to their adopted country, serving with distinction in the military, supporting the war effort in every way, and sharing in the humiliation of defeat. They could scarcely have foreseen what the next decade would bring them in return: increasing distrust, suspicion, isolation and, all too soon, the arrival of the brutish Nazis and persecution, not only at the hands of the Gestapo but also those of their compatriots. We watch, aghast, as the family is brought to ruin. It's a dreadful lesson in impermanence
In the chaos, it is Anna, a faithful family retainer, who saves the netsuke collection from the hands of the invaders. They, with impunity, steal everything else—the art, the beloved books, the mansion, the bank, and eventually all traces of identity, dignity and security. One of the great strengths, I think, of De Waal’s account, is not to disguise the classism of the nouveaux-riches, not to minimize the extent of their wealth and privilege nor the excesses--and sometimes the frivolity--of their way of life. We understand, perhaps, a little more—though without in any way condoning—the angrily envious attitudes of the have-nots that laid open the way for an Adolph Hitler and his gang of murderers. (We also understand a little more about the problems that we face today, a century later, and their origins in a capitalist economy and its detractors.) But never, as we read, are we allowed to share that “got it coming to them” rage that led to the horrors of the Holocaust.
The penultimate chapter in the netsuke’s journey is in the country of their origin, Japan, where De Waal’s great uncle goes to take up residence after World War II and, along with the author, we reflect on that far country’s culture and the aesthetic that produced these tiny, intricate and meticulously crafted works of art. By the end of the book he himself is in possession of this family treasure—all that remains, aside from brittle letters and documents, of a great family and its history. It is a poignant end. In the course of his search, the author has found some important piece of his own humanity and a renewed sense of the value of those closest to him in their London home.
In all, this is a very rich and satisfying read. When in England, we felt compelled to make the pilgrimage to see "Splash," the current installation of De Waal’s art work at the Victoria & Albert Museum. The elegant, simple, even minimal shapes of his pure white pots, dozens of them in a staggered, uneven row, occupy the entire “whispering gallery,” the circular base of a dome on the top floor, in the museum’s wonderful ceramics department...
The installation requires a sharply raised head to gain even a distant glance at them. At this remove, they offer the viewer a sense of serenity, an appreciation for the beauty of form for its own sake, a stillness as remote as Keats’s Grecian urn. Their cool, insistently formal, abstract beauty contrasted curiously, I thought, with the intricate carving of the netsuke he describes in his book, and with its emotional intensity. Placed so far from the viewer’s eye, they do not invite the touch that clearly means so much to him in his relationship with the netsuke; on the other hand, the touch of the artist’s hand is clearly what defines their shape and presence, and their denial of it to the viewer is perhaps as powerful as the permission. Certainly, it brought attention to my own desire to know things in this way, through first-hand experience; and yet, as de Waal’s book shows, time alone deprives us of that possibility. There is much we must be content to know only at a distance, and through the mediation of one who cares enough to show us the way.