Saturday, August 28, 2010

The Financial Translator’s Bookshelf: The Hare with Amber Eyes

How do you write a sad story without nostalgia?
Imagine you are the descendant of one of those families of 19th-century Jewish financiers who spread around the major capitals of Europe to forge a continental empire. Along the way, the family comes to feature an art collector who served as a patron for the Impressionists and inspired Proust’s Swann. A later generation includes a woman who attends university in the early twentieth century, graduates as a lawyer and corresponds with Rilke. Imagine that the family’s wealth disappears in the blink of an eye when Germany annexes Austria. That is in a nutshell the story of the Ephrussi clan, which Edmund De Waal chronicles in “The Hare with Amber Eyes.” That is only a peek at the material that the author had at his disposal, which should have made the work relatively simple to write. But the author set himself a challenge. He refused to produce a straightforward history: “It could write itself, I think, this kind of story. A few stitched-together wistful anecdotes, more about the Orient-Express, of course, a bit of wandering around Prague or somewhere equally photogenic, some clippings from Google on ballrooms in the Belle Epoque. It would come out as nostalgic. And thin.”
Instead of a predictable tale from Mitteleuropa about lost grandeur, the author takes a (slightly Proustian) shortcut that leads to unexpected and sometimes deeply moving places. One of the illustrious ancestors collected tiny but incredibly intricate Japanese carvings called netsuke used in early modern Japan as toggles for purse strings. The book traces the story of these sculptures as they are passed down from one generation of Ephrussi to the next. Along the way, the author interrogates subtle ways in which the netsuke’s meaning shifts when they move from Third Republic Paris to Harry Lime’s Vienna and beyond. Through this device, De Waal manages to both narrate the story of the rise and fall of the Ephrussi and also sketch the myriad objects they owned and collected during their century and a half of eminence. The book manages to write an elegant history not just of people but also of the places they inhabited and the things they loved and touched. Nothing thin about that.

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