The Hare With Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal

The potter fired by treasured memories

Frances Spalding
Friday 18 June 2010 00:00 BST

Letting go: this is what potters do. Edmund de Waal, a leading ceramicist observes, "I make my living from letting things go." He is famous for his nominally uniform porcelain vessels which he exhibits in clusters or lined up in rows. He has created thousands. He has also seen them vanish into the world, to be cherished or forgotten, gifted to others, or passed on haphazardly, whether freighted with memories or not. Losing things, he acknowledges, can sometimes give you space in which to live.

De Waal also writes. His previous books - on Bernard Leach and on 20th-century ceramics - have challenged accepted views on studio ceramics. The Hare with Amber Eyes is a deliberate act of retrieval. It takes the form of a memoir and tracks the ascent and decline of the Ephrussi, his Jewish ancestors. Its narrative is skilfully plotted and switches lightly from restrained feeling to objective historical or geographical facts. It has intellectual rigour as well as an engaging hesitancy, similar to that which gives his pots their gentle imprecision. Both make us aware of the fragility in things.

The Ephrussi were originally grain merchants. They came from Odessa to Paris and then moved into banking with far-reaching international interests. They were very rich and very visible. They were despised as upstarts and admired as patrons. Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of de Waal's great-grandfather, formed one of the great early collections of Impressionist paintings. Proust dedicated a book to him and used him as a source for his character, Charles Swann.

But his key role in this memoir is his acquisition of a collection of 264 netsuke. This he eventually sends to Vienna as a wedding present for his cousin, Viktor von Ephrussi (Edmund de Waal's grandfather). Here the netsuke come to rest in a vitrine in a dressing-room, inside a huge palace built and owned by the family.

Then, in March 1938, the house is breached. Men wearing swastika armbands break in, finger things, smash or steal others and throw an antique desk over the stairwell down on to the courtyard below. This raid is unsanctioned. But when the Anschluss is ratified, the Gestapo arrive, and the listing and fastidious docketing of objects begins. Soon the Ephrussi Palace is occupied by the Amt Rosenberg, which oversees the ideological education of the National Socialist Party.

Many years later de Waal himself encountered these netsuke in Tokyo, in the possession of his great-uncle Iggie. While on a Japanese scholarship, he lunched with his uncle once a week, after which Iggie would open up the sliding doors of a long vitrine and bring out some of these small, compressed carvings of animals, figures, plants and fruit, which Japanese craftsmen have fashioned for over 300 years. Holding one of these bibelots, de Waal recognised that they retained "the pulse of their making".

Later, after he inherits this collection, he develops a desire to know who has handled these objects. Where have they been? In which room and in what light? He notices that the one in his hand sits on his palm like a "small, tough explosion of exactitude". If its history was to be written, it seemed to demand in return a similar exactitude.

So de Waal embarked on a seemingly impossible trail. The miracle of this book is that, by the end, we do learn the itinerant life of this collection. How did the netsuke escape the Gestapo? How did they return to the family and move to Tokyo? The answers, like much is this book, are incredible. In the hands of an elderly servant, loyal to the Ephrussi family, who hid these netsuke in her mattress, they became a way of holding on to the future, while simultaneously offering, like this book, a fierce resistance to the sapping of memory.

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