The Hare With Amber Eyes

More thoughts than a review ….

I’m assuming you’ve read the book. If not, read on anyway. There’s something special here.

We travel from Odessa to Paris to Vienna and I was lost in wonder at times at the atmosphere and detail of it all, but did anyone else lose heart a little when the focus switched to Japan? There the intensity waned. Iggie moved to Tokyo, but not the family. The link was there in the netsuke but the story, the myriad connections lay elsewhere.

I’d also found Charles’s life in Paris a little too much at times.  Connoisseurship can stretch too far, following every twist and turn can be over-indulgent. And yet… where else can we find such a personal take on the France of Manet, Degas and Renoir, de Goncourt, Japonisme and Proust. Charles as editor of the Gazette for many years achieved much, apparently so sure of himself and his wealth and impervious to all talk of his Jewishness.

That’s always an undercurrent, stronger still in Vienna. I was overwhelmed, still am in recollection, by the tale of Viktor and Emma, married in 1899, extraordinary affluence undermined by war, destroyed by hate.


This is a book of stories. It’s the story of de Waal’s netsuke collection, which opens the door to a thousand other stories. All the objects in the book, everything he encounters, has a story.  ‘It is how you tell their stories that matters’. The stories too become objects, conjured so sharply as to be real.

Early on he tells us how he wants to explore the relationship ‘between this wooden object… and where it has been’. Rolling it in his fingers is so much more than merely tactile. ‘…this netsuke is a small tough explosion of exactitude’. Bad at names (he claims) he’s good at pots, weight and balance, surface and volume, edge and tension, how it works with nearby objects – how ‘it displaces a small part of the world around it’.

This explains de Waal’s intensity. His sense of detail, utter determination, complete absorption – absorption is key. He never thought not to follow up a lead, and as the book ends he says he was still making lists, he almost didn’t know when to stop. He goes to Berdichev, where the Ephrussi’s came from. It’s no longer there, destroyed in the war, but he wants to see the sky above it. Was the place, I wonder, full of dust as Odessa was? He doesn’t tell us but dust of course settles on pots and there will always be a war between any lover of objects and dust.  Hence the recurring theme of vitrines.

Past and future – he wants his pots to have a long life. ‘You just hope they make their way in the world and have some longevity.’ That’s another angle. Pots, objects, they have a life, they come to life in stories. In one way he’s very unJapanese or at least very unZen, because he’s far from living in his moment. His moment is someone else’s, where the netsuke take him. Yet the pots he makes himself, he tells us, are minimalist,  and that may explain why he is so brilliant in containing his love of story. He throws in every possible detail, lists everything with a joy, a full recall and a mastery of language and atmosphere that’s spell-binding. But he knows when to move on.

Maybe my problem with the Japanese coda to the story is in part because if you don’t know Japan there simply aren’t the points of reference you need, as a European, to comprehend how Japan looked forward and past simultaneously in the post WW2 years.

How the netsuke survived in Anna’s pocket is a story in itself, but she is incidental, almost the one channel that opens up only to be shut off. She is maternal, in a way Emmy could never aspire to be, she has no magic.

De Waal doesn’t hype or emphasise emotions. It is enough simply to relate how the children are allowed into Emmy‘s dressing room, the only time they ever had real intimacy, and play with the netsuke there. Tensions explode after WW1 and build as the Anschluss approaches, in the reduced circumstances of the inter-war years. Anxiety is ever-present. De Waal doesn’t need to imagine himself into Viktor’s mind as he awaits the exile that others arrange for him, just in  time. Viktor’s resignation contrasts to the storm of activity around him,  humiliation accepted, maybe only his books matter. He was never a banker really.

De Waal’s final Odessa chapter is entitled  ‘astrolabe, mezula, globe’.  They were bought for the Jewish orphanage the Efrussi brothers founded in 1892. Casual mentions in the text, they re-appear as the chapter title. A kind of mnemonic code maybe: de Waal’s memory for detail is almost as remarkable  as the memories he conjures.

In the final pages he talks of patina, which stories share with objects.  Rubbing back to the essential, and yet additive in the way ‘oak furniture gains over years and years of polishing’. ‘You put an object down… and you begin to tell a story.’ All the objects, all the stories, with their rich patina, are contained within the book just as the netsuke at the book’s end are contained within the vitrine he buys as a throwaway from the V&A.

All he writes about has decayed (Odessa) or been utterly transformed. The living heart has been torn out as it was being in Odessa when he visited the Efrussi palace there. De Waal quite remarkably fills in that heart, makes it more, immeasurably more, real than the buildings ever can be – or more real almost than they ever were. There’s a hard reality about the banker Ephrussi, even the aesthete Charles. Edmund de Waal while rooted in fact is all imagination.


Efrussi became Ephrussi, Chaim became Joachim, Eizak Isaac.  We all have stetls to return to somewhere, if we go far enough back.

The politician and the archbishop

In politics the grand scheme of things may sometimes be clear, but its local and personal implications are often dire.  Take current proposals for benefits reform. David Cameron and Ian Duncan Smith (IDS) are trying to reform the system, by  empowering people on the one hand and reducing their dependence on the state on the other. The aim is laudable  but the consequences potentially disastrous.

This is where the Archbishop of Canterbury entered the fray. While his brush in including education was too broad and his political sense lacking, and his supporters like the Bishop of Guildford bumbling, nonetheless he had truth on his side. Child poverty will rise, benefits for the unemployed will be cut, the disabled will be tested and interviewed to check if they’re capable of work. There’s a distinction of course between being available for work and work being available for you to do. Many disabled people would like to work – but where and for who?

IDS may be right that poverty as such is not the real problem. For him, it’s the dependency culture. But that’s an easy phrase and breaking it may have a devastating effect on ordinary people. That is the level at which priests, carers and social workers operate – they, not IDS, will feel the hurt.

We may judge people in their millions and judge they need to change. But each person has his or her own challenges and crises, involving everything from self-esteem to sanity.  Policy has to work at that level too. How do we balance the requirements of basic humanity against the inevitability of change, all the cares and hurts and challenges and anxieties that make up our lives against the simple fact that where many of us are now is simply not a good place to be?

There is no easy solution. Each needs to be open to the other’s point of view. Change can be positive but it needs to be  that way at all levels. If change is only seen as a negative, as taking away, then it won’t happen.  That for Cameron and IDS is the great danger.

Sodcasting rules

I have been introduced to sodcasting, which apparently is playing music loudly on your mobile phone in public places, ideally a confined and otherwise quiet(ish) place like a bus. Sodcasters it seems look upon silence as an unnatural state so they feel they are performing a public service and we should be grateful. If they win over the wider public it will leave people like me clinging on to silence. We were speculating this evening that the answer might be headphones (which would of course instantly set us apart) which drowned out sound. My tunes would be soundless, silence. Or at least that was my suggestion. My son, Ben, elaborated further. We could have sounds of the countryside, or better still we could have the sound of buses … gentle revs, small talk, unruly children, even angry mums and stroppy dads, which once upon a time we thought of as noise but in the sodcasting world we would welcome as peace and quiet.

Not only will we have to escape one sodcaster, they may turn up in numbers and cast different sods into our paths. Different sounds and rhythms combining into a happy cacophony.

Noise will win the final battle over its arch-enemy. Silence will lie routed on the battlefield.

The stakes are high!

Simply too much news

All news is fragmentary, a succession of visual and sound bites, widely differing. It mirrors our  thought processes, which are equally fragmentary. For calm considered rational thought we have to look elsewhere. Even the occasional wisdom of a commentator such as the BBC’s Nick Robinson, briefly a relief, is rapidly swept away by the staccato of stories that follows. We’re left with all the pieces of a jigsaw and little hope of assembling them into any kind of picture. And yet we endlessly try, and endlessly fail.  The BBC’s the Moral Maze, wonderful though it sometimes is, exemplifies the same point at a higher level: if not a jigsaw, a maze.

I could go on about this … it seems daft that we should be so keen on and so accepting of all this confusion and trivia in our lives. There is a way out, but that’s for another time!

Controlling the news

Vince Cable’s office announced (Monday 6th June) in advance that there could be further restrictions on unions if they take disruptive industrial action over pensions this autumn.  Why in advance of his speech, why not let the speech happen and then be reported? But that’s not the modern way. Early release means you control the space. The unions on the other hand would prefer the shop floor meeting, the local ballot, the simple majority, the sway of oratory rather than heated argument in a largely right-wing national press. Pension reform is inevitable and so I can’t support union action. But I can share their frustration as not just the means of protest but the means of argument are taken away from them. Union leaders may still find some sympathy from the Mirror but their members are as likely to read the Sun, the Star, the Mail, the Express… so it’s hard to get their opinion across and that in its way contributes to their militancy. If there’s no forum for discussion and the opposition try and shout you down, you shout back.

Anti-matter and what really matters

Yesterday’s announcement that anti-matter had been kept in existence for as long as fourteen minutes caught my attention. This is something remarkable. Matter and anti-matter existed in equal quantities at the time of the Big Bang, it’s argued, but matter instantly won out. We’re back the beginning of time. Not only do we have an alternative co-existing anti-matter universe, we have the possibility of other prior, parallel or alternative worlds, stretching into dimensions we cannot comprehend.

Buddhism curiously has already been there. It has no problem with multiple universes. Whether or not we believe in reincarnation, life and the universe endlessly recycle. We don’t try and hold onto a specific view of the universe, or a theory of its origins or a doctrine of a creator God. We recognise the importance of living in the moment, and avoid being tied down by ideas, theories, points of view to which we give an emotional charge. We’re part of a continuum, and that continuum always has been, whether or not we have. This is the ultimate reality. From that base we can engage in conventional reality, pursue projects and ideas, build castles on the ground and in the air, but we always know them to be transient and temporary, we never hold on, if a theory sinks we don’t sink with it.