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.