I came to this book by a somewhat circuitous route; I saw Edmund de Waal speak about his approach to making pots in the BBC series on the history of British pottery earlier this year, and searched online to find a little more about him, fascinated by his neat appearance and fastidious mannerisms. I found an article about the book, and realised somewhat slowly that this was the book that lots of people had recommended to me, but which I had been behind the times in taking up.
It was a delicious read, ‘part treasure hunt, part family sage’, as it is described in one of the review quotes on the back cover.
On his Great Uncle Iggie’s death, Edmund de Waal inherited a collection of 264 small wood and ivory carvings, Japanese netsuke. When he saw the interest inspired in his listeners when he recounted the story of the collection, how it had been passed through several generations of the extended wealthy Ephrussi family, de Waal decided to write a book about it. The researching in Belle Epoche Paris, in Imperial Vienna, Nazi Austria, and post war Tokyo, took him longer and deeper than he had ever anticipated, and in the book we are presented with the dual narrative of family history as well as that of the searching to find it.
As de Waal is a potter, he is interested in the texture and arrangement of things, so he uses the netsuke and the collection’s travels and physical environment to illustrate and bring the family story to life.
He travels to look at the large house in Paris built by Charles, the original purchaser of the collection and sits across the street and imagines the interiors, the furniture and painting on the walls. He has a plethora of research material to consult to build his picture of the comfort and ostentation of the house because Charles was well known in Parisian society, and appears as a possible model for Swann in Proust’s ‘A la Recherche du Temps Perdu’, as well as a character in a work by Goncourt; he’s also there in records of people who bought early Impressionist paintings, and in the society pages of newspapers. He builds a portrait of a man through the things he chooses to own and to have around him.
From Paris he followed the netsuke to Vienna, when they are given as a wedding gift to de Waal’s great grandparents, part of another branch of the Ephrussi family who also build themselves a new house in the fashionable part of town, which they fill with things they consider tasteful and beautiful. The netsuke are kept in a glass fronted cabinet in Emmy, his great grandmother’s dressing room, where the children, the young Iggie, and Elizabeth, de Waal’s grandmother play with them.
The fond memories of these times with their mother, and the extraordinary story of how the collection remained intact may be why there is such a strong fondness for them which de Waal has inherited from both Iggie and his grandmother.
I so enjoyed the exploration of a domestic history through the examination of the things that people choose to have around them. There may be some added interest in the fact that very little other than the carvings survived in family ownership after they were stripped of their belonging by the Nazis; that the Ephrussi’s were extremely wealthy in the 1930s, but by the 1950s it had all been taken from them.
But to me the story spoke of the universality of the idea that some things are valued in a family because of the people we love who are associated in our minds with them, and that we honour them by telling their stories.