6 June 2012
Preface and Part 1 – Paris 1871-1899
Before he even starts – i.e. before he gets to the end of the Preface – de Waal knows he’s got a lot of work to do if he isn’t going to fall into cliché. He’s a privileged middle-class boy looking back over the lives of his privileged middle-class forebears. He isn’t, he tells us, going to be the bearer of a well-polished family story, keeping it safe for future generations like some writers. He names Bruce Chatwin, who allowed himself to fall into that trap. He describes how such a story could write itself, stitched together from anecdotes and googled snippets, nostalgic, and thin (his italics). I have to admit that de Waal’s caveats weren’t doing it for me at this point, though I was relieved that he’d spotted one looming danger. How is he going to make me interested in, of all things, an art collection? I’ve read The Line of Beauty, in which Alan Hollinghurst dissects, among other things, the philistinism of some collectors and the appropriation of art by a middle class that doesn’t deserve it. By the end of the Preface, de Waal has still got to prove that he isn’t one of them.
He decides to be a major player in the book. It isn’t only going to be the story of a family, it’s going to be about him. He establishes his own credentials in the Preface: internationally known ‘potter’ – I’ll come back to his choice of job-title – and all-round clever chap. This man can even speak and write Japanese, ‘elegantly’ as I think someone tells him. Once he gets into the narrative proper he goes for an extra layer in which, as we find out about the first (known) owner of the family netsuke collection, we are also told all about de Waal’s own days and weeks spent in libraries, museums and big houses. As in the hugely popular tv show Who Do You Think You Are? this is going to be, as they say, a personal journey. I’m thinking, this had better be good.
It is good. Part 1 is, anyway, and it’s only partly to do with de Waal’s choice of ancestors. Who wouldn’t choose one of the arbiters of late 19th Century taste in Paris, friend of all the important Impressionists and, before that, one of the first in the queue for the Japanese objets being snapped up by the newly emerging coterie of connoisseurs? This is Charles Ephrussi, such a mover and shaker in the Parisian art world he that becomes a model for Swann in Proust’s epic and appears, gently sent up in his top hat and dress suit, in one of Renoir’s most famous paintings. Goodness me. De Waal decides he’s going to like this man, because he’s clearly got a feel for objects. Some of the best writing in this section is to do with just that, with the tactile delights to be achieved through the handling of things. And the things he’s talking about, primarily, are the 264 netsuke items Charles acquires in a single purchase. Sure, this doesn’t prove his good taste, and de Waal can only extrapolate the nudges and suggestions he might have made to his dealer in order to achieve this particular collection. De Waal’s (slightly far-fetched) point is that Charles must have had an instinctive feel for them to be in at the ground floor. He was one of the first to appreciate that these tiny things have an inherent aesthetic value.
Well, maybe. But what is undeniable is that Charles also had an almost instinctive feel for Impressionist paintings when they were still a minority taste. He owned paintings we know from museums, encouraged artists to complete unfinished pieces, bought them at prices they wouldn’t get elsewhere. Proust wasn’t the only person to be struck by the extraordinary arrangements of Renaissance paintings and sculptures, Impressionist art and Japanese objects in his apartment, and de Waal makes a case for the part Charles played in encouraging artists like Degas to choose subjects and create compositions as the Japanese did, capturing the fleeting moment. Well, again, maybe. The link between these artists and the vogue for Japanese wood-block prints is well known, and de Waal can have his family connection to it if he wants. And, to his credit, he doesn’t gloss over the fact that Charles’s taste changed later. To the dismay of the Impressionists, he came to rate Gustave Moreau as highly as he rated any of them.
But all this is only one thread, and it isn’t where this section begins or ends. This is, whatever de Waal might pretend, a family saga, so we need to know where Charles got the money for his extraordinary lifestyle. We’ve met an ‘Uncle Iggie’ living in Japan in the Preface. In Part 1 we meet the Ephrussi family, a different order of movers and shakers before Charles was a glint in anybody’s eye. Their wealth derived ultimately from the grandfather (or whatever) who started off as a dealer in grain in Odessa. Globalisation – if that means trade with no regard for national boundaries – was invented by families like these. Charles and his brothers were born in Odessa, but moved to Paris in childhood. (Their parents, the family tree tells us, had been born in Paris, their grandfather and his second wife in Vienna.) Charles, already an avid collector at the age of 21, is financing his habit with money from the pan-European family business. Soon de Waal is placing the Ephrussi family name alongside the Rothschilds and half a dozen other Jewish families who have moved into international banking.
Because, reader, this is the story of a Jewish family. It’s the one thing I knew about the book before beginning to read it, and that in the 20th Century the Nazis will have a terrible part to play. Ok. But I’m not there yet, and de Waal decides he is not going to be any kind of apologist for the Jewish millionaires buying up properties in Paris in the 1850s. He is often satirical, acknowledges that the Jewish reputation for conspicuous and sometimes vulgar spending was not always undeserved. The street of big blocks where many of the families settled became synonymous with nouveau riche Jews, and an association of these two concepts – nouveau riche and Jewish – entered the Parisian vernacular. De Waal takes this in his stride, but…
…But wry little digs have a habit of turning into something else when there are questions of race. Things become ugly, in de Waal’s presentation of things, when Charles finds his taste moving on from the Impressionists. De Waal, who has done his research, finds quotations from people like Degas that would make you gasp. He has become part of the groundswell of French suspicion of ‘these people from the east’ with no eye for good taste and with no emotional investment in France or any other country… and so on. When the Dreyfus Affair explodes in the 1890s Degas is in the anti-Dreyfus faction, cuts himself off from the Jews he used to know like Charles and Pissarro. And the Parisians come out with all the sad old clichés of anti-Semitism, the ones that people living in our post-Holocaust age find so shocking.
But this, as de Waal likes to remind us, is the story of an object – and the collection is about to move on. When Charles’s cousin Viktor gets married in Vienna ‘on the cusp of the new century’, guess what Charles sends as a wedding present.
Part 2 – Vienna, 1899-1938
We might have moved on a generation, and to a different European capital city, but it seems familiar at first: a lot of things in Vienna are remarkably similar to what de Waal has described in Paris. There’s the big house, the almost unimaginably privileged lifestyle, the family of socialites well enough known to feature in novels we might have heard of like Musil’s Man Without Qualities. There’s even an aunt whose hysteria (or whatever) immortalises her as one of Freud’s case histories. For the first eight (out of twelve) chapters, de Waal is very comfortable describing the years between 1899 and 1914, and particularly life in the oversized and over-decorated mansion on the Ringstrasse, the street designed for the higher echelons. In Vienna, even more than in Paris, these are largely made up of Jewish families – De Waal reels off statistics of the percentages of Jews in banking, medicine, the law, academia – so the street has a nickname: Zionstrasse.
Whilst I’ve sometimes wanted de Waal to move things on a big more swiftly – he seems reluctant to leave the stylish comforts of pre-War upper-class life – I’ve also been hugely impressed by the urbanity of his style. He uses a couple of novelistic techniques to involve the reader as intimately as he can with these people. One is the historical present tense to give the illusion that, somehow, this is not an ancient, long-dead existence. The other is the way he will sometimes, especially with family members he likes, slip into the second person: ‘you’ are allowed to open the vitrine and handle the netsuke or, in darker times, ‘you’ will sometimes hear a muttered anti-Semitic remark.
The first of the people he likes is Viktor’s young, beautiful and energetic new wife Emmy. We hear a lot about her and, later, about her daughter Elisabeth – his own grandmother – and son Ignace, the ‘Uncle Iggie’ we met in Tokyo in the Preface. This isn’t an academic historical study, it’s a family memoir, so de Waal can take liberties if he wants to. Sometimes he will admit that he can’t know everything these people might have been thinking about… but he’ll often take a guess. The netsuke collection again: as he did with Charles, he is determined to show how the family probably loved it. He has evidence concerning Elisabeth – she wrote a short memoir late in life, describing how they could play with them as Emmy dressed – but, well, why were they kept in a dressing room? Because they didn’t really fit anywhere else? Or because Emmy spent most of her time there – proof, surely, that she held them in great affection? Well, you decide.
But it’s time to mention the other thread that runs through this book as strongly as the netsuke collection and the Ephrussi DNA: Jews and how they are regarded by the rest of society. The keynote in late 19th Century Vienna is assimilation. As de Waal describes it, it is completely recognisable in what can be seen a century later in London and New York. Christmas is celebrated, religious rites are confined to family gatherings on the main Jewish holidays… in other words, there is nothing to mark out a family’s Jewishness. In early 20th Century Vienna a philanthropic society exists to send money or other kinds of aid to Jews, mainly in less enlightened societies and still living the kind of ghettoised lives of earlier centuries. And that’s about the extent of the connection: the apparent aim of middle- and upper-class Jews is to be invisible.
Hah. During the first few years of the century, it becomes more and more clear that Jews are never going to be allowed to disappear into society. They have to ignore snubs concerning, say, the membership of certain clubs – the kind of thing that is completely familiar to modern readers from behaviour in Britain and the US well into the late 20th Century. As in Paris, there’s something recognisably ugly going on. Consciously or not, especially as the War approaches, Jews respond to this with what can only be described as highly visible patriotism. There’s no need to doubt their sincerity – de Waal certainly doesn’t – because, well, why wouldn’t second- and third generation Austrians want to do their bit? Besides, their culture – the Viennese Bildung, in all its manifestations – is central to their own sense of identity. Viktor, head of the banking side of the family in Vienna by default – his more capable brother eloped with their father’s mistress and was summarily cut off – is too old to enlist when War comes, but buys conspicuously and, ultimately, disastrously, into government bonds. And so on. The Viennese Ephrussis are not pretending to be Austrians, they really are Austrians, and expect to be treated as such.
We read this with – what? – pity? We know where it’s going and, in fact, de Waal doesn’t spend a massive amount of time on it. When War comes there is hardship – a relative thing in the ‘Palais Ephrussi’ but nonetheless real – and the family considers that it has shown itself in a good light. Nobody has been more earnest in their support for the Emperor and, of course, nobody is more appalled at the sad remnants of empire after 1918. Vienna, in the phrase of some satirist, is a hydrocephalic head on a shrivelled body, and… the family carry on doing what such people do. Emmy continues with her affairs – I forgot to mention those – while Elisabeth works hard at her studies. And so on. And the last two or three chapters of this section are concerned mainly with the lives of Elisabeth and Iggie between the end of one war and the approach of another.
De Waal knows these two. He began writing to Elisabeth, his grandmother, when he was 14 and considering becoming a poet. She, one of the first female law graduates from the University in Vienna, was also a poet – de Waal is very keen to let us know all about the correspondence she kept up with Rilke in the five years before his death – and she was good at writing letters that let the boy down gently. She is the archetypal bluestocking, in round black-rimmed glasses – but finds herself wooed by the Dutchman she meets. I can’t remember the details, but he is the one who gives de Waal his surname. Unluckily he is as bad with money, although in a different way, as Viktor. He loses, literally, fortunes – not always his own. So it goes.
Iggie: no good at banking, and much more interested in clothes than Elisabeth, who never could see the point. If he was a character from fiction I’d be complaining about stereotypes: he’s like somebody from Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City. In the 30s he’s designing ‘cruise wear’ – no euphemism implied – in California, having literally run away from Vienna and work that he found frankly intolerable to find a life in fashion and with ‘boys’. Bless.
How am I with all these posh people? I’ve been telling people I’m enjoying this book, and how I can hardly believe a first-time writer can be so assured. But. But but but… I’m no more interested in the fate of these bloody netsuke than I was at the beginning, and wonder if there’s an insurmountable obstacle for me in the McGuffin de Waal has chosen. I don’t want to go into family or class background here, but let’s say it would be hard to imagine a more diametrically opposite lifestyle and upbringing between these people’s and my own. But that’s not it. In the art gallery in the city where I grew up there was an extraordinary collection, since dispersed, of Chinese ivory carvings. They were large pieces, sometimes three feet in length, but the carving was minute. Some of them were covered in hundreds of tiny citizens making their way through intricate landscapes and villages deeply carved into a complete ivory tusk. I never touched these things, never thought for a moment about owning them – and I was ok with that. I’ve noticed that de Waal likes to talk about the netsuke in terms of ownership. It’s my wolf, my hare with the amber eyes… and, as always when people talk like this, I’m faintly disgusted.
But that’s enough about me. The Viennese Ephrussis, like those in Paris and the Odessa, have been through strange times. Their easy international existence – it’s only as a consequence of business decisions that have led to some of the family being French, some Austrian and so on – has been utterly disrupted during the Great War and the financial disasters that followed. For Emmy it meant that her maid, the indefatigable Anna, had to improvise to create the latest French styles from pre-war costumes. For others it has been more traumatic. Now, as the narrative reaches the 1930s, de Waal slips in little reminders of what is going on just outside – or, increasingly, inside – the Ephrussis’ field of vision. New rules about what Jews can and can’t do – beginning with petty annoyances like the alpine huts that are suddenly closed to them, but quickly ballooning in significance – intrude into their lives. German politics have a greater and greater influence, and the Austrian Jews must have an inkling of what is going on inside Germany…. But De Waal finishes this section in 1938 because that’s when I guess the netsuke will be on the move again. And we wonder who, beyond Elisabeth and Iggie, are going to survive the cataclysm.
Part 3 – Vienna, Kövecses, Tunbridge Wells, Vienna 1938-1947
De Waal is being a bit disingenuous with his section titles. The netsuke, saved in Vienna under the noses of the Nazis, stay there until they are taken to Tunbridge Wells after the Second World War. But family stories – especially newly-minted ones like this, as opposed to the treasured, smoothed narratives de Waal is sniffy about in the Preface – are exactly what you make of them. Our man likes to give his story as many quirky little surface details as he can. Why wouldn’t he? He’s a fan of netsuke, for goodness’ sake.
Do things become as bad as I was fearing? No. But what I’ll take away from this section is the speed of the Nazi takeover of Austria. Immediately there’s a well-oiled bureaucratic machine in place to take away absolutely everything the Jews possessed, and within hours of their arrival there are strangers in the Palais Ephrussi. Within days, rights are being stripped from anyone with ‘three or more Jewish grandparents’. And within weeks it is clear that the only sensible thing to do is get out of there. In Germany, all this had been happening gradually. In Vienna between March and October 1938 all evidence of Jewish life and influence in Vienna had been erased. Or, as de Waal says, written over. He looks at some identity document of Viktor’s – he likes to keep these chapters personal, reminding us from time to time that this is his search for disappeared experiences – and the name ‘Viktor’ has been over-stamped with ‘Israel’. It was part of the Nazis’ de-humanising strategy, to be placed alongside techniques like not allowing shaving, washing or a change of clothes, to re-name all Jewish males like this, and all females Sarah.
Whilst de Waal does his best to make this into a family tragedy – the Ephrussis lose practically everything, poor lambs – all I was thinking was, they all survived. Sure, Emmy dies a few months after escaping from Vienna, probably through suicide, at the age of 59. (She and Viktor have gone to Czechoslovakia, but there are Germans on every border. Kövecses is her family’s country house there.) But every single one of the family gets away. Iggie is already in the States when the Anschluss comes. Gisela, a sister I haven’t talked about, is in Mexico. Elisabeth, now a Dutch citizen living in Switzerland, returns to ensure the safe departure of the others: her parents and Rudolf, another sibling. It isn’t easy, and they are left almost – i.e. not quite – penniless, but her determination and the money they have left are enough to get them out of there. Elisabeth and Viktor are the ones who end up in Tunbridge Wells.
The last chapter of this section, ‘All quite openly, publicly and legally’, is a description of how the post-war Austrian government made it practically impossible for Jewish families to get back more than a tiny fraction of their property. In other words, the Ephrussis are in a similar condition to, say, the average lower middle-class family in England in the late 1940s. I’m supposed to mourn for them? Viktor, in his 80s, still drinks tea in the Russian way and reads his classical texts about exile, quoting Aeneas: ‘Sunt lachrymae rerum’ – which gives de Waal his title for this chapter, ‘The tears of things’.
But even de Waal, inveterate materialist that he is, becomes a little queasy about this at times. He’s just taken us through an extraordinary and unexpected meeting in the big old house in Vienna after the war between Elisabeth and Anna, her mother’s old former maid. It was Anna who saved the netsuke, smuggling them out of the vitrine a few at a time over a two-week period as the Nazis were cataloguing all the loot they were going to take away from the house. She hid all 264 of them in her mattress – and this leads to a riff on the sheer thoughtfulness and care shown by this otherwise anonymous woman. Had the netsuke ever been so loved…? And so on. I was almost ready to be sick – I’m not making that up – when de Waal back-tracks. He isn’t, he tells us, going to use the saving of these object as any kind of metaphor: they are only things, whereas a lot of people died, and so on. But for me the damage is done, compounded by the fact that Anna’s reward is, apparently, nothing. Elisabeth stuffs the netsuke into an attaché case, and it’s Goodnight Vienna. And Goodnight Anna. De Waal guiltily admits that he never found out Anna’s surname from his grandmother, so she’s disappeared from history beyond what he writes here. Bloody middle classes.
Once they are out, the family does its best to keep up a reasonably comfortable life. A suburban house in Kent with no servants means that Elisabeth has to learn how to cook, and it isn’t easy to pay for her children’s schooling (her son is de Waal’s father, of course), and… I was becoming increasingly bored as I read about them. Iggie arrives, having been unwilling to return to his old work as a rather mediocre clothes designer following a good war in intelligence. Elisabeth shows him the netsuke she has just retrieved, and he suddenly decides that of the options on offer to him, Japan is the one he’ll accept. It will never be possible for these Austrians to return to Austria, but as for the netsuke… he’ll ‘take them back’.
Pass me the sick-bucket.
Part 4 – Tokyo 1947-2001 and Coda
Hmm. Most of the things that make this book interesting aren’t really present in these sections. Uncle Iggie gets himself a nice life in post-war Japan, and lives there until his death. (We already know this, of course.) De Waal feels the need, has he has before, to define the differences between the experiences of members of his family and those of more conventional people. With Iggie this takes the form of him not discovering Japan in the 1950s like all those boring Americans, not seeking a mythical ‘real Japan’, not writing a pretentious book about it. The chapter called ‘The real Japan’ is about 1950s and 1960s life as lived by a casual hedonist and lover of nice things who, well, seeks his pleasures unselfconsciously. Good for him. Are we nearly there yet?
Not far, in fact. Before all this we get de Waal’s take on life under occupation in Japan after the war. As with life in Vienna during and after WW1, de Waal gives a sketchy account of shortages, inflation, winters without proper heating… but it’s thin stuff because, I suppose, it isn’t where his interest really lies. (I don’t suppose this is why he offers so few details about the experiences of Jews in WW2 once the Ephrussis are safe. Maybe he decided that there are plenty of accounts of that elsewhere.) I was just getting interested in the Japanese, and the Americans’ patronising attitudes to them, when de Waal was off and away again on his favourite two tracks: his family and the acquisition of stuff. He tells us about Iggie’s apartment, furnished with items we remember retrieved from the collections in Paris and Vienna. And, of course, there are plenty of things he’s picked up in Japan: de Waal remembers Iggie speaking a little guiltily of how cheaply he got hold of a fine Ming bowl. He chooses not to put us in the shoes of the desperate Japanese having to sell their possessions in this way, merely quoting a contemporary writer describing the ‘onion-skin’ approach, peeling off their heritage in order to survive. Why would de Waal want to give them more space? They aren’t family.
Inevitably, now that they are in the hands of someone like Iggie, the netsuke come into their own again. An expert looks at them – and realises this isn’t the usual trash that people want to show him, no sir, as he can see from first three he holds. We get details of their creation, of the way they come into and back out of fashion during the post-war US craze for ‘Japonisme’. Iggie rises above all that, of course. Like de Waal, he can see their intrinsic value, displays them properly, handles them in a way they haven’t enjoyed – as with their wartime experiences in the mattress, de Waal doesn’t shy away from ascribing them almost human emotions – since Charles and his friends fondled them appreciatively 70 or 80 years earlier. Yawn.
Enough? In the Coda (Tokyo, Odessa, London 2001-2009) we get de Waal’s visits to see Iggie’s Japanese lover and his own brother in Odessa because, as throughout the book, he needs to place himself where his ancestors were born and lived…. And so on. And he ends up with the collection. Some time back, I mentioned the thread of the Ephrussi DNA running through this book. It certainly runs through de Waal, who describes the first vitrine he filled with found objects as a child, and the one he acquires now to display his loot. (He has far too much good taste to mention their monetary value, obviously, but they must be worth millions.) He lets his children play with them, is pleased to have them embedded in family life, to see his netsuke, in the book’s final words, ‘begin again’.
Pass me another sick-bucket. This one’s full.