A Remembrance of Things

A new memoir uses an exquisite collection of figurines to evoke one family's devastating history.

The author, a celebrated British ceramicist, has written a winning hybrid: a rueful family memoir, a shimmering meditation on loss and the reverberating significance of cherished objects, and a vividly episodic history of 19th- and 20th-century Europe. De Waal’s matrilineal antecedents, the Ephrussi clan, were pan-European Jewish grain merchants and bankers, originally from Odessa. Charles Ephrussi—art critic; boulevardier; one of the models used by his friend Proust for Charles Swann; patron of Degas, Manet, Monet, and Renoir (he appears in top hat in Luncheon of the Boating Party)—succumbed to the French enthusiasm for Japonisme, and bought an exquisite collection of 264 netsuke (lifelike figurines, such as the hare of this book’s title, carved from wood, bone, and ivory, used as toggles on kimono sashes). In 1899 Ephrussi made the collection a wedding present for his favorite cousin, Viktor, of the Viennese branch of the family, and his bride, Emmy, who installed the figurines in her dressing room, where they became beloved playthings for her children as they watched their mother prepare for soirees and balls. With the Anschluss, the Nazis seized all the Viennese Ephrussis’ money, property, books, and art (the choicest treasures were photographed and cataloged for Hitler, so he could select among them)—except the netsuke, which were hidden by a loyal servant. A few months later, Emmy, trapped in Slovakia, killed herself. Her daughter—the author’s grandmother—made it to Britain, and after the war retrieved the collection. De Waal dexterously interweaves his family story with political, social, and art history, as he re-creates the oriental exoticism of 19th-century Odessa, the decadent charm of Belle Époque Paris, the febrile glamour of late Hapsburg Vienna, and the looming dread possessing that city in the late 1930s. De Waal, whose father was the dean of Canterbury, has in this book also written a contemplation of the potentialities and limitations of Jewish assimilation, as well as a plangent consideration of the pleasures and fleetingness of aesthetic and familial happiness.