This was my my fourth non-fiction book of the year and, very helpfully, also my book club read for June (now only two behind!). I have to admit I was a little sceptical at first. It was suggested by one of my fellow book club members and I had not heard about it before. I thought it would be just another rich family memoir, but it seemed to have a bit of history about it, so I was game.
The author is a British ceramicist whose grandmother was part of one of the richest Jewish families in Europe, the Ephrussi banking dynasty, before the Nazis confiscated their property and they were forced to flee their native Vienna in the late 1930s. At the start of his journey the author apparently knew very little of his family history and it is only through the discovery of a collection of ‘netsuke’ tiny Japanese carved figures of people and animals in ivory or wood, that he decides to explore further. The author was on an academic sabbatical in Japan, where his great uncle Iggy (Ignatius) lived when he sees the collection for the first time. He is fascinated by the netsuke and this prompts him to dig deeper into their history and how they came to be in his family.
The book does begin as something of a rich family memoir. Originally from Odessa, the accumulation of wealth through banking enables them to live variously in Paris and Vienna, mixing with the highest-calibre thinkers and artists of the day. It is Charles Ephrussi, an enthusiast for ‘japonisme’, which was popular at the time, who put together the collection of netsuke. Later, they would be considered more like minor trinkets (compared to other parts of the collection), played with by the children of the family, as taste for japonisme waned and the market became saturated with lower quality objects. Because of the family’s wealth and importance, the author has been able to compile a detailed history of the family and imagines the scenes and events at their various homes, the salons they held with the famous people of the day present. It is fascinating but a touch sterile for me.
As the narrative moves into the twentieth century, and the inevitable decline of the dynasty, I felt it became more interesting. The first world war changes everything, of course, for that stratum of society, but the author writes most movingly when describing the decade or so before the outbreak of the second world war, with the gradual demonising of Jews, particularly the wealthy ones. As various members of the family see the writing on the wall and flee the continent, the dynasty begins to break down. The final humiliation comes when the Nazis confiscate their mansion in Vienna and all its contents. The netsuke only survived this process because the family’s long-serving maid, Anna, who was kept on at the house, gradually spirited them away and hid them in her mattress. Later they were smuggled out of the country.
This part of the book is also most moving because it is within the author’s living memory almost, his grandmother having been one of those to flee Vienna, arriving in Kent with next to nothing and having to start her life again. De Waal also becomes increasingly reflective as the history gets closer to the time of the war and to his living family members. It is as if he becomes able to feel their pain. He is also philosophical about how relatively lucky his family were – yes, they lost everything (and they had a lot to lose), but they survived and prospered, unlike many other European Jews. Their wealth meant they were able to leave more easily than most. He is also deeply moved by the loyalty of Anna, the family maid, who risked her own life by trying to save something of the family’s collection, the netsuke.
I listened to this on audio and it was beautifully read by Michael Maloney, but it would have been useful to have the family tree that is in the print edition to refer back to as I did lose track of the members of each generation. The book won the Costa Book Award in the Biography category in 2010. Since its publication, some historians have challenged some of the facts in the book, I gather, for example suggesting the standing of the Ephrussi family has been overstated. I suspect some misrepresentation is inevitable in this kind of book, where the author has fleshed out bare facts with imaginings about day to day life, and this does not detract too much.
It is a fascinating account – recommended.
My next non-fiction read is a book I have had for a while now, Margaret Atwood’s Burning Questions – a collection of essays and comment pieces. It is another big book, so I suspect I am not going to be catching up too easily on my non-fiction challenge for the year, but I plan to take it on my summer holidays so we’ll see!