There are some books that hold you from the first sentence, books that you can’t put down, and that you simply wish would go on forever even as you gobble up the pages knowing that the more you read, the closer you are to the end. These are the kind of books that, as you read the last lines, make your fingers turn back to the first page of the Preface and force your eyes to start reading all over again. In other words, an irresistible magnet of a book.
I was fortunate enough to have just such a book to occupy my idle moments in hospital. It is ostensibly the story of a family and of a special collection of small objects owned by some of the family members, but it is also a brief history, told soberly and softly, of the horrific phenomenon of anti-Semitism in the last century.
It is a beautifully and sensitively written account of the author’s search for his more recent ancestors, wanting to get to know them as real people, exploring their lives, personalities and backgrounds and touching upon historical events that deliberately destroyed a dynasty. There is no sentimentality or sensationalism in this very personal account. The story moves from Odessa to Paris, to Switzerland, Vienna, London and Tokyo, with vivid descriptions of the relevant places and people and insights into the author’s own personality and life.
I was particularly struck right at the start of de Waaal’s search by his description of fin-de-siècle Paris, in all its decadence and posturing, as this account finally clarified certain aspects of that culture that had long eluded me. Here I must briefly digress.
As a student specialising in French at university, I was obliged to take a course on the French novel. I have never, before or since, ploughed through so many heavy tomes in such a short time. Following on from Balzac, Hugo, Flaubert and Zola this course also involved studying “Le temps retrouvé” as a prescribed book, which is the seventh volume of Proust’s interminable epic “A la recherché du temps perdu”. Obviously, you can’t study the last chapter of a book without having read the preceding ones, and so it was in this case; to understand what “Le temps retrouvé” was about it was necessary to read “A la recherché du temps perdu” in its entirety.
I was 20 years old, young and inexperienced, and freely admit that I did not comprehend most of this great work. Quite apart from Proust’s style, with its rambling serpentine sentences, the subject matter was beyond me. I immersed myself in it for several weeks, reading it first in French and then – in desperation – in English translation. I was none the wiser. I may as well have been reading Einstein’s account of the theory of relativity. Not surprisingly, my tutor’s comment on the paper I handed in on this magnum opus was: “Vous n’avez absolument rien compris de quoi il s’agit.” And she was right. I never opened any work by Proust again.
Reading Edmund de Waal’s description of the society depicted by Proust (and also by Huysmans, whose book “A rebours” was a welcome relief to my 20-year-old self after Proust – this I could grasp, and it was short!) I felt that at last I might be able to wade through “A la recherché du temps perdu” and finally be able to make sense of the volumes that follow “Du côté de chez Swann” and “Jeunes filles en fleurs”. Thank you, Edmund de Waal!
That, as I warned you, was a personal digression. I was equally impressed by de Waal’s evocation of Vienna, Odessa and Tokyo.
“The Hare with Amber Eyes” carries the reader along as though on the current of an endless river, enthralled and enchanted by both the content and the exquisite choice of words and use of language. This is a book that cries out to be read over and over again, revealing layer after layer of valuable information and insights, both on a personal level and on the level of world history as the ineluctable fate of de Waal’s family is so intertwined with global events. This is a book to buy, keep and cherish, to recommend to friends, and never to leave languishing unopened on the shelf, a book to inspire and console.
The Hare with Amber Eyes is by Edmund de Waal, ISBN 978-0-099-53955-1, first published in 2010 by Chatto & Windus.