Life after The Hare with Amber Eyes
BY CATHARINE MORRIS
Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare with Amber Eyes traced the history of his Jewish diasporic family through its collection of Japanese netsuke carvings, acquired in the 1870s by the wealthy art collector and historian Charles Ephrussi. When the book was published eighteen months ago, de Waal thought that his work was over, that he could go back to being a ceramicist. In fact it wasn’t, and he couldn’t. The main problem, as he would probably term it, was the scale of his success: there were glowing reviews and prize nominations, and the book entered the bestseller lists. The publicity tour, it became clear, was going to be a long one.
At an Economist Books of the Year event at the Southbank on Friday, de Waal told us in detail about the unexpected difficulties such success brought with it. First of all, he had to talk about the book. He didn’t want to read from it (“The number of times I’ve fallen asleep when listening to people I respect read from their own work . . .”), so he had to find a new language in which to reinvigorate it. Then there were the interviews: in New York Public Library the questioning was adversarial; in Paris the conversation – a short one – began “So, you write about Proust . . .”. De Waal also had to reconcile himself to different publishers’ tastes and marketing strategies: the American paperback edition has photographs in the “obligatory sepia” on the cover, and the hardback a subtitle of the “kitchen sink” school (“A family’s century of art and loss”). The book has just come out in Brazil packaged in a velvet envelope.
It’s all wonderful really, de Waal conceded, but one thing he continues to find difficult – a responsibility – is the correspondence. He has received thousands of letters from people all over the world, many of them intimate letters about what it is to be a refugee, or to be a descendant of refugees and not know where you come from. “I had no briefing”, he said. “What do you do?” He now has a system: “When they come in they are sorted by age. If you are in your nineties you are written back to immediately”.
When de Waal did return to his studio – “I’m a potter who has written things”, he reminded us – he found that his years of research fed into his art. The book had been a sort of hymn to tactility, he told us, but the pain of discovering his family’s traumatic history made him want to stand back. His artwork “Word for Word” initially consisted of vessels behind clear glass; as such it was reminiscent of the vitrine the netsuke were kept in before they were smuggled out of Vienna in 1938, and therefore “too obvious, too raw”, so he made another case to go alongside it, this one with clouded glass. “Self-Portrait in a Convex Mirror” was a meditation on the lacunae you come up against during research – the lost records, the pages torn out. In “Myself Behind Myself”, another work in which vessels are partly obscured, de Waal tried to find “a way of protecting something”. Other pieces explore “hidden things that have some kind of life”.
A German edition of The Hare with Amber Eyes came out in August, and de Waal accepted an invitation to go to Vienna. He was worried about it, he said, but when he got there he felt that his presence was appreciated. He visited the Palais Ephrussi, and experienced the relief of “restituting a book, and a story, to a city that had thrown us out”.
The Hare with Amber Eyes was reviewed in the TLS of September 3, 2010. A new illustrated edition came out last month. A selection of de Waal’s artworks will be displayed at Waddesdon Manor from April 20, 2012.