February 4, 2011.

I recently completed the second draft of a novella, Winter Wren, set west of Sooke, on Vancouver Island, in 1974. It was a pleasure to write because I was able to return to a place I loved as a young woman – the hidden stones of Sandcut Beach – and to imagine a life there. One of the characters is a potter and he talks briefly about an apprenticeship he served twenty years earlier with Bernard Leach in St. Ives, Cornwall.

I love Leach’s work. Friends in Cornwall have some of his pots in their home as well as pieces by later generations of Leach potters – son, grandson, etc. I’ve visited the Leach pottery in St. Ives where the work of the family and many students is exhibited. As part of the research for my novella, I read Bernard Leach’s own books on pottery as well as some critical works on him. I particularly liked a reassessment of BL’s influence as a studio potter by the contemporary British ceramicist Edmund De Waal which I read last spring. And in that mysterious way that we are led to books (or vice versa), I was given a copy of De Waal’s memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, for my birthday in early January. I wrote a review of it for our local monthly magazine, The Harbour Spiel. I’m going to include the review here as a way to indicate what I’ve been reading and thinking in the darkest days of winter, the time of year in which Winter Wren is set.

Here’s the review:

January is a month for reading, unless you’re lucky enough to escape the days of damp and darkness to tropical islands or southern beaches. Tucked into a big chair drawn up to the woodstove, a stack of books on the little table, one hardly notices the rain falling relentlessly.

I spent a happy few days reading The Hare With Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010) by the British ceramicist Edmund De Waal. He’s previously written about the early studio potter Bernard Leach as well as other books on ceramics. His own studio work is beautifully elegant and understated, form balanced with function; and these qualities are also evident in this book.

In 1870, one of De Waal’s ancestors, Charles Ephrussi, a member of the Paris branch of a great European banking dynasty, purchased a collection of 264 Japanese netsuke. These were exquisite small objects of ivory and wood, created as toggles or buttons to fasten pockets to the sashes of traditional kimonos. Charles’ collection included medlar fruit carved of chestnut, many tiny rats (“Perhaps because they give the maker the chance to wrap those sinuous tails round each other…”), dragons, a cooper finishing a barrel with an adze, tumbling acrobats, wolves, a beggar, pails of water, and of course a hare with amber eyes. None of them is larger than a matchbox.

De Waal inherited the collection after the death of his great-uncle, Ignace Ephrussi, who had been the fourth member of the family to own the netsuke. “There is no easy story in legacy,” he writes. “What is remembered and what is forgotten? There can be a chain of forgetting, the rubbing away of previous ownership as much as the slow accretion of stories. What is being passed on to me with all these small Japanese objects?”

The Hare with Amber Eyes is the account of his search for those stories, a search that takes him to Paris, Vienna, the Czech Republic, Odessa and Japan. In the process, he finds the grand palace that his family owned on the Ringstrasse in Vienna. This palace was the site of the story’s saddest chapter: the family fortune was lost and its property confiscated when Germany annexed Austria in 1938. The Ephrussis were Jews, victims of systemic anti-semitism of the regime.

How the netsuke collection survived the plundering and occupation of the family home is a powerful tale. Anna, a loyal family maid, kept on by the Gestapo to clear the art and valuable belongings to the Ephrussi family, took the little objects, several at a time, in her apron pocket and hid them under her mattress.

At the end of the war, De Waal’s grandmother Elisabeth who’d left Vienna after receiving a doctorate in law in 1924, married a Dutchman, and eventually settled in Tunbridge Wells in England, returned to determine what was left of her childhood home. No family members lived in Vienna. Some had escaped to America. Several had been deported, perishing in labour camps, and Elisabeth’s mother Emmy took too many heart pills at the country home in Czechoslovakia, preferring to die rather than to suffer further indignities.

Elisabeth entered the former Palais Ephrussi, now the American Headquarters/Legal Council Property Control Sub-Section. The once-grand courtyard was filled with motorcycles and jeeps, the elegant statuary in pieces after the bombing of nearby buildings, but to her surprise Anna still lived in a room in the building and the two women met again.  “Now you are back,” Anna said, “I have something to return to you.”

The Hare with Amber Eyes is filled with fascinating detail. At times it reads like a thriller, De Waal’s detective work leading him from clues in family letters to archives in Vienna, Paris and Odessa which help him to fill out the shape of the story he’d known in its briefest of forms. Always he is mindful that such stories are ultimately about hiddenness. A family’s history, its legacies of art and aesthetic values,  is often passed from generation to generation in ways we learn to understand over time and not always as our ancestors might have intended. Charles Ephrussi continues to intrigue devotees of cultural history: he was a model of sorts for Swann in Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past; and he appears in a painting by Renoir. Photographs of Emmy and her children haunt her great-grandson, juxtaposed against images of German tanks that overran their beloved city. And perhaps most interesting is how Edmund De Waal’s own father, a retired Anglican clergyman, keeps finding packets of letters and forgotten pamphlets in his small flat.

“I ask, somewhat desperately, if there is any more material… He telephones me to say he has found another volume of Thomas Mann. This journey is going to be more complicated than I thought… I put a netsuke in my pocket and set out.”


~ by theresakishkan on February 4, 2011.

2 Responses to “Posts”

  1. Theresa– congratulations on the new website and on the recent awards for your writing. I have always particularly admired your non-fiction and look forward to the new book. If it’s from Goose Lane, and by you, it will be a beauty– Best, Sue

  2. Thanks, Sue! It’s taking me some time to figure out all the steps to smooth web-site care and maintenance! But I appreciate your comments. The snow is falling here and we’re burning dry fir — a nice combination!

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