Odessa-Vienna-Paris-Tunbridge Wells-Tokyo, a family and their netsuke

Hare bookEdmund de Waal’s story of his family and their netsuke, The Hare with the Amber Eyes, has been called overly precious by some reviewers and overworked and belaboured by others, but I found myself constantly intrigued. I also thought it to be better constructed than his next one (which I read first), TheNetsuke hare with amber eyes White Road. Netsuke were made by the Japanese to fulfill a fun
ction as toggles on clothing and were crafted out of ivory, bone or wood. The crafters often gave them ingenious forms — animals, people, actions (both mundane and salacious). As De Waal (who inherited 264 of them) points out, they are also just the right size for a hand and pocket and holding and carrying them can be a great pleasure.

Emmy

Emmy in Vienna

The way De Waal builds the book is to trace across history and cities the movement of a Jewish Russian family from Odessa who built a fortune by brokering the storage and movements of grain. Scions of the family then moved to Vienna, then on to Paris (each time building large extraordinary houses and contributing to the life and fortunes of the local Jewish community, even while attempting to assimilate and becoming more secular). And finally De Waal’s grandmother landed up in England. During a late 19th century craze for all things Japanese the netsuke and a vitrine to house them were bought by Charles Ephrussi, a cousin of his great grandfather, Viktor. Charles then made a wedding gift of them to Viktor who was living in Vienna. The vitrine was put into Viktor’s wife Emmy’s dressing room and the netsuke became play things for her children (Elisabeth, Gisela, Ignace and Rudolf) when she was changing clothes (there were multiple reasons to do so every day in Emmy’s Vienna).

 

Ignace Ephrussi

Uncle Iggie in Tokyo with the netsuke

In March 1938, the Vienna home was attacked by Nazi sympathisers and the family had to leave. The house was turned into a headquarters for the Nazis and the maid kept on as a servant. This woman sneaked the netsuke into her pocket day after day as she cleaned and then stored them under her mattress. Viktor’s daughter Elisabeth (who would become De Waal’s grandmother) had married a Dutch man and moved to Tunbridge Wells. After the war she returned to discover that Anna had saved the netsuke and so this collection landed up in England. In 1947 her brother Ignace (De Waal’s uncle Iggie) visited while making a major decision to go work in the Congo or Japan. When the saved netsuke came out, he decided on Tokyo and took the netsuke with him. De Waal himself encountered the netsuke when he was on a scholarship studying pottery in Japan in 1991 and was introduced to them by Uncle Iggie. On Iggie’s death he inherited the 264 pieces.
Netsuke 4That’s the story. The telling is more complex (although keeping someone else’s family tree in your head across five countries and seven generations is complex enough). De Waal likes to travel as a story teller, to go to the actual place, to get a powerful sense of it. He says that the story is located in three rooms: “The first of the three rooms is the study in Paris in the 1870s of the art-critic Charles Ephrussi, the model of Swann in Proust, hung with Impressionist paintings by Renoir and Degas. The second room is the dressing-room of my great-grandmother Emmy von Ephrussi in the vast Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse in Vienna. The third room is that of her son Ignace, my great-uncle Iggie, in Tokyo in the 1970s, an apartment looking out across central Tokyo.”

Charles Ephrussi

Charles Ephrussi

So he starts in Paris to find Charles’ home which is now the Hotel Ephrussi on the rue de Monceau. Charles is a most fascinating character and he was not so interested in the family business, so he became a collector and critic of art and for a time was a part-owner (from 1885) and then editor (from 1894) as well as a contributor to the Gazette des Beaux-Arts, the most important art historical periodical in France of the time.

 

Then De Waal goes to Vienna to find the Palais Ephrussi on the corner of the Ringstrasse and the Schottengasse, the home of Viktor and Emmy. And finally Tokyo to the apartment Iggie shared with Jiro — the whole way following the journey of the netsuke.
This form of storytelling melds past and present (the houses in both Paris and Vienna which he can and can’t visit are fulfilling other functions today, but they still stand), and personal family stuff with big major historical events. It deals with the unknown and the famous. It traffics in the lost and the found, the destroyed and the preserved. As a reader and a writer, I like this degree of layered complexity. It also raised some very poignant political issues: as De Waal treks across Europe to unearth the lives and choices of his very rich, very privileged ancestors we learn that as Jews — no matter how well assimilated and educated — they were still living on the edges of these cities in countries that had an uneasy accommodation with their Jewishness. De Waal says: “It makes me wonder what belonging to a place means. Charles died a Russian in Paris. Viktor called it wrong and was a Russian in Vienna for fifty years, then Austrian, then a citizen of the Reich, and then stateless. Elisabeth kept Dutch citizenship in England for fifty years. And Iggie was Austrian, then American, then an Austrian living in Japan. You assimilate, but you need somewhere else to go. You keep your passport to hand. You keep something private.” (Page 326).

Netsuke 10We also don’t know the names of the crafters who made the netsuke and we realise that those who bought these trinkets in the 19th century didn’t care to know them. It was Iggie who had the netsuke assessed in Tokyo in the 1970s and then some of the carvers regained their names. De Waal says: “When I go to my cabinet I find four small tortoises climbing on each other’s back. I look up the number on Iggie’s list and it is by Tomokazu. It is made from boxwood, the colour of a caffe macchiato.” (Page 327).

 

 

 

 

 

Martyrs or tricksters: the truth about writing

Liz GilbertThis Easter weekend I have had my head completely rearranged about writing. I now can’t remember why I ordered Liz Gilbert’s brightly-coloured book Big Magic or what I was expecting from it when I did, but maybe some “eudaimon” was at work already – calling, enticing, leading, suggesting, poking at my unhappiness and dissatisfaction with the writing status quo in my own life.

Not many of us who write almost all the time dare to call ourselves “writers”. We wait until we’ve been published, critiqued and acclaimed and then we think about adopting that name. But then, a little later, we reason: “I don’t make a living this way, I still hold on to my job because I could never make money from my writing, so actually I really am not a real writer, not yet.” I have written my entire life – first as a child at school and play, then as a teenager and young adult who wanted to be a poet, then as a journalist, a subeditor, a commissioning editor and now as an academic researcher and teacher of writing to others. I write a blog about genres of writing, a strong interest now which I pursue with a passion that surprises me. Since 1981 have made my living from writing in multiple forms and clothed and fed myself and my family through it, and yet the question “Can I call myself a writer?” persists. Continue reading

Jesuits, Quakers, Cherokees and Nazis: a story about ‘China’

The+White+Road+by+Edmund+de+Waal,+UK+Edition

Ever since reading Edmund de Waal’s The White Road: A Pilgrimage of Sorts I’ve been holding up all the pottery and crockery in my house to the light to examine whether it’s made of porcelain, how white/translucent it is, and turning it over to know what its provenance is.

I picked up this book because of its title thinking it yet another commentary on the very fierce race debate of the moment but discovered an entirely different preoccupation. This is an unusual quest of a book made by a potter who has become something of a superstar artist constructing large pottery exhibitions/installations in some of the world’s most renowned galleries. It’s also the second of De Waal’s book dealing with pottery: the first was The Hare with Amber Eyes, for which he won the Ondaatje Prize (among others). Hare tells the story of 264 netsuke hidden in a mattress during the Second World War and so not seized by the Nazis and which then landed up in the hands of an uncle who De Waal lunched with weekly. Netsuke.jpg

The White Road is about porcelain, an extraordinary material and one which provoked a race to find the secret to its whiteness and hardness. As De Waal explains the Chinese had and used the secret for nearly a thousand before any one else discovered what it was: a mixture of porcelain stone (petuntse) and kaolin heated to very high temperatures in a reliable kiln. Production was centred on the city of Jingdezhen and was fuelled by European desire for porcelain for many centuries. Because he works with and reveres the medium himself, he sets out to visit the source of porcelain in China and then to understand how it began to be made in Dresden and Plymouth; how the code was cracked and who did it.

The intention at the beginning is to visit three mountains, three sources (Jingdezhen in the 17th century with an outpost of Jesuits observing closely the making of “China”, Dresden driven by a greedy German king and enlightenment scientists, Plymouth in the 19th century where Quakers are experimenting with materials and temperatures and which involves a battle with the very famous Mr Wedgewood and his business). But then things get messy and De Waal has to detour via Versailles (to get a sense of astronomical demand driving a market), and then to the colonies and plantations of America (where unscrupulous traders tried to buy Ayoree Mountain from the Cherokee because of its kaolin), and then to Dachau, where he discovers a thriving porcelain factory serving the greed of the Nazis for crockery and figurines during the Second World War.

De Waal is an idiosyncratic and quirky writer which has made many a reviewer quite frustrated with his episodic, switching style (and the layout of the book; spacy, short paragraphs) but I found myself intrigued and interested in his shifts between art making, autobiography, history, archive work, pure preoccupation with a process and then, of course, ploughing through the muck and murk of colonialism and capitalism and the horror of Nazi fascination with “China”.

We also don’t escape the effects of working with porcelain: a dust so fine that it causes lung diseases and which has had devastating effects on the health of hundreds of generations of workers in Jingdezhen. De Waal tells us that when Ai Weiwei did his installation at the Tate Modern by covering the turbine hall with porcelain seeds (all purposely made in Jingdezhen), the exhibition had to be closed within a few days of opening because of the dust created by visitors walking on the seeds.

Ai-in-tate.jpg

 

 

 

Future nostalgia

The English Department at Rhodes University recently ran a symposium on nostalgia (“Nostalgia and disillusionment in the Southern African literary imaginary”) and having had a recent visit from Jacob Dlamini (author of the still-controversial Native Nostalgia), I decided to attend. Probably the most interesting insight of the day was shared by a few of the presenters and came from a very interesting Russian academic (who died this year) called Svetlana Boym which deals with how nostalgia affects the future.

boym.jpg

Svetlana Boym

In fact Boym, an academic and artist (essays, plays, photography) fled the USSR for the US in 1981 and made the dealing with the past via nostalgia central to all her work and ideas. This very startling idea (which is the title of her book on the issue, The Future of Nostalgia) is encapsulated in a paper called “Nostalgia and its Discontents“.  Boym says: “Nostalgia is a sentiment of loss and displacement, but it is also a romance with one’s own fantasy.” She goes on to say that nostalgia is most often connected to loss of home or place but actually it is a longing for a different time — “better time, or slower time — time out of time not encumbered by appointment books”.

But then comes the very interesting thought: nostalgia is not always retrospective, “it can be prospective as well” — “the fantasies of the past, determined by the needs of the present, have a direct impact on the realities of the future”. Continue reading

Chains of desire

Off to a good start at IALJS 8 with Robert Alexander using Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief to show that there is a narrative drive in literary journalism to produce a story that is satisfying as story but which also produces meaning. The narrative drive pushes towards closure but this might be so at odds with meaning that the story might not be able to achieve closure.

Alexander used the idea of desire to say that writer, source and reader (through their expectations of genre) all come to the story invested. “A chain of desires saturates the process,” he said. In Orlean’s quest to find the ghost orchid in the Florida swamps she depends on her guide John Laroche to immerse her into his obsession and lead her to it. Thigh deep in swamp they don’t find it, “the story depends on the stability of Laroche’s desire” but the actual source is unreliable and unable to sustain his passion and with it her narrative arc. “Sources cannot be reduced to types of their desires,” he said.