It’s nonfiction, De Waal’s family’s own story of a collection of netsuke, small Japanese figurines, that were purchased by a great-uncle in Paris in the 1870s, presented as a wedding gift to a young couple in 1899, and then very nearly lost when the Nazis took control of Vienna in 1938.
The story is much more than just the netsuke, it’s the story of a fabled Jewish banking family, the Ephrussi’s. They rose to prominence beginning with grain futures in the mid-1800s and rose to wealth and prominence, to have businesses in Odessa where they began, then Paris and Vienna also. De Waal looks back on their social prominence, the impact of their being Jewish, and how it all came crashing down with the Nazis. He creates a lovely braid of family memory, cultural life, and history. I felt such a sense of doom as the story approached the era of Hitler.
Looking back on what I will remember most from this book, three things come to mind. One is Charles Ephrussi, the young art collector, with an apartment jam-packed with Impressionist paintings and almost countless other art objects. De Waal contrasts that image of art-on-top-of-art with what we typically see in art museums now, one painting well-separated from another on a plain wall. The second, an image of the Ephrussi home in Vienna ransacked, priceless furniture dumped from one floor to another. Finally another is the return of the netsuke to an Ephrussi who makes his post-warhome in Tokyo, the collection restored to a lovely display case in the country where they were created.
What a great story. De Waal tells it well, though from time to time the pace seems to founder. De Waal, a ceramic artist, seems so practical and so down-to-earth in contrast to his wealthy ancestors. That alone provides a shot of energy at several turns.
I recommend this book generally, and especially to people who are interested in art, in history, or in collecting.