“I’m interested in the generic edge, the boundary between what are roughly called nonfiction and fiction.” Jonathan Raban, quoted in David Shields Reality Hunger.
In a recent article in the Observer, literary editor William Skidelsky bemoaned the current public obsession with real life stories. While in the past Hollywood was a “dream factory”, it now looks for credibility and inspiration from real-life stories. This year’s Oscars were dominated by films that relied upon that tiresome certification “based upon true events”: 127 Hours, The Social Network, The Fighter, The King’s Speech. Skidelsky damningly concludes his brilliant essay with the words: “they are meagre offerings that cannot escape the confines of their reality-bound aspirations”.
Riding this wave of public interest in real-life stories comes Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes, already a hardback bestseller and now a beautifully-presented paperback. De Wall’s book won the Costa Biography Award and was hotly-tipped to win best book (it was beaten by Maggie O’Farrell’s The Hand That First Held Mine). Despite endorsements from sources as various as Diana Athill (who practically made me sit down and start the book in front of her when she found out I hadn’t read it), Antonia Fraser, and my mother-in-law, I avoided it. I felt I knew the book already – grand European dynasty… Vienna… arrivistes… salons… social climb, tragic fall… sad, wise conclusion. There are books written for those who have read ten Mitford biographies but never Love in a Cold Climate; I rather thought this was one of them.
In a voice that is haunting, self-searching, intimate, de Waal took my prejudices and misconceptions and made me swallow them whole. In an early passage, he even seems to address my particular dunderheaded objections directly:
“It could write itself, I think, this kind of story. A few stitched-together wistful anecdotes, more about the Orient-Express, of course, a bit of wandering around Prague or somewhere equally photogenic, some clippings from Google on ballrooms in the Belle Epoque. It would come out nostalgic. And thin.”
What we get instead of this is an extraordinary memoir, a lamentation, a work of scintillating historical investigation that uses the Japanese netsuke (small figurines carved from wood and ivory) as an image of the durability of objects, the transience of people, the beauty and pain of life. “How objects are handed on is all about story-telling. I am giving you this because I love you.” The netsuke also provide the impetus for de Waal to investigate the extraordinary history of his once vastly rich and powerful family.
“I realise that I’ve been living with this netsuke business for too long. I can either anecdotalise it for the rest of my life – my odd inheritance from a beloved elderly relative – or go out and find what it means. One evening I find myself at dinner telling some academics what I know of the story, and feel slightly sickened by how poised it sounds.”
The Hare with Amber Eyes tells an extraordinary story – one that deserved to be better known. What makes this book so deeply compelling is that you live the story in de Waal’s company – as an aesthete (he is a successful potter), a flaneur on the streets of Paris and Vienna, as a thoughtful, questioning, critical companion. I haven’t seen anyone else make what seems to me an obvious link between de Waal’s book and the work of WG Sebald, but I think the comparison is a valid one. Sebald’s unsettling mash-ups of fact and fiction, dotted with found photographs and uncanny coincidences, work because of the consistency of Sebald’s voice, his ever-questing, ever-subtle mind. If you read enough Sebald, you begin to see the world like him. The Hare with Amber Eyes has the same bewitching effect.
Indeed this book would make an interesting companion-piece to Sebald’s The Emigrants – The Hare… is yet another story about the hideous shadow cast over Europe by the barbarities of Nazism. I was often reminded of the third story in The Emigrants, that of Sebald’s great uncle Adelwarth (indeed de Waal’s story starts off with his own great uncle, Iggie, the owner of the netsuke). Everywhere there is the same sense of loss, the same mourning not only for the events of the Holocaust, but for the innocent world that was destroyed. Sebald’s oeuvre is concerned with exploring both formally and thematically how to tell stories about the dreadful history of the twentieth century. He would have approved of de Waal’s clear, unflinching style. Someone once said of Sebald’s work: “He never mentions the Holocaust; we the reader think of nothing else”. De Waal knows we don’t need to spend hours agonising over exactly what happened to the family during those horrifying years: the wreckage tells its own story.
For de Waal, as for Sebald, there are comforts. Despite everything, the netsuke endure, rescued from the Nazis by a maid. “Netsuke are small and hard. They are hard to chip, hard to break: each one is made to be knocked around in the world.” And in the last, hopeful line to the book, “The netsuke begin again.”
I always flinch when I hear Sebald’s prose works described as ‘novels’; I now have the same response when I see The Hare with Amber Eyes housed in the biography section of Waterstone’s. This book straddles the generic edge that Jonathan Raban identifies in the quote at the beginning of this article. If it were a novel, we would hail it as an extraordinary masterpiece. Just because it’s a “true-life story” doesn’t mean it isn’t great art.
Any Cop?: I think I’ve made myself clear.