The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal .- ABC The Book Club

JENNIFER BYRNE: To the books now and the secret
history of objects, with Edmund de Waal’s The Hare With Amber Eyes. NARRATOR: When British potter Edmund de Waal
inherits a collection of tiny sculptures know as netsuke, he decides to trace its strange
history, and in doing so learns the story of his Jewish heritage. His search goes back
generations and across continents – from the magnificence of 19th century Paris to Vienna
where all is lost to the Nazis… then to Japan, the netsukes’ original but not final
home. JENNIFER BYRNE: Yes, it’s a kind of hybrid
book, isn’t it? It’s part family memoir, part social history, part travel book, really.
Does it all come together? JASON STEGER: I thought it came together beautifully,
actually – I think it’s a fantastic book. I would recommend it to anybody. I have a
great weakness for this sort of book dealing with Viennese-Jewish families, Russian Jews… JENNIFER BYRNE: That being your own origin. JASON STEGER: Well, one side of my family,
yeah. But it’s really, really… I think it’s beautifully done, and it’s not simply a family
history, as you say. It’s an investigation of memory. It’s an investigation of storytelling.
And he does it superbly well. And it is, of course, also a story about anti-Semitism and
the destruction of European Jews. JENNIFER BYRNE: Marieke, overall? MARIEKE HARDY: It was fine. It was fine. No.
I… I… It’s a book that I found very difficult to stay cross with, because I’d have moments
of finding it quite hard going. I thought in parts it was quite cold and in parts the
writer was a lot more involved in the subject than I was. And just I when I started thinking,
‘Oh, get on with it,’ then he’d do something quite wonderful. So I didn’t find it was a
book I stayed cross with. I found there were these really wonderful moments in it, but
I think if you stepped away from it for a day or two… It was like having a very lovely
old professor tell you a story, and you nipped out to get a cup of tea and you came back,
and he was going, ‘..or was that Rosebery, I can’t…’ And just still hadn’t stopped
talking the whole time. So that’s how I found it overall, Jennifer. JENNIFER BYRNE: Tom. THOMAS KENEALLY: Well, the last time I met
you, you said it will grow on you. By the way, I’m glad from your intro we know how
to pronounce it now. ‘Netskay’. JENNIFER BYRNE: ‘Netskay’. THOMAS KENEALLY: I was pronouncing it mentally
‘netsooky’. But… MARIEKE HARDY: Me too. THOMAS KENEALLY: ..these small objects are
the only objects that endure amongst palaces, paintings… JENNIFER BYRNE: Empires. THOMAS KENEALLY: A great grain empire which
the author’s family owned that ran from Odessa right across to Paris and involved members
of the family, particularly Great-uncle Charles, who were friends of Renoir and Degas and who
appeared in Renoir’s paintings. And altogether, I thought that its treatment of history was
magnificent. It wasn’t… We see everything through the modest lens of these little crafted
objects, and so the history of the book sort of creeps up on us and clobbers us on the
head rather than being frontal and didactic. JENNIFER BYRNE: Kate. KATE MORTON: Ah, yes… I thought a very elegant
book, erudite, incredibly erudite author. The preface is so brief and beautiful and
perfect. The preface I just loved and I thought I’m going to adore this book because he sets
up this whole thing about the power of things and the object as a mode of storytelling,
and I’m really into that, the idea that you can hold a tiny thing and feel the reverberations
of the past, like a little time traveller. So, I was… I set myself up. JENNIFER BYRNE: You were primed. KATE MORTON: I was primed. I thought, ‘Yes,
this is for me.’ But I felt ambivalent at the end. Though there was so much to enjoy
in this fantastic family history, I felt that the author was so concerned with not creating
a sentimental sepia saga, as he calls it, that he inserted himself into the story so
often, assuring us that he wasn’t using cliches and this was different, and it was more truthful
than other memoirs you might have read, that I felt I was viewing it through glass. JASON STEGER: His presence didn’t bother me.
I didn’t mind that. I like that sort of… It’s almost a sort of running commentary on
the amount of… ‘Cause he says he thought it was going to take him six months to write,
and it ends up five years. And I think he does it with great wit, though, that. I mean,
when he’s talking about his dad… He asks his dad… His dad’s a retired clergyman,
and his dad brings him round a plastic bag full of documents and the complete novels
of Thomas Mann to read to help him with his research. And he rings his dad back and says,
‘Oh, you haven’t got very much for me,’ and the dad comes round later and says, ‘Oh, I
found another Thomas Mann novel.’ (Laughter) JASON STEGER: It’s just beautiful. It’s really
lovely. MARIEKE HARDY: He’s quite dispassionate at
times. I found his presence and his voice and there’s… At the end of one chapter he
says, ‘And that’s the moment I wept.’ And I thought, ‘I haven’t felt anything in you
that would have driven you to weep from putting on the page.’ I think you’re right. In order
to keep himself from being too sentimental, to me he came across as quite cold and beige.
I didn’t… JASON STEGER: There’s a huge… THOMAS KENEALLY: Isn’t it funny there’s a
gender divide on this, which… JASON STEGER: We’re looking at you. JENNIFER BYRNE: You know what? I find him
really annoying. Really annoying. Because I actually didn’t… But I don’t agree with
you that it’s too cold. JASON STEGER: Ah, ten bob each way. JENNIFER BYRNE: I loved the coolness, because
in fact I wanted just to get with the story. I thought the story was totally compelling.
And I didn’t want him… Because he’s this noted British ceramicist and he’s… Look
I thought it was all a bit airy-fairy when he turned up… THOMAS KENEALLY: He’s also a minimalist ceramicist
and I… JASON STEGER: That’s right. THOMAS KENEALLY: I think the tone in which
he tells the story is that of a minimalist ceramicist. JASON STEGER: Sorry, I was just going to say,
to write a book like this, to write about it – and this has been done so often, hasn’t
it? – and so he does it in a very different way, I think. But, by the same token, it is
– as you say, Tom – it’s as powerful as any you’re going to read. He says in the preface,
which you… It is a terrific bit, the preface. It’s really well written. But he says he’s
really interested in how objects are handed on is all about storytelling. And so the passing
on of the netsukes allows him to do this, and the fact that they survive the war is… MARIEKE HARDY: To me that’s when they and
the story really takes flight, which is kind of slightly unfortunate ’cause I don’t think
that’s till page 300, but you really, I really got a sense of… JASON STEGER: I don’t think we read the same
book. MARIEKE HARDY: That was the previous. Sense
of their collection being dismantled, and the emotional impact of that was very powerful. JASON STEGER: What he’s very interested to
find out is the identity of Anna, who was the gentile servant in the family in Vienna,
who looked after Emmy and dressed her and all that sort of stuff, and then who spirited
the netsukes away from the Nazis when the house was overrun and taken. She hid them
in her mattress, I think, for the duration of the war. MARIEKE HARDY: That’s the bit to me that’s
deeply affecting, and that’s when they really take life – is that these children who did
play with these things, at some point… and every other part of their parents’ collection
was dismantled during the war, and that the servant put them under the mattress. I mean,
that to me was beautiful, but that’s a very small part. KATE MORTON: And at that page for that to
happen, whereas, I think, it felt like we had about 100 pages in Paris learning about
every single Impressionist encounter that Charles had had. JENNIFER BYRNE: But didn’t you love that? KATE MORTON: For the first 50 pages, but after
a while… THOMAS KENEALLY: But also he’s a character
in Proust. KATE MORTON: Which is wonderful. THOMAS KENEALLY: Uncle Charles is a character
in the novels of Proust. KATE MORTON: The writing itself I found beautiful,
very elegant, spare where it needed to be. An eye for detail. The right word is chosen.
There’s one bit – and it’s such a tiny detail – but he talks about one of the palaces being…
The foyer is an event in marble. And I thought, ‘That’s just beautiful.’ It’s such a small
detail, but it’s perfect. KATE MORTON: Sorry. JASON STEGER: No, no. KATE MORTON: Beautiful that bit when the netsuke
are finally repatriated, and he says, ‘They’ve lost their strangeness,’ which I thought was
such a simple, beautiful way to comment on the way they were such exotic pieces of art
when they were plucked from Japan and taken to Paris first, and then this long journey,
and then to come back where they represent little pieces… What does he say? Explosions
of exactitude of daily life in Japan, and they somehow come home. JENNIFER BYRNE: So many people kept coming
up to me and said, ‘You must, must read this book.’ THOMAS KENEALLY: ‘You have in your hands a
masterpiece,’ says the Sunday Times, and they’re right. JASON STEGER: Yeah, yeah, I agree. I agree
with you, Tom. JENNIFER BYRNE: A really big endorsement apart
from… a few quibbles. Hare With The Amber Eyes

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