Grr… I wrote half a post, and then WordPress made it disappear. Don’t we hate it all when it happens?
I thought that writing a family memoir based on an inherited collection of netsuke (tiny Japanese sculptures) was a bit of a thin pretext and I dreaded the obligatory teary reminiscence of Nazi persecution and how the Ephrussi family eventually lost everything, but these tiny objects.
At the same time, I kind of knew I would read this book at some point, because it pushed all the right buttons. The Parc Monceau, where all the newly rich Jewish aristocracy built its luxurious mansions in the second part of 19C is just a few blocks from our home, so that all the names he refers to in the first part of the book were already familiar. I enjoyed visiting the Camondo museum, and I noted that the Camondo and the Ephrussi families were related. As a student I’d visit the Ephrussi villa on the Côte d’Azur and had been awed by the luxury and attention to detail. I’d read a similar biography based on an object by Pierre Assouline called Le Portrait, about the Rothschild family and art stolen by the Nazis. Also, French Anti-Semitism whose most obvious manifestation was the Affaire Dreyfus is widely discussed in high-school, so basically I felt that I knew already everything about the book before even opening the first page.
How wrong I was!
My wariness about the whole project made me enter the book slowly and cautiously, keeping it at arms’ length. But then De Waal’s voice really moved me with its authenticity and simplicity. He tries to find fragments of his relatives’ story in places, from Paris to Vienna, then to Tokyo and Odessa, but he has very little to go on with. In a way, De Waal’s project is reminiscent of that of Daniel Mendelsohn’s The Lost. Both writers are very much part of the book. Both deal with memory, nostalgia and family history in relation to the Holocaust (but not only about that period). But where Mendelsohn’s ancestors were petty bourgeois or small tradespeople, De Waal’s relatives were rich bankers. It should be easier to find traces of them, but they seem to have shared little, keeping feelings to themselves (whereas Mendelsohn’s family story were full of chatty voices, gossips and tales).
In the end, I could not resist. I had to go on pilgrimage to the house where Ephrussi lived and where the netsuke collection was first assembled, rue Monceau. I’d thought I knew it all but it’s never the complete picture. The house, surprisingly, was a little bland, a bourgeois mansion that now houses lawyers posh offices and a dozen family apartments. But I was happy to go there because I felt that I knew one of its secrets and it made the whole story real.