EDMUND DE WAAL'S UNFINISHED BUSINESS

"The Hare with Amber Eyes" has become an international phenomenon. Fiammetta Rocco follows the author to Vienna and finds the saga continuing ... 

From INTELLIGENT LIFE magazine, January/February 2012

They were well into the wine before they started telling stories. All day long the delegates at the 2005 Harvard conference on 20th-century studio ceramics had been listening to presentations on the Mingei movement in Japan, debating the role of folk art and the importance of Bernard Leach, a British potter who settled in Japan and became very influential. But as the main course was cleared away, those sitting at a table to one side of the room became captivated by a tale being recounted by another British potter, Edmund de Waal. It was about the Japanese netsuke his family had bought in the 1870s. Within half a century, they were one of the richest in Vienna, with a grand house on the Ringstrasse. At the Anschluss in 1938 the netsuke disappeared; stolen, the family thought. It was only after the war that they discovered they’d been hidden from the Nazis by a faithful servant, Anna. “This would make such a great book,” said Michael Goldfarb, a New York collector and one of those listening. “Edmund, you’ve got to stop talking and start writing. This is the book you were born to write.”

Published in June 2010, “The Hare with Amber Eyes” has become the most successful family memoir of the decade. The tale of the vitrine of little Japanese figures passed down through five generations of the same family, from Paris to Vienna to Tunbridge Wells and Tokyo and back to south London, has seen 63,500 copies printed in hardback, 376,000 in paperback, and now there is an illustrated edition too, priced at £25. And that’s just in Britain. 

“The Hare with Amber Eyes” has been translated into 22 languages; not just the obvious ones to do with the story, like German and Hebrew, but also Serbian, Finnish and Chinese. When the book came out in Germany, it sold so fast that it had to be reprinted repeatedly in the first six weeks. In Austria it topped the bestseller list two months before its launch.

It is hard to know what makes a bestseller. If it were easy, no publisher would have turned down “We Need to Talk About Kevin” or Harry Potter. Yet dozens did. And so it was with “The Hare with Amber Eyes”. Eight British publishing houses passed on it. Only one bid came in for the book when the proposal was submitted. Yet from the very start, reviewers and readers were united in their embrace of this intimate story of a lost family and a lost time. Waterstone’s, one book chain, failed to order it at first, but the reading public defied its lack of imagination. The book sold by word of mouth and with the enthusiastic backing of independent booksellers who did what good booksellers are meant to do: they read it, recommended it and re-ordered copies, over and over again. 

For years Edmund de Waal has worked alone. First with his hands, practising throwing pots, and then in his head, memorising Japanese kanji characters and learning to be a writer. Even now that he has become well known, he is uneasy in the spotlight. He starts and re-starts his sentences, gathering up the words and rearranging them as if his phrases were inelegant pots to be scrapped and thrown afresh. “The longer I live with the book, the more I go on thinking about it and talking about it, the more I really do register that there is something extraordinarily basic about it. There’s the journey element, that arc of going in search of something that’s hidden. But the real heart of the book is that thing about family silences, about not knowing something about your family. That, I think, is common to everyone.”

Family silences are a way of controlling secrets, assuaging fears, leaving behind the terrors of the past. But what happens when the silence is broken? Who owns the story then? From whom is it taken? And to whom is it given? 

“The Hare with Amber Eyes” describes the rise and fall of one family in Europe. Having written about them, the author was faced with the unintended consequences of his discoveries: that just as every national history belongs in a different way to every nation, so every family story belongs to each relation, and every narrative contains elements claimed in equal measure by the teller and the told. 

In the de Waal family, third-born Edmund was the free spirit. A natural scholar who got a first at Cambridge, he could have been an academic but instead became a potter. Two of his brothers, Alex (older) and Tom (younger), are the writers. In the family narrative, Edmund the potter was never meant to become Edmund the writer, never mind the bestselling chronicler of the family’s story, star turn at literary festivals and the darling of book groups up and down the country.

Picture: Edmund de Waal at his studio in south London, photographed by Jonathan Root

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