Hazel McHaffie

Russia

A mystery inside an enigma

We’re all rather preoccupied with Russia and Syria and the UK’s responses to their activities at the moment, aren’t we? What a burden for our politicians to carry. Poisonings on the streets of the UK, chemical weapons used in Syria, volatile tweets, warning missiles, brutal leaders, conspiracy theories … sobering and scary stuff. Complicated still further by the fact that some at least of the detail is unknown, distorted, speculative, suspected, misguided. Reminds me of Winston Churchill‘s famous quote way back when: Russia is a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma.

Once you start seriously thinking about these troubling scenarios, an uneasy kind of sense of foreboding can hang around, colouring your day.

And that’s exactly how I’m feeling at the moment most of the time. Because, on top of real and major global conflict that could affect us all, I’m personally living with doubt, fear, secrecy, suspicion, in my fictional world, and it’s seriously affecting my mood and my stress levels. It wakes me up at night. It’s hanging over me while I peel vegetables. It plays in my mind while I tramp trough the spring countryside. It haunts my waking thoughts and my troubled dreams.

My main character is in the frame for a series of very perplexing happenings. Her husband, sister, sister-in-law, friend, an as yet unknown protagonist, could all possibly be implicated in some way or another. Who exactly can be trusted? Fact and fantasy are getting confused. The threat is building. The options are reducing. The risk is mounting. Fear is taking over. The professionals are getting more and more on edge. And even I am not entirely sure who to believe! It’s shiver-up-the-spine exciting but also distinctly mood lowering.

So advice is, stay well clear of me if you can, till this situation has resolved itself.

(Acknowledgement: Image courtesy of Iqoncept Dreamstime.com)

 

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The Costa Award goes to …

After last week’s experience I decided I needed to immerse myself in some quality writing to try to lift my own game. There on my tbr shelf was a Costa Award winner: The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance. (It won the Biography Award in 2010.) Good place to start then.

The Hare with Amber EyesThe author, Edmund de Waal, is a world renowned British artist specialising in ceramics – to call him a potter (as he does himself) is to diminish the heights to which he has risen. In 1994 he inherited from his great-uncle a collection of 264 miniature Japanese sculptures, netsuke: tiny ornaments which are ‘very rich, very simple, very tactile‘; ‘witty and ribald and slightly comic.’ (I recommend a quick pop across to Google to look at images of them.) He was curious to know who had touched and held them, and how the collection had managed to survive so long, so he set out on a search for a lost family and a lost time.

His research was impressive; meticulous and immensely detailed, and it took him seven years to write this family saga-cum-treasure hunt in which he unravels both the story of the netsuke and of the Ephrussi family, over five generations, and against the backdrop of world history.

During the nineteenth-century the Ephrussis were a banking dynasty in Paris and Vienna, as rich and respected as the Rothchilds, moving in the highest social circles; but by the end of World War II, this collection of netsuke hidden from the Nazis in Vienna, was all that remained of their vast empire. It’s a ‘vertiginous descent‘ for de Waal’s family from commissioning works of art to being commissioned; from owning famous paintings to writing about them. His account makes fascinating reading and beautifully captures the mores and magic of the times. He brings both an artist’s sensibilities and a descendant’s curiosity to the task.

Japan features significantly, of course – chiming with my love of Japanese gardens. Indeed on the very day I started reading this book we invested (I use the word advisedly!) in two more gorgeous Japanese acers for our own patch. I just love everything about them.

Japanese acers

The writing is so good I want to allow it to give you a flavour of the book through direct quotes. Here’s an early description of the Japanese people at a time when they were rarely seen in France:

… their skin is lightly bronzed, the beard rare; some of them have adopted the moustache … the mouth is large, conformed to open squarely, in the fashion of masks in Greek comedy; the cheekbones become round and the forehead protuberant on the oval of the face; the external angles of the small bridled eyes, but black and alive, with a piercing gaze, lift towards the temples. They are the Japanese.

The netsuke are central to the tale, visually appealing, endlessly different, collectors’ pieces, children’s playthings. But touch is also a vital part of the experience of admiring them. We see them being carried in pockets and hands and aprons, at once a comfort, a curiosity and a treasure:

The man who handles an object with indifferent fingers, with clumsy fingers, with fingers that do not envelope lovingly is a man who is not passionate about art.

NetsukeThey should always be displayed sympathetically:

Charles bought a black vitrine to put them in, wood polished like lacquer. it was taller than him, just over six foot high. You could see in through the glass door at the front and through the glass at the sides. A mirror at the back let the netsuke slide away into infinities of collecting. And they were all placed on green velvet. There are many subtle variations of colour in netsuke, all the colours of the ivory, the horn and the boxwood: cream, wax, nut-brown, gold in this field of dense dark green. … The vitrines … frame them, suspend them, tantalise through distance.

The author travels far and wide tracking the history of his inheritance – Japan, Austria, France, England, Ukraine, Russia, and he manages to evoke the spirit of these places with his poetic descriptions:

Vienna’s Ringstrasse ‘becomes a musical series of buildings, spaced with parks, punctuated by statues‘, with ‘a rhythm that suits its purpose,’ and a ‘space for progresses, for display’. De Waal realises that ‘I am going too fast, walking as if I had a destination, rather than a point of departure. I remember that this was the street that was made for the slower movement of the daily “Corso”, the ritualised stroll for society along the K√§rntner Ring to meet and flirt and gossip and be seen’.

One of his dynastic houses in Austria is observed thus:

All I can see is marble: there is lots of marble. This doesn’t say enough. Everything is marble. Floor, stairs, walls of staircase, columns on staircase, ceiling over staircase, mouldings on ceilings of staircase. Turn left and I go up the family stairs, shallow marble steps. Turn right and I go into another entrance hall. I look down and the patriarch’s initials are set in the marble floor: JE (for Joachim Ephrussi) with a coronet above them. By the grand stairs are two torch√®res, taller than me. The steps go on and on, trippingly shallow. Black marble frames the huge double doors – black and gold – I push, and I enter the world of Ignace Ephrussi …

… everything gilded and ornate and encrusted and intricate and dripping wealth. No wonder de Waal couldn’t bear to have a portrait of Ignace’s wife Emilie hung on his wall at home, looking down on his domestic life in disbelief! She as so many of his predecessors came from a different stratum of society altogether. They feature in paintings, in newspaper reports, in books. They are mentioned in the same context as royalty. In one such volume where one of his ancestors appears as protagonist, de Waal’s comment was: it was ‘viscous with infatuation‘. How evocative is that!

But when it comes to the family members themselves, he has immersed himself in the detail and conjured up living breathing people. We take a swift intake of breath when great-grandfather Viktor’s elder brother elopes with his father’s Russian Jewish mistress. Of course he is instantly disinherited; Viktor suddenly becomes the reluctant heir to the family’s banking business. We feel his discomfort, so ill at ease in this totally unsuitable new role:

‘I think it might have been at around this point that Viktor developed his nervous tic of taking off his pince-nez and wiping his hand across his face from brow to chin, a reflex movement. He was clearing his mind, or arranging his public face. Or perhaps he was erasing his private face, catching it in his hand.’

Viktor’s wife, Emmy, twenty one years his junior, keeps the vitrine of netsuke in her dressing room. Why, her great-grandson wonders? Why not in one of the many public rooms where they might be admired by visitors as well as the family? The clue seems to lie in the intimacy of the room and the time she spent primping and preening in front of its great panels of mirror:

‘She changed three times a day – sometimes more. Putting on a hat to go to the races, with lots of little curls pinned one by one to the underside of the hat’s wide brim, took forty minutes. To put on the long embroidered ballgown with a hussar’s jacket, intricate with frogging, took for ever. There was dressing up for parties, for shopping, dinner, visiting, riding to the Prater and balls. Each hour in this dressing-room was a calibration of corset, dress, gloves and hat with the day, the shrugging-off of oneself and the lacing onto another. She has to be sewn onto some dresses, Anna, kneeling at her feet, producing thread, needle, thimble from the pocket of her apron. Emmy has furs, sable trimming to a hem, an arctic fox around her neck in one photograph, a six-foot stole of bear looped over a gown in another. An hour could pass with Anna fetching different gloves.’

But there’s another reason too. During the hour of dressing to go out in the evening, she allowed her children in to play with the precious netsuke. How they must have treasured those special minutes; at once close to their otherwise-remote and fractious mother, and also given this golden opportunity to caress the beautiful child-size carvings, re-order them, muddle them up to tease a sister, even listen to mother weaving stories about them!

De Waal includes many delightful personal touches which capture his own experiences as he travelled. Whilst in Vienna tracking the netsuke he’s walking just 400 yards from his paternal family mansion, the Palais Ephrussi, when he drops his glasses. They break, and he sees the irony: he’s looking at this monolith to his own past and he cannot see clearly!

DipladeniaThere’s even a little snippet that resonates particularly with me right now. The Czech poet, Rilke, is giving advice about accepting criticism to Emmy and Viktor’s daughter Elisabeth (de Waal’s grandmother) who is herself a poet and lawyer:

‘… it is not the gardener who is encouraging and caring who helps, but the one with the pruning shears and spade; the rebuke!’

How true!

It’s a fabulous book and lifted my spirits enormously in spite of its harrowing accounts of life in Austria at the time of the Nazi rule and the terrible persecutions and appropriations that led to the fall and poverty of the Ephrussi family. The shifty trips of the maid Anna carrying the little carvings to safety one by one in her apron pocket shine through, a triumph of hope over adversity.

What I didn’t know when I started reading this book was that, this very week, five years after the publication of The Hare with Amber Eyes, De Waal is about to publish his second book: The White Road, which is all about porcelain, the material he works with as a ceramicist. Hard to believe it will find the phenomenal success that The Hare with Amber Eyes did. Time will tell.

 

 

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