Monday, April 4, 2011

{review} cynical amber eyes

Edmund de Waal The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010)

I tell Sasha why we’ve come, that I’m writing a book about – I stumble to a halt. I no longer know if this book is about my family, or memory, or myself, or is still a book about small Japanese things.
This is going to spawn a zillion imitators, isn't it? Intimate biographies of objects. The telling of personal stories entwined with objects. In mere months we'll no doubt be overwhelmed with narrative histories of soup ladles and the like. Petit-point door stops. Mirrors (oops, done already). Fish knives. Telegraph poles. There's been a bit of 'object biography' - the life of things - around already, of course (e.g., the excellent Guernica: The Biography of a Twentieth-Century Icon by Gijs van Hensbergen), but the emphasis now shifts to the intimate, the personal. Is this a consequence of the narcissistic nineties? Would The Hare with Amber Eyes (or, indeed, The Bloke Who Played With The Hare With The Amber Eyes) have a made a brilliantly witty series of Facebook status up-dates? Almost certainly.

I read a fair bit of biography, and the trend away from the subsumption of the biographer in his/her subject is becoming increasingly more overt. The first one that really caught my eye was Diana Souhami interspersing Wild Girls: Natalie Barney and Romaine Brooks with verbal images of her own loves and losses. Then I thought that I was finding out too much about Sarah Helm as she investigated Vera Atkins in A Life in Secrets: The Story of Vera Atkins & the Lost Agents of SOE. Do we want to know (or is the questions, 'Do I want to know?') the daily trials faced by the biographer in search of his/her material? Most certainly I think it is important to know what ideologically motivates the biographer. And certainly much (~ all?) biography is covertly autobiographical. But do I want to know the type of car she drove to the archive? That the misty view of Vienna is due to breaking his glasses? I'm not so sure. Is it all too narcissistic? - this focus on the cleverness of the amateur researcher who can read two or three languages and negotiate libraries in foreign countries? Is it because this is a dying skill-set that so much fuss is made of it? Are we becoming incapable of subsuming ourselves when it is not our story? Is biography to be a form of therapy for the self? Is the biographer's broken eyewear just as significant as the fate of 65,459 Viennese Jews?

Nevertheless, hypocritically and despite the slight queasiness engendered by Too Much Information, I really enjoyed The Hare with Amber Eyes. The writing was excellent: rather like the inside of a creamy brie. The objects (I would have liked more images but they are available here) were very sweet. The base-line story was interesting - and shocking - and well-presented. The horror of being Jewish in Anschluss Vienna is communicated most vividly. It's a good read. I'm just way too cynical:
And I have the slightly clammy feeling of biography, the sense of living on the edges of other people’s lives without their permission. Let it go. Let it lie. Stop looking and stop picking things up, the voice says insistently. Just go home and leave these stories be.
Rating: 7/10

If you liked this... I'm not sure I can embrace the genre much further (the mirror one does tempt me a little though). I perhaps need a switch to the first person: reading in The Hare with Amber Eyes that Patrick Leigh Fermor has passed through the family home at Kövesces (recorded in A Time of Gifts) reminds me that I've a few more of his books to read. Perhaps it's A Time to Keep Silence...

A Time to Keep Silence (New York Review Books Classics) Aesop's Mirror

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