Book of the week: Letters to Camondo
Edmund de Waal pens a unique companion volume to his 2010 bestseller The Hare with Amber Eyes
In his 2010 bestseller The Hare with Amber Eyes, the potter Edmund de Waal told the story of his mother’s family – the Ephrussis – through 264 Japanese netsuke (tiny ivory sculptures) that were bought by one of her forebears in Paris in the 1870s, said Allan Massie in The Scotsman. His marvellous new book is a companion piece to that volume, which brings to life another art-loving Jewish banking family who were their neighbours in Paris.
Hailing from Istanbul, the Camondos settled in the city in the 1860s, building a palatial home on the Rue de Monceau – then an enclave of the “haute juiverie” – which they filled with exquisite pieces. De Waal’s book takes the form of a series of imaginary letters to Count Moïse de Camondo, who inherited the property from his father in 1911, and who stipulated in his own will (he died in 1935) that it be preserved as a museum, which it still is. Those who enjoyed The Hare with Amber Eyes will “find equal interest and delight” in this work.
One of many cultivated Jewish families who flourished in Paris in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Camondos were “fixtures of belle-époque society, at the centre of a constellation of writers and artists that included the Goncourt brothers, Renoir and Proust”, said Johanna Thomas-Corr in The Sunday Times. Moïse was patron of numerous societies, and made a point of collecting French art (in contrast to his father, who’d favoured Jewish and Ottoman artefacts). Yet neither his efforts to assimilate nor the family’s riches protected them from “the horrors of the 20th century”. Moïse’s son died in the First World War, and his daughter and grandchildren perished in the Nazi death camps. Perhaps because de Waal is less personally connected to the story, this book isn’t quite as successful as its predecessor; but it is a tender and sometimes moving meditation on “rootlessness and restitution, about how objects carry the past into the present”.
With its meticulous descriptions of the artefacts in the Musée Nissim de Camondo, it’s quite demanding to read – the “opposite of a page-turner”, said Laura Freeman in The Times. But readers who persevere will be richly rewarded: “De Waal has a way of looking at the world that surprises, delights and upends expectations.” It is also “beautifully produced”, said Gillian Tindall in the Literary Review: the text is interspersed with lavish colour illustrations which do full justice to de Waal’s subject. Reading it made me “long to” pay a visit to the “time-stalled home” in which the Camondo family lived.
Chatto & Windus 192pp £14.99; The Week Bookshop £11.99 (incl. p&p)
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