Edmund de Waal’s book, The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Hidden Inheritance is a family history that has become a best-seller. It is a biography that follows the trail of small Japanese carvings as they were passed from owner to owner within the family while the family were entangled in the broader travails of nineteenth and twentieth century history.
Edmund de Waal received an unusual inheritance – over two hundred small Japanese carvings called netsuke (click here to see some of them). In this book De Waal retraces the lives of the previous generations of his family who had owned the netsuke. Thus the book is not a birth to death biography of the owners; rather taking up the story of the owners of the netsuke from the point when they first received them to when they passed them on to the next owner. I liked this approach.
This book could only have been written by an artist. Edmund de Waal is a renowned potter. He understands the tactile allure of the netsuke:
What was it like to have something so alien in your hands for the first time , to pick up a box or a cup – or a netsuke – in a material that you had never encountered before and shift it around, finding its weight and balance, running a fingertip along the raised decoration of a stork in flight through clouds?
Edmund de Waal explicitly weaves himself into the book. As the current owner of the netsuke he is part of the story. He shares with the reader his response to the people he is writing about and explains his thoughts while he was researching the book.
This book is a fascinating history of a wealthy family in nineteenth century Paris, Vienna during the first half of the twentieth century and post-war Japan. Yet I was disappointed that with such an interesting story at his fingertips de Waal did not probe more keenly. All the way through I felt that he was skating over the surface of the story. He could have done more.
Then came the last chapter and I understood.
“… I have the slightly clammy feeling of biography, the sense of living on the edges of other people’s lives without their permission” says de Waal (p346). “There are the places in memory you do not wish to go with others” he commented when discussing the destruction of hundreds of family letters by his grandmother. She was hurt by her mother’s numerous affairs. De Waal commented:
… why should everything be made clear and be brought into the light? Why keep things, archive your intimacies? … Just because you have it does not mean you have to pass it on. Losing things can sometimes gain you a space in which to live.
I am confronting this issue myself while assisting a relation who is writing a family history. When interviewing a relation for this project I uncovered petty dislikes, jealousies and hurts. I would imagine that most families have these lurking somewhere. Inclusion of these would make our family history more real. Maybe if I probed this pettiness something more substantial would be revealed? The historian in me says I should, but as a member of this family I do not want to resurrect such feelings. Why revive the hurt that some in the older generations may have spent years recovering from? Why say nasty things about members of the family, no matter how true they may be?
Yet rose-coloured history is boring and worse – it is deceitful. In the past families caused great harm by hiding things that needed to be discussed such as mental illness, addiction, birth outside of marriage, relationships with indigenous people to name just a few. I am happy to discuss these things but I am exercising my judgement to ignore what I regard as petty. I don’t think their revelation is important and I believe that their inclusion in a history would make it tawdry and unpalatable. Maybe what I consider to be petty will in the fullness of time be regarded as important?
I have decided to prioritise family harmony.
At what point should we drop these sensibilities? Is it okay to investigate and dredge up these issues when all the people involved are dead? Should we have different standards that we apply according to whether a person is living or dead?
These are the issues Edmund de Waal faced when writing about his own family. A better job may have been done of this book if an independent biographer had researched and written it. They could have probed where de Waal feared to tread.
Does this attitude point to conflicting standards between those upheld by family members and those upheld by independent biographers? What responsibilities do independent biographers towards their subjects? At what point should independent biographers respect the privacy of their subjects?
I am still disappointed by Edmund de Waal’s account but one strength of The Hare with Amber Eyes is that the author shares these difficult issues with the reader. No history is perfect, no history is complete. Edmund de Waal recognises this and encourages the reader to understand this too.
I am interested to hear from you about how you deal with these issues when researching your family history.