Friday, March 30, 2012

The Hare with Amber Eyes

Although its point of departure is a collection of netsuke – Japanese carved miniatures – The Hare with Amber Eyes is really the history of a Jewish family that begins in Odessa in the 19th Century, moves on to Paris and Vienna in the 1850s, and eventually to Tokyo and London in the 20th Century.

At the bottom of the front cover there is a quote from the Sunday Times that says “You have in your hands a masterpiece.”  I think this is an accurate assessment.  I consider myself lucky to have discovered this book, thanks to an online book group I belong to that dedicates itself to discussions of books related to art.

There are 264 netsuke in the collection.  De Waal calls it “It is a very big collection of very small objects”.  They were bought in Paris in the 1870s by Charles Ephrussi who later gave them as a wedding present to Victor von Ephrussi, his cousin and de Waal’s great grandfather, who lived in Vienna

Charles Ephrussi was a writer, an art expert, and a patron of Degas and Renoir before they became fashionable and accepted by the art world and the public.  He not only commissioned paintings for himself, but encouraged friends of his to do the same. 

It was fabulous to learn that Charles was one of the models in Renoir’s painting The Luncheon of the Boating Party.  I’ve read Susan Vreeland’s entertaining book of the same title – a historical fiction that imagines how Renoir gathered together all his subjects at the restaurant on the Loire.  Charles is towards the back, wearing a top hat and talking with the owner’s son.  Of course, I didn’t realize who Charles Ephrussi was when I read that book.  So what fun when I was reading this one to put two and two together and learn more about who that figure in the top hat really was.  I love it when you didn’t even realize there was a puzzle, and suddenly the pieces fit together.

On the other hand, it was very disillusioning to read that when social conditions began to change in France, both Degas and Renoir, but especially Degas, proved to be very anti-Semitic and turned against their early patron and friend.  Hate doesn’t seem to fit with the images they painted.  It must have been very disappointing for Charles.

The Hare with Amber Eyes is one of several excellent books I’ve recently that deal directly or indirectly with aspects of modern Jewish history.

I enjoyed Outwitting History by Aaron Lansky so much that I wrote about it recently in two blog posts titled Roots and Roots 2.  My friend Shellie had told me about that book.  The point of departure in Outwitting History is the rescue of over a million Yiddish books, and through the various personal stories and vignettes ends up telling a version of modern Jewish history.

In Outwitting History, there was much talk of socialism, workers’ unions, leftists, intellectuals, and working class people.  I don’t think the word socialism appears even once in The Hare with Amber Eyes.  The Hare’s protagonists are the Jewish elite of Europe – a titled family with wealth on par with the Rothchilds.  They spoke French, German, English, and Russian and deliberately spoke no Yiddish.

The Hare is the story of the Ephrussi family from Odessa, a wealthy Jewish family that spreads out through the diaspora, of what happened in Austrian under the Nazis, of art and those who collect it, of hatred, of love, and of loyalty.  It is a profoundly beautiful book.

Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Cynthia Saltzman, ostensibly a kind of biography of the painting by van Gogh told of the various owners of the painting and the conditions of the art world during the period of time – just a little more than a century – that the books covers until the painting was bought by a Japanese businessman and taken to Tokyo in 1990.  Until that time, most of the owners, and the family that had owned it for more than 50 years, were Jewish.  Not meant to be a book about modern Jewish history, in a way it is.

A Tale of Love and Darkness is another beautiful book, written by Amos Oz, an Israeli, whose forebear had come to Israel from Odessa.  Interesting how Odessa keeps popping up.  And yet this memoir, also modern Jewish history, seems not to be related in any way to the Odessa family that went to live in Vienna and Paris.  These Jews from Odessa who immigrated to Israel, were intellectuals, professors, philosophers, rabbis.

The netsuke collection ends up (before being inherited by the author) with de Waal’s great-uncle Iggie, a homosexual who left Vienna for New York and Los Angeles where he became a designer, and eventually settled in Tokyo.  There he lived with his younger Japanese lover whom he eventually legally adopted.  De Waal mentions this, and in fact, I noticed it in the family tree shown at the beginning of the book, but he doesn’t explain it.  Perhaps he does give the reason somewhere within the book.  After all, although it progresses logically, the book does not always progress chronologically.  In fact, there are so many interesting details that I think I am going to have to read this book again soon.  

Then, finally, there is Stefan Zweig’s The World ofYesterday which I am almost finished reading.  Zweig was a Viennese Jew, a successful writer, playwright, and translator who lived through the First World War, committing suicide before the end of the Second.  Also a Jewish history, it is more broadly an intellectual history of 19th Century Europe.

Of all these books, I think A Tale of Love and Darkness and The Hare with Amber Eyes are the two that stand out for me although I think the others are also excellent and I would recommend them all.

Friday, March 23, 2012


Big orange bottles of butano (butane) are common in Spain.  In the cities they decorate balconies, where the extras are kept.  In the suburbs they line streets on the days when the butano trucks come by. 

When we moved into our apartment in Barcelona, butano was our fuel for the stove and the hot water heater.   The bottles are metal, about two feet high, and weigh a ton.  In Barcelona the butano sellers would come walking down the street wheeling a handcart stacked with the bottles that they would hit with a metal bar so that you could hear them coming.  This distinctive sound made a significant racket allowing you time to get to your balcony and call down if you wanted them to stop so that you could buy.  They would bring your bottle to your apartment, you paid in cash, and they would take the empty bottle away.  Everyone had at least two, one in use and the other to hook up when the first went empty.  The sellers (mostly Pakistanis) would pass several times a week.  All the buildings in my neighborhood were old and few, if any, had elevators.  Thank God for this service because the bottles are very heavy and there would be no way an older person could carry one up the stairs.

Here where I live, only people walking their dogs ever walk past and the guy who sells butano (a Catalan) comes by truck -- a large truck carrying over a hundred bottles.  In my neighborhood, the butano truck comes once a week, on Friday afternoons, any time between 12:30 and 4.  This means that if you need butano, you need to stay home Fridays starting at midday or you might miss the truck.  Unfortunately, the truck didn’t come at all one recent Friday.  In this house I use butano only for the stove as the hot water heater is electric so it will be about six months before I have to buy another bottle.  If I used butano for hot water and maybe my heating too, I’d be worried about not having a full extra bottle.  As it was, the truck came the following week.  The regular driver had been off that other week and his replacement was supposed to cover his route.    

Our driver doesn’t bang on bottles, nor does he announce his imminent arrival with music or sound effects.  Here, you leave your empty bottle on the sidewalk in front of your house as your signal that you need service.  The driver will honk as he pulls up and you go running out to meet him.  He is always nice enough to bring the bottle into the house and stash it where I indicate.  There is only one step into the house, but it would still be very difficult for me to bring the bottle in on my own.  So I am happy for the friendly service and the functional system.  Even so, I look forward to the day when I live in an apartment hooked up to city gas and no longer have to deal with colorful bottles or delivery trucks that don’t show up when the regular driver is being replaced.

Friday, March 16, 2012

Fighting City Hall

In the latest issue of the magazine published by my local city hall, there is an article about Mercadona, a big supermarket chain.  The headline says that Mercadona already has the permit to start construction.  The article goes on to say that they will begin construction in a few months time, here at our village.  In fact, this same week, they have signed the sales contract with the city hall for the land upon which this new supermarket will be built.

This land is mostly small parcels of olive orchards and a few carob trees bordering the small highway that leads into the village from the national highway and the toll motorway.  Some have small buildings on them and even the occasional house.

What the article does not say is that these parcels of land belong to several private individuals.  The L’Ametlla city hall has taken the land, sold it, and the owners have not received one cent in payment for it.  But they have been told that they can have other parcels, about a tenth the size of their present holdings in exchange.  These other smaller parcels will be limited as to their use.  In fact, there is a plan to urbanize those parcels so that the new owners will only be allowed to build the apartment buildings that are planned.  And they will have to pay about 200,000 – 300,000 euros each (depending on the size of their parcel) for the cost of the infrastructures and development.

A few of the owners have hired an attorney to help them fight this theft by local government.  They understand that when the time comes for them to have to pay the 200,000 euros – money they don’t have -- they will lose the land, and that will be the end of the story.  They have chosen to fight.   

So far they have signed nothing.  It seems to me that if private property is going to be taken from them, then before any construction begins they should be paid fair market value for it.  Although to tell the truth, I don’t think it is acceptable for any government authority to take property that is privately owned unless it is for public services such as roads or railway lines.  But taking someone’s land so that a large corporation can build a supermarket doesn’t seem appropriate.  After all, we don’t live in a dictatorship or some third world country. 

I happen to know the circumstances of this theft by city hall because Trini and her family are involved.  Trini runs the electric shop where I buy all my appliances and her brother Ramon installs and eventually repairs them if they break down.  The land belongs to their father, also named Ramon.  And when it comes to that, Ramon junior’s son is named Ramon, but they call him Ramonet.

Ramon senior inherited the land in the 1970s from an aunt of his who left it to him because her own son had been killed in the Spanish Civil War, and that son, who was older than Ramon senior, was his godfather.  So this land has been in the family a long time and was an inheritance.  Ramon senior wants it to continue to be an inheritance.  He takes good care of it, he built a house on it with his own hands, he grows vegetables in his kitchen garden there, the family spends weekends and parts of the summer there, and he wants to be able to leave it to his children.  That seems perfectly reasonable to me.

If not for the fact that I know victims of this land deal, I would have thought it was a normal business venture.  I worry for my friends, for the anxiety and financial burden of the legal fight ahead that this is causing them.  Although there are a dozen or more owners who are losing their parcels, only five of them are putting up a fight and paying an attorney.  The rest seem to be shrugging their shoulders.  I hope those who are standing up for their rights end up victorious.  One of the perks of living in a democracy is that things like this are not supposed to happen.

I am pondering this as I read The Hare with Amber Eyes by Edmund de Waal.  This is a history of de Waal’s family -- a Jewish family made their fortune in Odessa and spread their business to Vienna and Paris.  De Waal traces his family to their various outposts, through fin de siecle Paris then to Vienna until it was taken over by the Nazis and finally to Japan.  He does this by following the trail of a collection of netsuke – Japanese miniatures – that his great uncle Iggie left him when he died in 1994.

You may well wonder why I bring up this book that has nothing to do with the taking of olive groves in L’Ametlla de Mar.  But in fact, there is something in this book, something very upsetting, that reminds me of my friends’ predicament.  When the Nazis took over Vienna, they began systematically taking away all the wealth of its resident Jews.  This included their homes and all the contents, and their businesses.  De Waal writes, “All across Vienna this is happening.  Sometimes Jews are forced to sell things for next to nothing to raise money for the Reichsflucht tax in order to be permitted to leave.  Sometimes things are just taken.  Sometimes taken with violence, sometimes without…”

In L’Ametlla the act of just taking has nothing to do with anyone being Jewish; there are no Jews here.  But the taking is the same, and the catch-22 of having to pay a huge sum if you want to keep what belongs to you in the first place sounds familiar.

Good luck to Trini, Ramon, and Ramon.  It isn’t easy to beat city hall.

(Photos by Trini Gonzalez)

Friday, March 9, 2012

Visiting Van Gogh

Remember van Gogh’s painting of the almond blossoms that I posted last week (and that appears again here at the left)?  To my surprise, it appeared on the back cover of a book that I had ordered from Amazon and that arrived this week.

The book is Theo: The Other Van Gogh by Marie-Angelique Ozanne and Frederique de Jode.  It is about Vincent’s brother Theo without whom, it is unlikely that there would be all those hundreds of van Gogh paintings.  That a painting by Vincent should appear on the cover of a book about his brother Theo isn’t necessarily surprising.  But this did surprise me because this one is far from being one of Vincent’s most famous paintings and I had just posted it on my blog.  It would have been more likely that they would have used one of the more emblematic paintings: Irises or Sunflowers, a self-portrait, or a starry night.  So finding this painting on the back when I turned the book over was a pleasant surprise and an interesting coincidence.

Van Gogh didn’t used to be my favorite painter.  If I had to choose one, it would have been Rembrandt.  What happened to change this is that about three years ago I saw the tail end of the movie Lust for Life on TV.  I had never seen it before but remembered my mother liking it, so when I saw it listed I tuned in.  It didn’t make me a van Gogh fan, but it sparked my interest in him, in part because not long before, I had visited Arles for a few days.

My previous visit to Arles and the little bit of story I saw on the television drew me in and I started reading about Vincent.  When I started to read about him and looked at the paintings that I found on the internet, I saw that I had been inspired to photograph many of the same images that he had painted.  But I didn’t know that at the time.  Then again, Arles is a small town.

I started reading through his letters to his brother Theo that I found on a wonderful site on the net.  A new book of his letters had just been published, but it was multiple volumes, beautiful illustrated with his paintings, and I couldn’t afford it.  So instead I found The Vincent van Gogh Gallery, looked at drawings and paintings, and read letters for free.  They have all the letters.  The more I read, the more van Gogh became a real person rather than a media myth.  And the more real he became, the more I liked him… and his paintings.

Since then I’ve been on a mini van Gogh quest.  If you would like to learn more about this highly intelligent, troubled, polyglot, genius, here is my reading list.  Some of the books were better than others.  They included (I read them in this order):

The Yellow House by Martin Gayford.  This is a non-fictional account of the few weeks that Gauguin spent with Vincent in Arles.  I thought it was well done and very interesting.

Sunflowers by Sheremy Bundrick.  I found this a poor attempt at historical fiction at the expense of Vincent.  In this absurd, concocted tale, Vincent is in love with the prostitute to whom he (in real life) presented with the piece of his mutilated ear.

Vincent and Theo Van Gogh by Jan Hulsker.  Hulsker is one of the leading experts on Van Gogh.  This biography explains the lives of the two brothers and provides many illustrations and parts of their correspondence.  Unfortunately it is out of print but I managed to find a relative inexpensive used copy that my (then) stepson Manuel Serge was kind enough to schlep to Spain when he came for vacation.  As I recall, the book weighs something like five pounds!  If you want to read it, look for it in your library or for a used copy.

The Letters of Vincent Van Gogh edited by Mark Roskill.  There are hundreds of van Gogh letters.  Roskill provides enough to give you a sense of Vincent’s life and his character.  He also says, in the introduction to my edition, that he made some revisions to the edition “as a record of my feelings towards this great artist and intensely lovable man.”  These are my sentiments too.

Lust for Life by Irving Stone.  Having seen the last bit of the movie, I thought it was time to read the book.  The story is good because Vincent’s life is a compelling story.  But I thought the writing was poor.

Leaving Van Gogh by Carol Wallace.  This is the fictional story of the last few weeks of Vincent’s life, as imagined by Carol Wallace and told in the voice of Dr. Gachet.  Dr. Gachet was the doctor who took charge of Vincent’s care in Auvers-sur-Oise   , where Vincent went to stay after leaving the asylum in St. Remy.  It is fiction.  Although I liked it (all but the ending) when I read it, after reading the Naifeh biography later (see below) I was incensed that someone could write a novel of historical fiction and stray so far from the known facts.  I do not recommend the book and am getting rid of my copy. (If I burned books I would burn this one.  But I don’t, which makes it difficult to know what to do with it.  Pass it on to someone who will likely be misled? Or keep the public safe from it by keeping it on my own shelf?  Right now it sits on the back seat of my car where it can do no harm.)

Van Gogh: The Life by Stephen Naifeh and Geoffrey W. Smith.  This well-researched and detailed biography is an excellent source if you want to know about Van Gogh the brilliant and troubled painter and Van Gogh the brilliant and troubled man. 

Portrait of Dr. Gachet by Cynthia Saltzman.  This non-fiction book is said to be well-researched and yet I found several errors in the early parts concerning Van Gogh.  I assume the rest of the story, which is really a kind of biography of the painting – who painted it, who owned it, what the world and the art world as like during the years of its existence and its travels – is correct.  I found it an extremely interesting history.

I’m looking forward to reading the new arrival, Theo: The Other van Gogh.  When you read about Vincent, Theo is always there, in the foreground or the background.  I’m very eager to learn more about this very important figure in Vincent’s life.

Friday, March 2, 2012

Spring Almonds

It's true.  I don't really like it here.  Besides the fact that living in a three-bedroom house with a garden and pool means living beyond my means and that makes me constantly stressed, I also don't like the area.  I don't like it for several reasons, one of them being that I don't find it beautiful.  Beauty is something you can't really argue.  Either something strikes you as beautiful or it doesn't.  Just like either you like liver or you don't.  Or smelly cheese.

Not finding the area beautiful doesn't mean I never find beauty here.  The sea doesn't move me, but when the skies were swarming with starlings a few years ago, I was moved to my core with the magnificence of the spectacle.  Spring also brings with it the more subtle spectable of the almond trees in bloom.  Their color is pale and the flowers are delicately small, but in this rather colorless landscape where their arboreal companions are olives and pines that make no overt change during the course of the year, the almonds are a potent sign of the approach of spring.

Above is my photo taken near where I live, and below is a painting of the same subject by Vincent van Gogh painted in Arles.  There is no comparison between my very average photo and the genius of Vincent's painting.  I post them both because it pleases me that Vincent enjoyed some of the same things that I do.  If you have any interest in van Gogh, take a look at the new biography written by Pulitzer Prize winners Steven Naifehand Gregory White Smith.  Van Gogh: The Life is a wonderfully detailed biography and it convinced me that it wasn't a suicide.