Remembering Proust’s Swann in “The Hare with Amber Eyes”

Book cover for "The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family's Century of Art and Loss" by Edmund de WaalI’m thinking about giving this book as a gift… and now I’m beseeching Santa to consider giving it to me, too!  Edmund de Waal’s The Hare with Amber Eyes tells the story of a family that included Charles Ephrussi, the prototype for Swann in Marcel Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu. Renoir immortalized him in  The Luncheon of the Boating Party (he’s the gentleman in top hat seen in profile in the background). Here is Nancy Pearl’s thumbnail book review on NPR:

“Every once in a while, I run across a book that has such wide appeal that I can easily imagine giving copies to nearly everyone on my gift list. One such book — and my favorite work of nonfiction this year — is The Hare with Amber Eyes: A Family’s Century of Art and Loss by Edmund de Waal. The author, a potter and curator of ceramics at the Victoria & Albert Museum, contemplates the history of his ancestors, a fabulously wealthy Jewish banking family, from the latish 19th century through World War II. He uses as the linchpin for his discussion a collection of 246 netsukes, miniature ornamental carvings (including one of a hare with amber eyes), which were originally collected by the first Charles Ephrussi and handed down from generation to generation. In the process the collection moved from Japan to Paris to Vienna, back to Japan, and thence to the author, in London. The Ephrussis were a cultural force both in Vienna and in Paris. You can see what was once their house on Vienna’s Ringstrasse even now. Charles was a patron of many artists and writers; he was also the model for Swann in Proust’s great novel, and he appears in Renoir’s The Luncheon of the Boating Party (he’s the man in the back, in profile, with a top hat and a reddish beard). I’m giving this book to friends and family who love history or biographies or art or visiting and/or reading about Paris or Vienna; to those who enjoy family sagas and, especially, to anyone who appreciates graceful, understated writing. And those who love books with family trees. Kudos to the publisher, FSG, for producing a book that’s both a pleasure to hold and behold.”

What would Swann be without Odette? Her prototype was Méry Laurent, who was Manet’s model and lover as well.

Édouard Manet. Woman in a Bathtub. 1878-79.pastel on paper 55×45cm. Musee d’Orsay
Édouard Manet. Woman in a Bathtub. 1878-79.pastel on paper 55×45cm. Musee d’Orsay, Paris.

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