The Belle Epoque, those 20 years or so before the First World War, have long held a fascination for me. I have read Proust’s ‘In Search of Lost Time’ twice, in different translations, which must testify something, as it is set in precisely this period. This book gives a new perspective on those ‘vertigo years’, as Europe spiralled into madness, as well as providing a delicately-woven tapestry of how objects and lives intersect over a century.
The book’s central narrative concerns a collection of Japanese carvings – netsuke – and their history within the author’s family. It becomes a beautiful and elegaic meditation on the nature of physical art and its relationship with real, human lives.
The Jewish family became wealthy in Odessa and Vienna and then fragmented under the intolerable pressures of Nazism. Any account of the Jewish experience of the Nazi years brings prickling to the eyes and this is no exception. But the author is dispassionate, using objects as the foundation of his story; this is very powerful and profoundly moving.
The British (and I venture to think, the American) reader today can only marvel at the international nature of continental Europe’s intellectual life in the first half of the twentieth century. This awe-inspiring cosmopolitanism, when languages were not a barrier since everyone seems to have been fluent in at least three, is well described by Stefan Zweig and Joseph Roth, as well. Artistic sensibilities seem to have been heightened by this broad and flexible cultural legacy. Opera, music, art, poetry – all of them seem to have occupied a far greater slice of attention than they do in today’s diffuse and cacophonous Anglo-American culture.
The custodian of the Japanese carvings at their time of greatest danger is virtually unknowable to the author as she was a servant. The information sources of family letters, legal documents and official records are simply not available in relation to her, as they are for her rich employers. This raises again the question that often, for this writer, emerges from accounts of the past. Is it only the rich, with the leisure and the opportunity that wealth affords, who can ever populate our history? I have often looked with astonishment at the intellectual achievements of people like, say, Charles Darwin or Bertrand Russell. But when you realise how privileged they were, you wonder what others with the same privilege might have done.
Today, it is remarkable how many famous people have famous parents. In acting, of course, it is very common. Is is simply that growing up in an environment ,where famous and brilliant people are around daily. imparts some confidence or lustre to the mind and ambition? I suspect so.
This is an utterly captivating and thoroughly enjoyable book. It is about travel, war, time, family and, most of all, the enduring nature of aesthetics for the human mind, in spite of all that the world throws against it.