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Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal review – Proustian evocation of the belle époque

The potter and memoirist’s exacting study of a Parisian family’s collection of art objects is an exquisite coda to The Hare With Amber Eyes

Edmund de Waal, the master potter and memoirist, subscribes to the famous imagist dictum: “no ideas but in things”. This book is an exquisite and profound coda to The Hare With Amber Eyes, his bestselling personal history of a branch of his maternal family, the Ephrussi banking dynasty, told through the few surviving treasures – a trove of Japanese netsuke, including the hare – that escaped Nazi looting. Here he returns to that same milieu. Count Moïse de Camondo was a friend and neighbour of Charles Ephrussi during the belle époque in Paris, living at 63 Rue de Monceau, a few doors down from number 81, the Ephrussi mansion. Like Ephrussi, he was a man of great wealth and taste, who experienced the beginnings of the terrible wave of antisemitism in Europe.

The gift to De Waal as a writer lies in the fact that the house in which Camondo lived has been preserved according to his wishes exactly as it was at his death in 1935. Number 63, a fabulous golden stone house with parkland, was gifted to the French nation in part in memory of Camondo’s only son, Nissim (the name means “miracle”), who was killed in the first world war, in part because he was a great collector, a man incapable of throwing anything away. The house is a vitrine of that past in which there was “talk and food and porcelain and politesse and civilite and everything possible”, a museum of curiosities, each one bearing what De Waal calls in his epigraph “lacrimae rerum”, the tears of things.

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