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Talking to the Past—Part II: Edmund de Waal

At first, the letters are addressed to “Dear friend.” Then Edmund de Waal slips into the more formal “Cher Monsieur” and finally “Monsieur.” “I realise,” he writes, “that I’m not entirely sure how to address you, Monsieur le Comte.” How does one address a French count who died more than eighty years ago and whose only connection to you is that he was a cousin of your grandfather’s? And why would you choose to make a book in which you write letters to him rather than write a biography of the count or adopt some form of family memoir? These are just some of the questions that occurred as I read Edmund de Waal’s new book, Letters to Camondo (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021).

In Letters to Camondo, de Waal writes fifty-eight letters to Moïse Camondo (1860-1935), letters that ask questions which are never answered, that desperately seek conversation with the dead. For ceramicist and writer Edmund De Waal, the house of Count Moïse Camondo was but a few steps away from the house of his distant relative, Charles Ephrussi, who features prominently in his earlier book The Hare with Amber Eyes (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2010), in which de Waal wrote about inheriting a collection of 264 netsuke, tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings, from an uncle in Tokyo. The story of this collection of rare Japanese objects began in mid-nineteenth century Paris with de Waal’s relative Charles Ephrussi (1849-1905), a wealthy, Jewish collector who is one of the men used by Marcel Proust as he developed his character Charles Swann for In Search of Lost Time. Charles Ephrussi gave the netsuke collection to a Viennese cousin for a wedding gift. That cousin was Victor Ephrussi, de Waal’s grandfather. But with the coming of the Anschluss, Victor and his four children scattered around the globe, their art collections and possessions all confiscated by the Nazis, except for the Netsuke collection, which was smuggled away by a maid, who was later able to return them to the family. The Hare is an extraordinary tale that follows the precious netsuke collection from the Paris of the Impressionists to the Vienna of Freud and its famous cafe society to postwar Tokyo to contemporary London where de Waal lives and works.

Here, in a nutshell, is the necessary backstory to Letters. Born in Istanbul, Moïse de Camondo came from a distinguished family of Sephardic Jews. He moved to Paris, where he became enamored with the art of late eighteenth century France and began to collect obsessively. de Waal’s relative, Charles Ephrussi, was his neighbor and a fellow banker, and he helped him acquire some of the pieces of art that are still in the Camondo museum today. Moïse had two children, Nissim and Béatrice. When his beloved son Nissim was killed in World War I, Moïse decided to donate his house and its collections to the nation so that it could become a museum in Nissim’s honor. Today, the Musée Nissim de Camondo is a branch of the Musée des Arts Décoratifs. Moïse died in 1935, and then, during World War II, his daughter, Béatrice, her husband, and their two children were deported and sent to Auschwitz, where all four perished.

The Camondo house, built between 1911 and 1914, and designed, in part, to suggest the Petit Trianon of Versailles. GO69, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

de Waal begins Letters by informing the Count (and his readers) that “I have been spending time in the archives again.” He is studying in the archives of the Musée Nissim de Camondo. He guides the reader through various parts of the Camondo residence, discussing some of the mind-blowing rooms, the ornate furniture, and important artwork of this extraordinary house. By the end of the book, we have learned a fair amount about Camondo and French decorative arts, as well as the role that antisemitism played in the lives and deaths of the Camondo family.

Ever the good detective, de Waal intuitively goes for the gaps, the areas where there is no documentation, no evidence. The Camondo archive contains mountains of paper: “inventories, carbon copies, auction catalogues, receipts and invoices, memoranda, wills and testaments, telegrams, newspaper announcements, cards of condolence, seating plans and menus, scores, opera programmes, sketches, bank records, hunting notebooks, photographs of artworks, photographs of the family, photographs of gravestones, account books, notebooks of acquisitions.” Amazed at Camondo’s instinct for documentation, de Waal says, “I want to ask if you ever threw anything away?” He looks “for those things that have not been catalogued and filed and photographed.” He investigates “the hidden circulation” of servant quarters, kitchens, attic and cellars, and the stairways and passageways that connected all of those non-public spaces of the house. This is the part of history that is rarely written down, documented, photographed. The evidence is there if one searches properly. But maybe it’s found only in a footnote here, a quickly jotted reference in pencil there, a hint that “seems to weigh nothing” that finally tells us the story of the servant’s quarters and their lives.

By opting to write his book in the form of letters to Moïse Camondo, de Waal is forced into the curious position of telling Camondo the story of Camondo’s own life and the very details of his own magnificent house. For example, de Waal must tell Camondo “You were born in a ‘stone house’ at 6 Camondo Street in Galatea in Constantinople and spent the first nine years of your life looking out over the Bosphorus.” as well as all of the other biographical facts that Moïse Camondo would know perfectly well. This awkward narrative structure is apparent throughout the book, but most readers will manage to overlook it as soon as they realize that they are the really de Waal’s addressee, not a dead French Count.

As de Waal researches in the archives of the Musée Nissim de Camondo and wanders the rooms of the house, asking questions of Moïse Camondo that never receive answers, what becomes apparent is that he is making the point to us that history is derived from things—from the mute objects and the documents that survive—and that the people who actually made history are forever silent, unable to answer our questions. History is limited not only because the dead can’t speak, but also because we have only those few objects and documents that have survived.

Staircase, Musée Nissim de Camondo

Letters to Camondo is a hard-bound book with pages of thick, coated paper stock, and its numerous illustrations are beautifully reproduced, all for the publisher’s retail price of $28. Well worth the price. For a little more about the Camondo family and their house, I recommend an article over at Town and Country by James McAuley, whose new book is The House of Fragile Things: Jewish Art Collectors and the Fall of France (Yale University Press, 2021).

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