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.