On ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’

9 Mar

I’m currently about a third through Edmund de Waal’s ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’, which tells the story of the various family members who have at one time owned a collection of over 240 netsuke that have since passed into Edmund’s hands.

As I’m fascinated with all things Japanese (see my earlier post about ‘kudos’), I’m more interested in the netsuke than the family saga – and I wish upon wish that I could see pictures of all 246 netsuke.  About nine netsuke have been photographed for the book – and the best I could find on the web was this seven picture collection that appeared in The Guardian.

The reason I’ve chosen to write about de Waal’s book is he keeps dropping in words that I don’t understand, dagnabbit.

The word ‘netsuke’ itself – I know (sort of) what a netsuke is and common sense dictates the word is Japanese in origin.  The OED gives its origin as “to attach a root”, which makes sense as netsuke were a type of toggle, used to fasten.   Interestingly, the first recorded use of the word in English is 1876, in a Victoria and Albert catalogue.  So around 20 years after Japan opened its border to trade with the West, ‘netsuke’ had already become collectors’ items, worthy of being exhibited in the finest museums.

Another word of which de Waal is extremely fond is ‘flaneurial’.  This seems to be a unique coinage as I can’t find it in any other dictionary – and to be honest, the only thing Google throws up is another blogger also commenting on de Waal’s excessive usage.  The word ‘flaneur’ does appear in English, with its meaning  derived directly from the French,  flâneur, a ‘loafer’ or a ‘stroller’. This noun is in turn derived from the verb flâner – “to stroll”.  De Waal uses ‘flaneurial’ to describe one of his ancestors, the first to own the netsuke, who was very much a man about town, and was sufficiently wealthy to pursue a lifestyle as an art collector and critic.

A second head-scratcher I came across in the book was ‘lambent’.  I had no idea what this meant – but the dictionary suggests it’s an adjective that effectively conveys the sense of a flickering light.  It’s a pretty obscure word, and if you google it, you’ll find the first few pages are either dictionary listings or are things like design firms or war-gaming sites, where people often enjoy antiquated language.

So one third of the book down, and two new words.  I’m sure there will be many more to go before the end!


7 Responses to “On ‘The Hare with Amber Eyes’”

  1. Caroline Kenner April 12, 2013 at 10:25 am #

    Thank you for this! I am reading The Hare with the Amber Eyes now, and I got stopped in my tracks by flaneurial. I’ve only read about a fifth of the book at this point, and am finding it very enjoyable.

    • Rum Ram Ruf August 7, 2013 at 1:01 pm #

      Thanks Caroline. I hope the rest of the book proved as enjoyable! I enjoyed the book too – although would have liked more about the netsuke themselves. There weren’t nearly enough pictures for my liking – I was desperate to examine them!

  2. Joyace Jackson June 6, 2013 at 9:20 pm #

    If “dagnabit” is still perplexing, think “dadgumit” or “dadburnit”. These were called “by words” in the south. These were used as “swear” words but they weren’t really swearing since they avoided using the word “God”. Many southern school teachers forbade the use of these “by words”.

    • Rum Ram Ruf August 7, 2013 at 12:58 pm #

      Thanks Joyace! I’ve just started reading a really great book that you may love – ‘Holy Sh*t – a brief history of swearing’. It talks about exactly your point – that throughout history, religious oaths have often been more taboo than rude words relating to the body, bodily functions etc.

  3. Jill March 21, 2017 at 4:21 am #

    I have also been reading “The Hare With Amber Eyes.”. I was just commenting to my husband that I can’t remember when I’ve encountered so many unfamiliar words in a book, and just like you, I couldn’t resist Googling “flaneurial.” How delightful it was to discover your post at the top of the search results. I’m so glad I’m not the only one who is struggling with some of the vocabulary. I’m enjoying the challenge though – amanuensis, diaspora, deliquescence, penumbra – the words are as exotic as the netsuke.

  4. Anonymous May 20, 2017 at 8:13 pm #

    I pride myself on a good vocabulary but had to ask google for help on ‘flaneurial”

  5. Lesley Mcnaught July 30, 2017 at 7:46 am #

    Delighted to find your blog and all the comments! I too am “reading ” the hare with the amber eyes and hadn’t got past page 11 before I started noting down words that were unknown to me. The fun I have had wandering through the Jewish history French defeats et al is endless .like you I want to see the paintings fondle the carpets and drapes and ,oh yes see those netsuke. I am astoundingly fortunate in that in this tiny seaside village there lives a lady who lived in Japan and has a collection of them. Some touristy trash some collector pieces. Before I got past page eleven I wasn’t bothered now I shall certainly beg my friend for a view and explanation of her collection. Nice to know that I am not the only person who thought they had a good broad vocabulary who was brought to a standstill by mr de waal

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