Review: Rosanna Warren on “Letters to Camondo”

Edmund de Waal’s new book Letters to Camondo is a haunted book about a haunted house, and, as its author confesses, he is himself a kind of ghost, “haunting” the rue de Monceau in Paris. Edmund de Waal, a descendant of the powerful Jewish banking family, the Ephrussis, brought their tragic history to light in 2010 in The Hare with Amber Eyes. That mesmerizing book told the story of the collection of precious Japanese netsuke sculptures purchased in the 1870s by de Waal’s great, great uncle Charles Ephrussi, passed as a wedding gift to his great grandfather Viktor von Ephrussi in Vienna, preserved from the Nazis during World War II by a faithful maid, restored to his great uncle Iggie, and inherited by de Waal. Now de Waal turns his attention from the Ephrussis and their Parisian mansion at 81 rue de Monceau to his cousins, the Camondos, another prominent banking family, who built their own hôtel particulier on the same street. The book takes the form of imaginary letters to Moïse de Camondo, the banker and art collector who conceived and erected his exquisite mansion, modelled on the Petit Trianon, at 63 rue de Monceau.

Many ghosts hover over these pages. Some are family members. Through de Waal’s elliptical evocations, we come to know—or dream that we know—the main characters: the patriarchs, Nissim and Abraham-Béhor, heirs to a centuries-old family business as merchants and financiers, who moved to Paris with their families from Constantinople in 1869; Nissim’s son, le Comte Moïse de Camondo, born in Constantinople, brought up in Paris; Moïse’s faithless wife, Irène Cahen-d’Anvers, child of another banking family, who left him and their two children; the children, Béatrice and Nissim, lovingly brought up by their father; Béatrice’s husband, Léon Reinach (heir to yet another fortune), and their children, Fanny and Bertrand. In Paris Moïse refined the family’s taste for elegance into a passion for collecting. In 1917 his palace became a house of mourning with the death of his son Nissim, a fighter pilot killed in World War I. Nissim’s room was preserved as a shrine, photographs of the lost son added to the meticulously appointed chambers. Moïse, who died in 1935, left the house and its art treasures to the French nation as a museum with a will strictly forbidding change to its arrangements. But change arrived apace, and that is the elegiac burden of these letters, almost all the main actors in the story becoming premature ghosts as we watch Béatrice, Léon, and their children hustled to their deaths in Auschwitz, Birkenau, and Monowitz, leaving only the antipathetic Irène surviving to finagle the recovered fortunes.

Edmund de Waal is a renowned potter and historian of porcelain. He is also, as these pages show, a supremely sensitive artist of words, and the tutelary spirits of Proust, Walter Benjamin, and W. G. Sebald also haunt these letters. De Waal’s feel for rhythm links the several arts. We experience the surviving Musée Nissim de Camondo as the author guides us through its spaces: “I’ve moved to the salon des Huet. It is a gorgeous cadenced room constructed to show these seven canvases by Jean-Baptise Huet.” Intimately addressing his dead cousin Moïse who composed this house, de Waal meditates on their related arts: “You put this here and set off small chords, echoes and repeats and caesuras … It is what I do in my studio. I make my porcelain vessels and I’m keeping a phrase from a poem or the shape of a fragment of music in my hands and head as I throw, one after another, the balls of clay on my left, my ware boards waiting on my right.” He’s trying “to find those moments when, if you get it right, the cadences keep going.”

Which is precisely how this book works, a marvel of pacing and associations. It’s a composition of shadows, dust, traces, and secrets, a book of premonitions and leitmotifs, with key words and images gradually gathering substance: “trap,” “diaspora,” “disappear.” The black-and-white photographs from the Camondo archives intensify the spectral effect: empty rooms, chairs on which no one sits, shadowy corridors, a table set for an absent diner, even the few human portraits, all suggest vanished spirits so powerfully evoked they might—who knows—be summoned to return. Hints of catastrophe glimmer at every turn. De Waal describes his perusal of Moïse’s archives in an incantatory repetition:
I find the letters about excursions with gastronomic friends. I find instructions to the gardeners … I find your responses to the dealers who write, daily. Here are your notebooks of purchases …

I find manifests for cargo, manifests for people as cargo.

I find the manifests for your daughter. For your son-in-law. For their children.

I find this difficult.

Throughout the book, de Waal meditates on the desire for stasis in the face of change. “You don’t want time to change anything,” he remarks to Moïse in an early letter, recording the count’s careful instructions to the curators of the museum he has made of his house. But de Waal intuits, as well, that Monsieur le Comte, born in Constantinople, displaced to France, a child of the diaspora, knew very well that things change, so perhaps the museum is “a breath-turn, a caesura.” “I think you know what dispersion means in your heart. You know that the world is entropic. And I think you see this diaspora happening and want this staying still and this moment of the turn of the breath.”

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In de Waal’s solicitude and his pacing, he shapes the medium of language as if it were clay. This is not “prose poetry,” but some phrases are so substantial they beg to be read aloud, like the quality of light that is “slivered, silvered, slightly tarnished or greyed.” His appreciation of an antique commode mingles the excitement of the craftsman with the wordsmith: “oak veneered with amaranth, sycamore, burr maple, bloodwood, holly, hornbeam, barberry, bois de ferrol—chased and gilt bronze—with a violet Breccia top. I simply list these materials as they are pure poetry.” Other passages, like this description of Béatrice’s girlhood bedroom, resonate in their delicacy of understatement: “Her bathroom is untouched … Her bath is an arched alcove. Shadows hold it all. I close this door very carefully.”

De Waal understands both the fragility and the persistence of porcelain as a material, and perhaps something similar could be claimed of language, of these letters which so painstakingly record the life of certain remarkable individuals in a remarkable period of French civilization—a period as he calls it, of elegance and a kind of enlightenment, but also of vicious anti-Semitism, a precarious equilibrium: “The colour of porcelain stays the same. It will not fade, or suffer from damp. You can break it, but you cannot destroy it. That is why the world is full of shards.”

As this book so movingly shows, France was (and perhaps is) especially precarious for Jews, who may, like Monsieur le Comte Moïse de Camondo, become part “of the country so perfectly, so delicately aligned, assimilated, that you disappear.”

Rosanna Warren is the author of, most recently, Max Jacob: A Life in Art and Letters and So Forth, a book of poems.

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