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Letters to Camondo

A thing of beauty

The Hare With the Amber Eyes transported us to the rarefied world of the unimaginably wealthy Ephrussi family. Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal follows another Jewish family, the Camondos, neighbours of the Ephrussis and, eventually, family by marriage. In 1936, following the death of Count de Camondo’s only son, their grand residence was donated to Paris as museum and remains untouched to this day. This is their story.

De Waal meticulously reconstructs the lives of the Camondo family based on thousands of documents that the Count carefully archived in the now Musee Nissim de Camondo. Receipts, auction catalogues, telegrams, bank statements, menus, even seating plans; there’s not a thing that slipped through the cracks in this household. The book is written in the form of letters from de Waal to the Count, and although that might sound a bit phony, it actually works, mainly because of de Waal’s skills as a storyteller, gentle curiosity and lightness of touch.

Originally from Turkey, the Jewish banking family Camondo decides to move to the relatively safe and liberal Paris in the 1870s. But being accepted as Parisian and French is not easy. They collect art, they ride, they hunt, they become generous patrons, and make the ultimate sacrifice when they lose their son and heir in WWI. In short, they become pillars of French society. Anti-semitism, snobbism and a disdain of the nouveaux riches are rife and however wealthy, generous and ‘French’ the family becomes, they are never fully accepted.

The Camondos amass a priceless collection of art and rare furniture. De Waal compares their efforts to blend in to the veneer on their precious commodes: ‘Marqueterie, the art of veneering, is a way of making one thing look entirely other’ and concludes that, just as Count de Camondo, he likes it too.

As part of a Jewish family devastated and dispersed by WW2, belonging is central to de Waal’s work, be it art or writing. When the war approaches, the noose tightens around the Camondo family, and it won’t be a surprise to anyone that this book does not end well.

Like his ceramic art, there’s a fragile beauty to Edmund de Waal’s writing. He revels in aesthetic details like a boy in a sweet-shop, his enthusiasm contagious. To top it off, the publisher has splashed out on making the book itself a work of beauty with luxurious paper and gorgeous photos. A little gem.

Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal is published by Chatto & Windus, 167 pages.

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