cover image Letters to Camondo

Letters to Camondo

Edmund de Waal. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $28 (192p) ISBN 978-0-374-60348-9

A sumptuous household museum prompts a reverie on the doomed French-Jewish haute bourgeoisie in this elegiac family history. Memoirist and ceramic artist de Waal (The Hare with the Amber Eyes) addresses an epistolary monologue to Moïse de Camondo (1860–1935), a Jewish banker and collector who bequeathed to the public his palatial home in Paris, along with its art, porcelains, and antiques, in honor of his son, a pilot killed in WWI. De Waal’s detailed appreciations of the Musée Nissim de Camondo’s furnishings—“the panels that hold the decoration of birds are framed in gold so that this toucan, this mistle thrush has its own little patch of the world, a rock to sit on, a bush to sing at”—open out into a reconstruction of the lives of Camondo’s circle of related Jewish families (de Waal’s Ephrussi family forebears, who lived nearby, among them) who rose to prominence as intellectuals and patrons but became targets of anti-Semitic ideologues. (The book’s later chapters tersely recount the persecution of Moïse’s daughter, son-in-law, and grandchildren in Nazi-occupied France and their deaths at Auschwitz.) De Waal’s elegant prose, rapt eye for aesthetics, subtle character sketches, and nuanced musings on Jewish identity yield a rich, Proustian recreation of a lost era. Photos. (May)