When is a life worth telling? Edmund de Waal’s haunting account of a Parisian collector and the fate of his Jewish family during the German occupation of France combines ghastly drama with domestic detail, in a jewel-like amalgam of history and personal reflection that absorbs from start to finish. Ten years on from The Hare with Amber Eyes, de Waal turns his careful, exacting gaze on the life and times of the Count de Camondo, a scion of a Constantinople banking family known as the “Rothschilds of the East”.


Having left Constantinople as a child, in 1910 Moïse de Camondo designed for himself and began to fill an exquisite townhouse in Paris with the 18th century decorative art he so loved: Buffon Sèvres dinner tureens, Louis XVI chaises, ormolu clocks, gauzy Aubusson tapestries, diamond-patterned marquetry ancien régime sewing tables. Inevitably, his compulsion to collect was mocked by French anti-Semites as vulgar a display of wealth. Only a maladroit parvenu Jew could conceive so lavish a temple to art on the fashionable rue de Monceau.


Like De Waal’s own Jewish forebears, the Ephrussi banking dynasty of The Hare with Amber Eyes, Moïse was so assimilated within Belle Époque Parisian high society as to be almost indistinguishable from the non-Jewish majority. His adored son Nissim (Hebrew for “miracle”) was due to inherit the collection of pre-French Revolution masterpieces. But when Nissim died in the First World War, at the age of 25, the collection was turned into a memorial and bequeathed by Moïse on his death in 1935 to the French State. Immensely popular with the public, the Musée Nissim de Camondo enchanted with its labyrinth of gilded rooms and the beautiful objects on display. Today the only shadow cast across its interior is the murder, in 1944, of four family members.



Eight years after the museum opened in 1936, the count’s daughter Béatrice de Camondo was deported to Auschwitz, where she and her composer husband Léon Reinach, together with their two children Fanny and Bertrand, were sent to the gas. Hitler’s onslaught on French Jewry was so pitiless that even children were deported east (for they, too, were potential enemies of the Third Reich). De Waal’s anger is palpable: the country that gave us Bach and Goethe had departed from the community of civilized human beings. Aided by the indifference of most Parisians, Hitler and his race-engineers were able to flush the Stinkjuden out of the French capital. Wretchedly, a building on the rue de Monceau next to the count’s boarded-up museum was requisitioned by the paramilitary Milice, whose job was to round up all remaining Jews and Resistance combatants.


In a series of imagined letters to the count (“Dear friend”, “Cher Monsieur”), de Waal conjures a world of gracious Proustian suavities in the build-up to the persecutions. A master potter as well as a fine writer, de Waal has spent weeks on his own in the mansion-museum overlooking the Parc Monceau. Tapping his way through the empty rooms like an occult surveyor, he summons up the spirit of Moïse de Camondo and his cultivated world, and reflects along the way on his own “cosmopolitan” antecedents (the Ephrussi, it turns out, are related to the Camondos).



With elements of art history, social history, personal experience and quest, a book of this sort could so easily go wrong. In the absence of conventional plot, the challenge is to create a forward momentum, something that Bruce Chatwin, say, was notably skilled at doing. (Chatwin’s novel about a Meissen porcelain collector, Utz, is, I think, a clear influence.) However, de Waal is a writer of grace and restlessly enquiring intelligence, and Letters to Camondo succeeds admirably. The Camondo dynasty no longer exists; but the museum does, very much so, and Edmund de Waal’s beautiful book opens a window onto an entire lost world. In the hushed intensity of the rooms at 63 rue de Monceau meanwhile the weight of the past is felt.