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The French Count Who Turned His Home Into a Museum to Honor His Dead Son

The French Count Who Turned His Home Into a Museum to Honor His Dead Son

By Edmund de Waal

Three unwieldy boxes of porcelain collect dust in the basement of my building. Sealed away after my grandmother’s death 30 years ago, they contain rococo lamps, fragile urns and multiple sets of gilt-edged china that can’t go in the dishwasher. I will probably never unpack these impractical relics. But I keep them because they represent a link — beautiful yet brittle — to people I have lost.

Edmund de Waal’s “Letters to Camondo” will fascinate anyone who has projected complicated emotions onto objects. In his award-winning 2010 book, “The Hare With Amber Eyes,” de Waal traced a set of the Japanese miniature carvings known as netsuke as they got passed from one generation of his family to the next, and ingeniously tied the history of European Jews under Hitler to the fate of these precious curios. His evocative new book shifts focus from his own family to their neighbor in fin de siècle Paris: the Count Moïse de Camondo, whose home near the Parc Monceau became a museum of 18th-century French decorative art. Composed of a series of intimate letters to the long-dead count, the book follows de Waal as he wanders from room to room in the museum, commenting on its treasures and offering quietly profound reflections on French Jewish history, the nature of collecting and the vicissitudes of memory.

The story of the Camondo family epitomizes both the highs and lows of the Jewish experience in France. Born in 1860 in Constantinople to a Sephardic banking dynasty, Moïse moved to Paris at a young age and quickly adopted French culture as his own. After his divorce from the French Jewish heiress Irène Cahen d’Anvers, who ran off with her riding instructor, he set about rebuilding his family’s mansion to showcase his superlative collection of furniture and porcelain. When his son, Nissim, a fighter pilot, died for France in World War I, the count decided to leave his house and collection to his adopted homeland. The Musée Nissim de Camondo opened its doors in 1936, following Moïse’s death. Just a few years later, during the Nazi occupation, the French authorities repaid his generosity by deporting his only surviving descendants, his daughter, Béatrice Reinach, and his grandchildren, Fanny and Bertrand, to their deaths at Auschwitz.

Although de Waal sketches the outline of the tragic story, readers looking for a more scholarly study of the Camondos may be better off turning to “The House of Fragile Things,” a new book by James McAuley on French Jewish collectors. (There are also several excellent recent books in French about the museum and its founder.) De Waal offers something more personal: As an accomplished ceramic artist, he has created installations in a number of museums — including at the Frick Collection in New York — where he placed his own Japanese-inspired, minimalist vessels next to masterpieces of European painting, sparking fresh insights into familiar works. With its loose structure, which freely jumps between past and present, “Letters to Camondo” offers a literary counterpart to these striking exhibitions.

A large part of the book is devoted to de Waal’s parsing of the curiously detailed instructions that Camondo left for running his museum, including how to prevent the accumulation of dust. De Waal interprets this mania as an attempt to erase the traces of his family’s past, just as Moïse purged his collection of the Ottoman relics and Jewish ritual objects his father had amassed. “To keep dust-free you need to be rich and exacting and have servants to endlessly sweep away all those traces that might show where you have come from,” de Waal observes. And yet, the choice to focus on late-18th-century France was not an arbitrary one for a Jewish collector like Camondo. The Enlightenment was the period when France became the first modern European country to grant the Jews full civil rights. As de Waal suggests, the Musée Nissim de Camondo stands as a monument to the opportunities that the Enlightenment created for families like the Camondos, a time of “talk and food and porcelain and politesse and civilité and everything possible.”

What drives someone to collect? De Waal cites the German Jewish philosopher Walter Benjamin’s theory that collecting is a futile attempt to guard against dispersion. “To need to bring things back together,” de Waal writes of Camondo’s desire to collect, “you have to know what separation feels like.” The count certainly understood loss. Along with the prohibition on dust, he decreed that every item in the museum remain exactly as he had placed it. Visitors today encounter photos of Nissim and Béatrice nestled amid the gilded furniture and lush tapestries, reminders of a father’s struggle to hang on to those he loved.

At the end of the book, de Waal wrestles with his own ambivalence about serving as a guardian of the Jewish past. He reports that some American fans of “The Hare With Amber Eyes” have asked whether he plans to come “back” to Judaism after being raised in the Church of England. But de Waal reads Buddhist poetry and has had enough of elegy. Even the exquisite collection of netsuke that he inherited comes to seem like a burden. Must we hold on to material traces of history when they weigh us down? de Waal asks. Or can we better honor the dead by letting go? He is able to have it both ways because museums eagerly welcomed his family’s legacy — hardly a solution for the rest of us. However, he also demonstrates, in this slim and elegant volume, how words can hold our memories as well as objects while taking up infinitely less space.

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