Letters to Camondo

Julian Barnes writes:

I n​ 2016, Theresa May told the Conservative Party Conference: ‘If you believe you’re a citizen of the world, you’re a citizen of nowhere. You don’t understand what the very word “citizenship” means.’ This characterisation was not – rightly not – considered antisemitic, merely an appeal to the autochthonic Brexiter mentality. But it taps into a long history of such sly phrases. A hundred and fifty years ago, we would have known what it meant. Another way of cloaking the same sentiment was ‘cosmopolitan’ – or, more forcefully, ‘rootless cosmopolitan’. In France, antisemitism was far more blatant. In the Paris of the 1870s, the diarist Edmond de Goncourt complained that even the grandest salons had become ‘infested with Jews and Jewesses’. Worse still, these infesters were charming the people Goncourt most looked up to. He particularly hated Charles Ephrussi, an art critic and collector – and a cousin of Edmund de Waal’s great-grandfather. Ephrussi had become the chosen companion of Princesse Mathilde, niece of Napoleon I and herself a collector, albeit of writers and artists. Goncourt biliously referred to him as a ‘mahout to guide her through life’. ‘It is an unforgettable image,’ Edmund de Waal wrote in The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010). ‘The formidable, aged princess in her black, an elephantine presence rather like Queen Victoria, and this young man in his twenties, able to guide her with the merest of suggestions, of touch.’

(LRB 22 Apr 2021)

From the publisher:

63 rue de Monceau, Paris Dear friend, As you may have guessed by now, I am not in your house by accident. I know your street rather well.

Count Moïse de Camondo lived a few doors away from Edmund de Waal's forebears, the Ephrussi, first encountered in his bestselling memoir The Hare with Amber Eyes. Like the Ephrussi, the Camondos were part of belle époque high society. They were also targets of anti-semitism.

Camondo created a spectacular house and filled it with the greatest private collection of French eighteenth-century art for his son to inherit. But when Nissim was killed in the First World War, it became a memorial and, on the Count's death, was bequeathed to France.

The Musée Nissim de Camondo has remained unchanged since 1936. Edmund de Waal explores the lavish rooms and detailed archives and uncovers new layers to the family story. In a haunting series of letters addressed to the Count, he tells us what happened next.

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