Cover Image: The House of Fragile Things

The House of Fragile Things

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Member Reviews

This is a truly fascinating and meticulously researched account of the great Jewish families of France between about 1870 until the end of WWII and their art collecting. The Camondos, the Rothschilds, the Ephrussi and others were all enormously wealthy and dedicated to collecting priceless treasures from France’s past to not only decorate and furnish their homes but to bequeath them to the nation after their deaths. They all felt themselves to be assimilated into French society but the truth was very different. A deep vein of anti-Semitism pervaded French society and this meant they were never truly accepted as equals. They wanted to contribute to France’s cultural patrimony but as I read on through this book I began to realise just why this was never going to be possible. And this was the aspect of the story that horrified and shocked me the most. I hadn’t realised just how virulent anti-Semitism was in France and just how vile cultural critic Edouard Drumont’s views were, even though we know how complicit many French were in the Holocaust. Before Hitler, Drumont was the most virulent anti-Semite in Europe and his views were tragically very influential. I hadn’t heard the term “aesthetic anti-Semitism” before but he attacked all the families portrayed in this book, by name, and was the most vocal proponent of the idea that Jews could never have an appreciation of art and that therefore their valuable collections were somehow bogus. The book is multi-layered, exploring not only the families’ lives and destinies, but also exploring the very concept of collecting, the psychology of it and what it meant in particular to this group of people.  We as readers know how it is all going to end but they didn’t, and as such the poignancy of their lives affected me deeply. The collections they made seemed to them to be contributing to French culture but the country they cared about betrayed them. Many excellent images are included to enhance the text and I only wish there had been more of them. All in all, a powerful and important work of scholarship and cultural history.
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If I'm honest I think I (foolishly) misread the synopsis for this. I thought it was largely about the theft of Jewish cultural objects by the Nazis in WWII - though this line does somewhat vindicate my misreading: "[...] and were ultimately rewarded by seeing their collections plundered and their families deported to Nazi concentration camps."

I think I'll have to re-read it upon publication as I gel better with physical books when it comes to non-fiction, but I was very interested in the topic and it's carefully curated. I would still recommend to book friends and history buffs.
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3.5*
 
'it turned out that he was nostalgic only for the eighteenth century, a world he had never seen. The world he had seen, the storied past of the Camondo, he could do without.'
 
In #TheHouseofFragileThings McAuley discusses the life and collections of a number of the wealthy and prominent Jewish families living in France in the late 19th Century up until the Second World War, drawing on the psychology of collecting within the context of this uncertain period and their Jewishness. 
 
I love the history of consumer culture and was pleased to find that McAuley is not limiting in his analyses of these collectors and their differing psychologies of collecting, instead being a great proponent of the idea that these individuals were not homogenous. He examines collecting as identity construction; performance of gender identity/roles; as demonstration of the compatibility of Jewishness and Frenchness; as a means to retain a sense of control; and as emotional comfort or personal salvation. His argument around the distinct nature of a French 'material antisemitism' was also particularly interesting. 
 
The passion McAuley has dedicated to his research and ambition of writing a social history of the people rather than an account of just their objects and death is evident in the prominence he gives to their correspondence and personal but very unifying agonies. Obviously, set against the backdrop of two world wars and the Holocaust, this is a very painful but impassioned read at times, with a Father's endeavour to attain his son's remains, or Beatrice Camondo's near vanishing from the history of her own collection. 
 
As with a lot of non-fiction I found that certain chapters / subject matter appealed to me more than others and it did take me a little while to sink into the structure where we jump backwards and forwards in time quite a bit as we look at each family case study. Certain sections did feel a little overlong and repetitive but McAuley makes up for this with the truly gut-punching or beautiful moments. I had expected a bit more detail on the specific items within the collections (and would have enjoyed more images), but as mentioned earlier I do appreciate the ambition to prioritise the people over the objects. It is perhaps a good idea to keep this in mind before picking this up - this is not a story about Nazis stealing art and persecuting these Jewish families, but more a story of the personal courage and meaning held in their collections
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This is a study of Jewish antique/art collectors in France from around 1870 to 1939. Mostly, the focus was on stories: a series of individual biographies in the first half and the shared destinies in the second half. 

There are a couple of chapters on the interlinked families of Cahen d’Anvers and Camondo (chs.3-4), one on the scholarly Reinachs (ch.5), and the Ephrussi and Rothschild families (ch.6). Each chapter is nominally focused through a ‘collector’ but the art aspect is soft-pedalled and the treatment is more biographical. The content broadly seems to follow the archive holdings of each family’s letters and photos, which ensured it stay all a bit more up-close and personal. It is left to the last few chapters (ch.7) to begin to expand on the main themes and bring them together - which does happen and is done very well.

It had a more gentle and accessible feel that I expected from an academic imprint. Although the footnotes show how much study went into this the tone was consistently patient and particular even in the second half of the book when the personal, cultural and historical aspects all became more intense. The focus is appropriately on the subject matter more than what the author’s interpretation of his material. Even when there are some very good ideas in there (the Côte d’Azur as ‘dream scape’ analogous to Benjamin’s Parisian arcades) they are not belaboured or allowed to distract from the villas and social groups the idea is meant to illuminate.

It leans heavily, though not exclusively, on the Camondo family whose Museum in Paris is a fantastic place to visit (when the Covid lockdown is over!). It is the archives up in the attic of that Museum that provided many of the photographs and letters which give the book is personal feel. Edmund de Waal has a book out on Count Moïse Camondo at the end of April 2021, also drawing on the same archives, so I thought I would read this book for a bit of extra background. I suspect de Waal will focus quite a lot more on the art that was collected - in which case the books will complement each other very well.

Overall, It is a book with its own gentle charm that does get across (some of) the double bind through which even elite Jewish citizens, who had contributed to French life body and soul, still lived in a climate of barely suppressed hostility that could, and did, turn very nasty very quickly. The chapter about the internment of the various families (ch.8) was very moving, and the final chapter (ch.9) had a few surprises.
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