A tragic family history told in a collection of imaginary letters to a famed collector, Moise de Camondo
Letters to Camondo is a collection of imaginary letters from Edmund de Waal to Moise de Camondo, the banker and art collector who created a spectacular house in Paris, now the Musée Nissim de Camondo, and filled it with the greatest private collection of French eighteenth-century art.
The Camondos were a Jewish family from Constantinople, “the Rothschilds of the East,” who made their home in Paris in the 1870s and became philanthropists, art collectors, and fixtures of Belle Époque high society, as well as being targets of antisemitism—much like de Waal's relations, the Ephrussi family, to whom they were connected. Moise de Camondo created a spectacular house and filled it with art for his son, Nissim; after Nissim was killed in the First World War, the house was bequeathed to the French state. Eventually, the Camondos were murdered by the Nazis.
After de Waal, one of the world’s greatest ceramic artists, was invited to make an exhibition in the Camondo house, he began to write letters to Moise de Camondo. These fifty letters are deeply personal reflections on assimilation, melancholy, family, art, the vicissitudes of history, and the value of memory.
"[de Waal] demonstrates, in this slim and elegant volume, how words can hold our memories as well as objects while taking up infinitely less space." —Maurice Samuels, The New York Times Book Review
“[P]art inquiry, part history, part philosophy, and wholly poignant and original.” —Robert Kanigel, Air Mail
"Superb . . . This companion study to The Hare with Amber Eyes is the skilfully told story of a family's collection of art objects . . . consistently illuminating . . . excellently illustrated . . . de Waal's excavation of the meanings of assimilation is considered, compassionate and appreciative of its costs . . . He is a wise guide to people and things that are dispersed and are collected . . . This book is a wonderful tribute to a family and to an idea." —Nicholas Wroe, The Guardian
“A slender book [that] reads like a long prose poem” —Charles Trueheart, The American Scholar
"Letters to Camondo immerses you in another age--one as sharply torn with rifts and bigotry, political uncertainty and changing fortunes as our own--but also a time of grace and the deliberate cultivation of pleasure . . . de Waal creates a dazzling picture of what it means to live graciously." —Nilanjana Roy, The Financial Times
"De Waal is a deep insider writing a series of familiar and familial letters to Moïse de Camondo, addressing him as ‘Friend’, ‘Dear friend’, ‘Monsieur’, ‘Cher Monsieur’, ‘Mon cher Monsieur’ and even ‘Monsieur le Comte’. His manner is softly prowling, whether inside or outside the house and its archives; his tone is intimate, melancholic, speculative, at times whimsical. At the end he sternly resists any idea of ‘closure’ about the disasters of 1941-45." —Julian Barnes, London Review of Books
"I was deeply moved . . . [de Waal] has found a way to meditate on exile, migration and polarization that feels painfully relevant." —Johanna Thomas-Corr, Sunday Times
"A sumptuous household museum prompts a reverie on the doomed French-Jewish haute bourgeoisie in this elegiac family history . . . 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." —Publishers Weekly (starred review)