The White Road: Journey into an Obsession
Edmund de Waal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
401 pp., $27.00
A Circuitous Route
In the third and fourth parts, de Waal the character goes missing for long stretches, the author immersed in the tales of the inventors and businessmen, such as Josiah Wedgewood, who founded the English porcelain industry. At such moments (and there are others, particularly in his records of the Germans), The White Road becomes historical fiction, de Waal assiduously fabricating the inner lives of his chief historical figures based on their letters and journals. The mode of narration in these sections also fluctuates—sometimes successfully, sometimes awkwardly—from a conventional third-person perspective to an unusual historical second person. Narrating an 18th-century character's ramble through Cornwall, for example, de Waal writes, "If the mist comes down to Dartmoor, who knows what will happen to you. There are unfenced mine workings all over the country, sheer drops that take you, your pack and your horse." I will leave it to you, reader, to decide whether this technique works; my point is simply that such narration, once again, is of a piece with The White Road's other efforts to bring us close, if not inside, the experiences it relates.
In "Omission," a recent piece for The New Yorker, John McPhee makes the following remarks about creative nonfiction:
What is creative about nonfiction? … The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and the touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece (does it get up and walk around on its own?), the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material, and so forth. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.
In The White Road, de Waal strives to be creative in the McPheean manner; as we've seen, there's method in the book's mad arrangement, nonchalant prose, and unstable mode of narration. The technique bears an organic relation to its content: porcelain's past being in de Waal's account a great history of experimentation. McPhee's larger argument within "Omission," however, is that the writer's felicity ultimately hinges on "what you leave out … . Writing is selection." And McPhee speaks reverently, in turn, of a ritual he learned during his formative tenure at Time. Articles were returned from the final page designers with instructions for "greening," the practice of scratching out a specified number of lines using a green pencil. "Groan as much as you liked," McPhee writes, "you had to green nearly all your pieces, and greening was a craft in itself—studying your completed and approved product, your 'finished' piece, to see what could be left out." You see where this is going: as he drafts his next work of creative nonfiction, I'm hoping that de Waal practices the art of the green pencil.
Richard Gibson is associate professor of English at Wheaton College. He is the author of Forgiveness in Victorian Literature: Grammar, Narrative, and Community (Bloomsbury).
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