The White Road: Journey into an Obsession
Edmund de Waal
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2015
401 pp., $27.00
A Circuitous Route
Edmund de Waal has now authored or edited six books (and he's at work on a seventh, a novel), all the while conducting an internationally acclaimed career as a potter and installation artist. Most of the titles in the de Waal bibliography serve his guild in one way or another, whether by relating the history of ceramics to the museum-going crowd; by explaining design principles for novice practitioners; or by attempting to expand the theoretical and practical horizons of British ceramics—particularly through his controversial (in one reviewer's estimation, "patricidal") takedown of the so-called "father of British studio art," Bernard Leach. For readers who wish to get to know the more studious de Waal, I recommend his insightful volume for the Thames and Hudson "world of art" series, 20th-Century Ceramics (2003), and his gorgeous pictorial guide to the "schools and styles" of ceramics ancient and modern, The Pot Book (2011). De Waal's name is likely familiar to you, however, thanks to his initial foray into memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes (2010), which traced a "hidden" Jewish family history through the provenance of his collection of miniature Japanese sculptures called netsuke. The Hare received rave reviews on both sides of the Atlantic, became a surprise bestseller, and garnered multiple literary awards. Pulpy paperback copies now await patrons in museum gift shops throughout the Anglo-American world.
A number of de Waal enthusiasts, including the reviewer, have eagerly hoped for a follow-up book that would set The Hare loose in de Waal's own studio, marrying the memoirist's voice and narrative technique with the potter's deep and intimate knowledge of clay. De Waal's new book, The White Road, aims in this direction, chronicling the history of his primary medium, porcelain, through an autobiographical lens, albeit a rather less polished one than that employed in The Hare. Here again, travelogue mixes with biography and offhand art criticism, de Waal interspersing his field notes from a globetrotting "pilgrimage of sorts" to landmarks of porcelain's past with embroidered narratives of artisans, alchemists, and overlords who suffer "la maladie de porcelaine, die Porzellankrankheit" (words de Waal borrows from Augustus II, the early 18th-century Elector of Saxony, King of Poland, Grand Duke of Lithuania and porcelain fanatic).
But if de Waal has cast The White Road with The Hare's model in view, the work does not simply rehearse the old formula. Stylistically, de Waal seeks to create a greater sense of immediacy through a more vernacular diction and relaxed attitude about syntax than we saw in The Hare. Meanwhile, the architecture of the book, which juggles multiple plotlines in far-flung settings (reaching from early modern China to the author's present in London), is busier, at times deliberately unsettled. Structurally, The Hare resembles a European row house, intricate but orderly; The White Road recalls Frank Gehry. Both style and structure seem to me calculated risks on the part of a practiced author. Unfortunately, neither strategy enhances our understanding of de Waal the potter or porcelain's fascinating history.
Regarding style, consider first the opening paragraph of The Hare's initial chapter:
One sunny April day I set out to find Charles. Rue de Monceau is a long Parisian street bisected by the grand boulevard Malesherbes that charges off toward the boulevard Pereire. It is a hill of golden-stone houses, a series of hotels playing discreetly on neoclassical themes, each a minor Florentine palace with heavily rusticated ground floors and an array of heads, carytids and cartouches. Number 81 rue de Monceau, the Hôtel Ephrussi, where my netsuke start their journey, is near the top of the hill. I pass the headquarters of Christian Lacroix and then, next door, there it is. It is now, rather crushingly, an office for medical insurance.
The light Nabokovian flavor of this prose may not please all palates, I recognize (Michael Dirda pronounced it "lyrical artiness"). But even so, the care that de Waal has taken in constructing this paragraph warrants our respect. Notice, too, how the paragraph has been organized to achieve an effect: de Waal builds our expectation that this quest has a grand termination—and then brings us back down to earth, albeit with room for bemused laughter, in the final sentence. The signs of thoughtful composition and vigilant editing are many.
Its counterpart in the first chapter of The White Road reads thus:
It looks as if it has been busy for hours. It is six a.m. and stalls are up, watermelons arranged in pyramids, the bicycle-repair man sitting next to his kit. The roads are eddying with bicycles and knots of people. The carp seller with a polystyrene crate on the back of his scooter cuts in front of us, turns and swears extravagantly. We are going north out of the dusty city towards the hills, past alleyways squeezed between great high brick walls, factories with open windows, rubbish. The day is grey and promises deep, grey heat.