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The Delicate Art of Memory

Edmund de Waal’s new book is an odyssey into an obsession with porcelain.

Norbert Millauer / Getty Images

The staggering success of Edmund de Waal, an obscure British potter-turned-writer, is among the strangest literary phenomena in recent memory. His first book, The Hare With Amber Eyes (2011), was an unlikely bestseller if ever there was one. “I don’t really want to get into the sepia saga business, writing up some elegiac Mitteleuropa narrative of loss,” he notes in its introduction. But this is exactly what the book is. A tale of splendor and sadness, it is a nostalgic reverie of the Éphrussi family, one of the great Jewish banking dynasties of nineteenth-century Europe, Rothschildian in wealth, Proustian in ethos. De Waal belongs to this family through his paternal grandmother, but the book is not quite a memoir. Neither is it a work of scholarship: we may learn the story of the Éphrussis, but nothing new about their world or the Holocaust, which eventually destroyed it. Instead, de Waal’s project is to follow a set of Japanese netsuke figurines across time and space, recreating the family’s life in the physical places they occupied. The Hare With Amber Eyes is ultimately about the relationship of material culture to historical memory.

“I want to know what the relationship has been between this wooden thing that I am rolling between my fingers…and where it has been,” de Waal writes of a netsuke. “And I want to know whose hands it has been in and what they felt about it and thought about it. If they thought about it. I dislike anthropomorphizing objects, but I want to know what it has witnessed, whether I can talk of the memory of objects.”   

As a writer, the potter is poetic, but sometimes affectedly so: his prose can often seem as precious as his porcelain. Yet among the scores of talented writers who publish on similar themes every season, it is Edmund de Waal who seems to have won our affection. In both Britain and the U.S., everyone who is anyone has professed their love for his work: Julian Barnes, Colm Toibin, Hillary Clinton. Following the success of The Hare With Amber Eyes, he began translating his book’s nostalgia into a series of high-profile public events, exhibiting his ceramics at Waddesdon Manor (the neo-Renaissance Rothschild chateau in Buckinghamshire), Gagosian Gallery in New York, and, this month, at the Royal Academy. Edmund de Waal is a now a concept: in his work, what the anthropologist Arjun Appadurai has called “the social life of things” becomes the “inner life of things,” material reality replaced with emotional subjectivity. He may “dislike anthropomorphizing objects,” but, in the end, that is the essence of his ruminations.

His writing is alluring and transfixing, but for me the more productive question is why. Why do we love Edmund de Waal, when so many other writers explore similar subjects, many of them with less sentimentality? Part of the answer is his readability, but another part lies in what de Waal is nostalgic for: the continental European pre-war that Stefan Zweig called “the world of yesterday,” an allegedly cosmopolitan Xanadu of intellectual ferment and cultural innovation. As Europe today faces a crisis of purpose within and without, a veritable industry mourns the loss of that mythic world and attempts to resuscitate that imagined yesterday. Recent films such as Wes Anderson’s Grand Budapest Hotel (2014) and Simon Curtis’s Woman in Gold (2015) lament the loss of art and a way of life that valued it above all else. A renewed interest in writers such as Irène Némirovsky, Joseph Roth, and, most of all, Stefan Zweig himself ennobles the figure of the European at the end of Europe. These figures are venerated less for the artistry of their prose than for the artistry of their lives, each a testament to a cosmopolitan humanity. The Éphrussis were nothing if not Europeans at the end of Europe, embodiments of an ideal we seek to revive.

Yet this alone is not the entirety of de Waal’s appeal. After all, there are many other books in this budding genre, but The Hare With Amber Eyes is virtually the only one to have reached such a wide audience. Its allure is to do with the objects it emphasizes, but what that allure is, exactly, is the question. 

It was with this in mind that I read de Waal’s second book, The White Road: Journey Into An Obsession. In a sense, this 400-page meditation on the history of porcelain was the book he was born to write—more so even than The Hare With Amber Eyes. Few in the world know more about porcelain than Edmund de Waal. Influenced by the technique of Bernard Leach, the so-called “father of British studio pottery” on whom he published a monograph, de Waal, born in 1964, spent his early career in Japan, where he began to perfect his signature style of white porcelain glazed with celadon. “These pots were what I aspired to make,” he writes in the prologue, “alive to texture and chance, good in the hands, robust and focused on use.” In his second book de Waal gives us the same emphasis on material culture, but this time on objects he himself has made.

As a book about porcelain, The White Road is an odyssey into perhaps the greatest obsession in world history, the impassioned, compulsive, and psychopathological quest for white perfection through earthen clay. Porcelain—light to the hand but translucent to the eye—is unique among ceramics. After vitrifying in a kiln, the kaolin it contains lends porcelain a distinct whiteness, an unmistakable hue that has captivated consumers since it originated in China some two thousand year ago. This fascination could be so strong that love for porcelain was likened to a sickness—Porzellankrankheit—as in the case of Augustus the Strong, the Saxon ruler who amassed a collection of more than 20,000 pieces in the early 18th century.

In the long history of material objects, porcelain is distinct, even from gold. Shrouded in myth, porcelain is a metaphor for unattainable purity. “There is agreement on the strangeness of porcelain,” de Waal writes, “that it is subject to alchemical change.” Quite literally. Porcelain was often referred to as “white gold,” and its manufacture was viewed as a form of alchemy—the pseudoscientific attempt to transmute base metals into gold. One of the founding partners of the famous Meissen porcelain factory was the young alchemist Johann Friedrich Böttger (1682-1719), who escaped detainment in Frederick I’s Prussia, where Frederick had sought to learn the young man’s secrets. Böttger was granted asylum by Augustus the Strong in Dresden, where he worked with Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus (1651-1708), whom the obsessive king had charged with starting a porcelain factory. When the two began collaborating, their projects became one and the same: the magical transformation of the base into the divine.

It is easy to see, then, that the story of porcelain also carries with it a mystical and spiritual dimension. This, in my mind, is less apparent in The White Road than it is in Bruce Chatwin’s Utz (1988), a short but nearly perfect novel that is probably the most astute interpretation of “white gold” ever written. The novel follows a crazed collector of Meissen porcelain called Kaspar Utz, who turns out to be more a prisoner of his collection than of Soviet Prague. But Utz is a fount of wisdom: “‘So you see,’” he tells us, “‘not only was Adam the first human person. He was also the first ceramic sculpture.’” Nothing into something; clay into man: porcelain was the root of it all.

De Waal, of course, touches on these themes, but his book is ultimately the personal journey of an accomplished ceramicist to the storied sites of porcelain’s history. In much the same way as The Hare With Amber Eyes, where he follows the set of Japanese netsuke figurines from Vienna to Paris to Tokyo, he follows in The White Road the history of porcelain from Jingzhedin in China to Dresden in Germany to Cornwall in Britain. This long road to the meaning of white affords a rich narrative, spanning centuries and a great deal of space. But it is also a rambling road, full of lengthy block quotations and repeated sentence structures that become tiresome as the text progresses.

Without question, de Waal is at his best when he shows the terrible darkness inherent in the historic pursuit of white. White, as he suggests, is sometimes the darkest color of them all all.  The book’s best pages are those on Allach, the porcelain factory the Nazis maintained in Dachau, the concentration camp outside Munich, from the mid-1930s until 1941. The factory lost workers to the Eastern front who were ultimately replaced with prisoners in the camp. “White porcelain is the embodiment of the German soul,” read Allach’s first catalogue, the antithesis of the “Degenerate Art” Hitler sought to eradicate. And indeed The White Road features haunting photographs of Hitler and Himmler admiring porcelain figurines of the muscled male form, sculpted to perfection. Porcelain, in other words, becomes complicit in the Nazi quest for racial purity, a pursuit of whiteness in its own right. “White pretends to candour,” de Waal writes, “covers so much, covers too much.”

In de Waal’s work—in both The Hare With Amber Eyes and The White Road—the pain of history is there, but only through material objects one can touch, feel, and possess. “I’ve read Moby-Dick,” he notes in his second book. “So I know the dangers of white.” And yet, in the same portion, he insists on the primacy of objects and things in any foray into the past: “Other things in the world are white but, for me, porcelain comes first.” For de Waal, objects have more than a history: they have a language, a complicated emotionality. His view is not so much a literary application of the commodity fetishism of Andy Warhol and now Jeff Koons, who insisted in different ways that art is little more than something to buy and sell. Rather, de Waal advances what might be called commodity romanticism, the projection of a universe of meaning onto a finite thing.  

Objects—netsuke, porcelain, and presumably anything else—become worlds, portals into a past that may or may not be yours. One wonders, however, whether there is sufficient room for people in such a scheme, where memory is stored primarily in material things and objects tell us who and what we are. To be sure, material culture is a terrain far too often overlooked in the writing of history, even now. As Leora Auslander put it in “Beyond Words,” her powerful 2005 argument for the inclusion of things as “vital sources of historical knowledge,” objects enable a more holistic understanding of the past in all its nuances. People, she memorably wrote, “have created meaning, represented the world, and expressed their emotions through textiles, wood, metal, dance, and music.” Indeed. But these inanimate objects matter because of the decidedly animate individuals who made and found meaning within them: people—not objects—are the ends of historical inquiry.

If material things have inner lives, as de Waal—even inadvertently—suggests they can, there is a risk that the human subject becomes irrelevant and the object generative, deterministic, omnipotent. If at times a material world of aesthetic agents is a beautiful dream, it is not without its terrors. What happens, after all, when things fall apart?