Discussion of writing style Review of memoir Review of new book Subjective non-fiction

The White Road – Journey Into An Obsession, by Edmund de Waal

The White Road
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, New York, 1st American ed., September 24, 2015

Today I added the 153rd author to my list of reviewed authors. Only a few stand out, and here is one: Edmund de Waal.

Edmund de Waal is a famous British artist and maker of porcelain. To understand his latest book, you have to know the basics about porcelain. It is actually an amazing story, and, all things considering, appropriately told. Every quirk of grammar, format and metaphor has a purpose, which becomes clear once you have taken it all in.

Although porcelain is a type of ceramic, the reverse is not true. Just like all wood is not oak, not all ceramic is porcelain. Ceramics includes earthenware, bone ware, pottery and porcelain – any “user object” made from clay.  “User objects” include tableware, construction elements (like toilets) engineering parts, car parts and computer parts. Porcelain is the specific sub-category of user objects or ceramics made out of clay that results in a hard, fire-proof, water-proof, rust-proof and bacteria-proof white ceramic material. Porcelain is made from a very specific combination of clay and other substances that is baked in a kiln to temperatures between 1,200 and 1,400 °C (2,200 and 2,600 °F). This porcelain, due to its qualities, has been used for tableware for thousands of years, as early as the Shang Dynasty in China (1600–1046 BC). Like tulip bulbs and silk, people would connive and conspire for the secret of porcelain from the Far East. 

The differences between ceramic and porcelain are set out below:

Ceramic Porcelain
Is dense and blocks light from passing through. Is often translucent to some degree, allowing vague shadows to be seen through it.
Color can help determine the type of clay used. Is generally white, grey or cream colored.
Is often thicker, with a more sturdy appearance. Is thinner, with a more delicate appearance.
Is too porous to be watertight without the application of a glaze. Is watertight, even without glaze.
Where unglazed, the surface often has a chalky or grainy texture. The surface is generally very smooth, even when unglazed.
Is often not as finely detailed as a comparable porcelain piece. The fineness of the pasty clay used allows for intricate fine details.

De Waal’s porcelain art was, until I read his memoir/history of ceramics, puzzling to me – rows of lumpy mug-like objects, some black, some white, all more or less the same. Sometimes heaps of white objects, like plates, under glass in the floor. Sometimes dimpled white objects behind opaque glass. Other times extremely elaborate white dinnerware contrasted with plain porcelain shapes, or exotic Asian-looking vases. I did not understand what all this meant, until I read this book, The White Road – Journey Into An Obsession.

Unfounded criticism

People who, I can only assume, did not read the book end to end, complained on GoodReads that De Waal described porcelain created in the Nazi porcelain factory at Allach (Porzellan Manufaktur Allach), at the Dachau concentration  camp, as beautiful – as though that were the ultimate political incorrectness. In fact, that is not what he says in the book. He implies it is banal, because it is pretty but bears no relation to the actual historical context. He refers to the “fetished smoothness, the asexuality” of the porcelain figurines made at Allach. He calls the production of Allach porcelain “the story without people”, whereas all the other production around the world was all about people. He describes the random and deliberate killings at Dachau in a breathtakingly chilling way. Visiting Dachau, he says that he could not bear to stay in the room in which the records of the porcelain production were kept. He describes the ultimate irony about Allach porcelain:

“Himmler wanted his Allach to make objects that were künstlerisch wertvolle – artistically worthwhile – not degenerating into kitsch.”

And when he is shown the remainder of porcelain objects left over from the Allach factory, the first object is…Bambi. Talk about meaningless kitsch amidst all that death.

In the book he sets out, very thoroughly, why Bambi, the big-eyed doggies, the idealized workers, and so on, were the products of a horrible process, how the prisoners worked in terrible conditions under threat of death. He also explains how the conditions for the workers in Jingdezhen, Jiangxi province, China, where porcelain was originally invented, meant that the workers were also slaves of a kind (“bonded labour”), churning out porcelain objects for emperors and Communist leaders alike for generations. Child labour was common in the porcelain factories from China to Cornwall. Workers all over became ill from inhaling the dust, gases and smoke from the furnaces, and licking the cobalt-infused paint.

To create this white stuff off which we eat and which we collect and which, at various times in history, cost a king’s ransom, was an obsession for many around the world through the ages. It is also an obsession for De Waal – therefore the book’s subtitle. At one point he writes about making 2, 455 (!) pots for an exhibition – called it Atemwende, a breathless turn or a pause in a poem (a caesura).

Fluctuating settings

Apart from being a famous ceramicist, De Waal is well-known for his fascinating history of his family’s collection of netsuke, The Hare With Amber Eyes, which was astonishingly well written for a departure from his previous non-fiction books on ceramics. The White Road is a memoir or history – or even a fictionalized non-fiction – written with the confidence gained from his previous memoir and his completion of his grandmother, Elisabeth de Waal’s novel, The Exiles Return.

But this time around, I was discomforted by his writing style, or rather, his departure from the writing style I had come to know in The Hare with Amber Eyes. De Waal presents the story of porcelain in 5 stages or places, in the same way as he travelled from city to city when he wrote The Hare With Amber Eyes: 1) Jingdezhen, China; 2) Versailles, France; 3) Dresden, Germany; 4) Plymouth, UK; and 5) Dachau, Germany. Each city played a role in finding the elusive formula for the production of perfect porcelain, and from each he brought back a keepsake for his London studio. But the chapters dedicated to each location are not numbered, but written in words, and then the chapter titles are all lower-case – a dichotomy in style which almost represents the schism between his world of porcelain and those place where porcelain originated, for instance:

“PART TWO   Versailles – Dresden
Fifteen            the latest news from China                         113
Sixteen           the porcelain pavilion                                   121
Seventeen      cream-coloured, provincial and opaque     125”

Another Hour, exhibition by Edmund de Waal, Southwark Cathedral, 2014
Another Hour, exhibition by Edmund de Waal, Southwark Cathedral, 2014

De Waal, with his own porcelain creations, often uses the theme of hiding or making things less obvious – he would place objects behind milky glass, or underfoot, or high up in a copula where they can only be seen from a certain angle. Likewise, porcelain has a history of being hidden, smuggled and faked. When the first porcelain reached Europe, scientists who could work on the formula had the same status as alchemists who said they could conjure gold from base metals, and worked in secrecy. Also, porcelain objects have their own secrets: at first sight, they are plain, white, utilitarian. Look up close and they are light captured in clay, see-through, with those with dark-blue patterns painted on them. Unbeknownst to many, that deep blue comes from using cobalt in the paint, which is toxic when ingested. And if the pattern is red, it may be copper in the paint applied underneath the glaze. So the ethereal beauty of porcelain comes from the basest of metals and minerals in the earth.

Fluctuating style

De Waal switches between first person narration – often in a sort of fragmented style, with frequent and not-so-obvious breaks in continuity, for instance from 3rd person point of view in the present perfect, to straightforward statements of historical fact in the past tense, to first person point of view in the present continuous:

“What defines you?
You are by the sea at the turn of the tide. The sand is washed clean. You make the first mark in the white sand, that first contact of foot on the crust of the sand, not knowing how deep ad how definite your step will be. You hesitate over the white paper like Bellini’s scribe with his brush. Eighty hairs from the tail of an otter ends in a breath, a single hair steady in the still air. You are ready to start. The hesitation of a kiss on the name of a neck like a lover.
I pull the twisted metal wire under my finished jar, dry my fingers on my apron and pick it up from the wheel, place it with brief satisfaction on a board to my right. Reach for another ball of clay and begin again.
It is white, returning to white.” (p. 5)

Here he started writing about Jingdezhen, where the true art lay in the painting of decorations on the porcelain, rather than the shaping of the clay. Then, in poetic imagery, he compares the act of painting with an image of the potter as a walker on sand, an artist and a lover. Then he segues back to first person narration of him in his studio. Then he ends with a phrase he often uses in the book, on the nature of porcelain, being made of white clay, being formed, and fired, and returning to being the whitest of white objects.

The meaning of whiteness

White glazed bowl, Shunzhi-Kangxi period, Qing dynasty, 1650–70
White glazed bowl, Shunzhi-Kangxi period, Qing dynasty, 1650–70

He refers often to how people understand the colour white, which some see as a colour, not as an absence of colour. Referring to a treatise on the afterlife by 17th/18th century Swedish scientist and philosopher, Emanuel Swedenborg, which was translated into English by Quaker and porcelain maker William Cookworthy, he notes:

“White brings us all into focus, it dispenses clarity, ‘the same light gives pleasing colours in one object, and dis pleasing colours in another; indeed, it grows brighter in white objects’. …It [Swedenborg’s treatise] is a book about white as grief and white as hope.” (p.258)

“What is white? It is the colour of mourning, because it folds all colours within it. Mourning is also endless refraction, breaking you up into bits, fragments.” (p. 261)

This makes The White Road difficult to read – but you get used to it. You have to pay attention. The text is not clearly separated between these different forms of narration, and are oddly named and numbered.

Also, given the sumptuous printing of The Hare With Amber Eyes, a beautiful product in every sense, I was sorely disappointed that this book contained only black and white images, not very high-resolution images either. So, if most of the objects he writes about are white, and the photos of them are black and white, it means that you just cannot really tell how they look. They all just look fuzzy and white. The desirable smooth, glossy glaze of these white objects, the precision in form, and the translucency of the objects, simply cannot be seen. I had to resort to Google images to understand. Even De Waal’s “colourful” and detailed descriptions of the objects, only help up to a point to illustrate. For instance, he describes cobalt, as an “exalted metal” but also “the source of endless trouble”:

“This feels correct for the experience of working with cobalt. You have it right, a blue as clean and lambent as midday and you try it again and it is as turbid as late afternoon before the rain.” (p. 59 Factory #72)

Porcelain as sound

Another technique he uses to help the reader visualise the porcelain, is to compare porcelain to sound, something which I would never have thought of doing.

“I hear objects. With objects it is possible not only to sound them, name them and make sense of them through language, but hear their kinship with words themselves. Some things feel like nouns, words with physicality, shape and weight. They have a self-contained quality, a sense that you could put them down and they would displace the same amount of the world around them. Other objects are verbs and are in flux. But when I see them I hear them. A stack of bowls is a chord.

Sometimes it is embarrassing, like Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, with lots of emotional noise, and sometimes it is quite cool like a bit of Steve Reich music, with pulses of sound and with patterns emerging and disappearing. So I walk down this lane in Jingdezhen and there is so much porcelain, so much language, so much speech, that I get lost and it is like streams of words cascading from the top of a page endlessly.” (p.72)

Elsewhere he describes the Augustus II’s “Japanese Palace” on the Elbe River.

“You go right up a run of shallow steps, and when you reach the first floor, you will be in a long room which contains nothing but the most beautiful red and brown Jaspis porcelains from China and Japan. And then the double doors at the end will be thrown open and you will enter a room furnished entirely with celadon porcelain. And on. Through blues and greens and then purples. Through different colours and patterns of porcelain, each space opening on to the next. It is a fugue state, a journey through the spectrum of porcelain. You end up in a chapel of white porcelain or a small and perfect space of white and gilded porcelain. It is music. (p.201)

Note the shift in tense from present perfect to future tense and back again, as well as the sentence fragments, and the comparison with music. While these shifts in tense do create a sense of immediacy and timelessness, since he uses the historical present frequently when stepping into the shoes of historical figures, it can get confusing and I think the editors should have paid more attention to it.

A journey into an obsession

K498 Waddesdon Manor 2012
K498 by Edmund de Waal, Waddesdon Manor, 2012

I suspect only a truly obsessed person, as it says on the cover, could hear porcelain. (In later editions, the subtitle has been changed to A Pilgrimage of Sorts, which is far less accurate.) And if I look at De Waal’s pots – some are indeed like Steve Reich’s music – plain and white but just around the top edge, there is in some a little smudge of gold leaf, or a little drip, like a little note hovering in the air. Or he would make a tea-pot (see image below), with a lid and bottom so perfect it looks machine-made, but the top of the pot looks like it somehow melted and is dripping slightly, and the handle of the pot isn’t porcelain, but twisted wire.

My point is that white porcelain is something that most people would not know how to look at – what should there be, what shouldn’t there be, how should it reflect light, how thick or how thin should it be – it all just looks white. So really good quality images would’ve made all the difference. Perhaps it was on purpose to send the readers off on their own investigations into porcelain.

The cover has white-on-white lettering, embossed and picked out in black, and the sub-title, Journey Into An Obsession, is deliberately blurred, like a road that fades into the distance. It’s classy, but the less-is-more approach from cover to end pages didn’t help me much. I would’ve a couple of centre spreads of full-colour images of at least the iconic pieces of pottery that he collected on his journey. I would’ve also liked the quotes and the historical references to have been annotated.

Porcelain ingredients

Tea-pot, by Edmund de Waal
A tea-pot by Edmund de Waal

From city to city, De Waal collected representative objects – from Jingdezhen, a monk’s cap ewer, plus many tiles and celadon-glazed porcelain boards. (Celadon is a type of porcelain of a pale jade-green colour.) From Dresden, he brought a white cup made for Ehrenfried Walther von Tschirnhaus, an alchemist who is credited with being one of the two discoverers of porcelain (the “white gold”) in Europe, at the court of the King of Saxony Augustus II of Poland. From England, he brought an early porcelain cider tankard by William Cookworthy, dated 1768. It is the first true porcelain object made in England.

I did learn a lot about porcelain. I know now it is made from a very tricky process of combining and baking at a ferocious heat two elements: One is kaolinite, a white chalky clay mineral. It is also called kaolin or china clay, and the word comes from the Chinese Kao-Ling (高岭/高嶺, pinyin Gāolǐng, ‘High Ridge’), a mountain near Of course he has also written books about porcelain. Jingdezhen where kaolin is found. Kaolin is combined with petenuse, (from 白墩子 in pinyin: bai2 dun1 zi0), also spelled petunse, and other ingredients such as bone ash and alabaster (gypsum and calcite) which is basically limestone. Petunse is a term for  feldspar (a.k.a. micaceous or feldspathic rocks) and quartz rocks. Micaceous rock contains silica, and silica is a major constituent of sand, which allows porcelain to be come translucent like glass.

If you want to see something funny, google “formula for porcelain” and see what comes up. To make porcelain, the various ingredients have to be mined. Jingdezhen is still a mining town, where the Kao-Ling mountain has been dug out and the precious seams of kaolin sealed up again. It is apparently white with clay dust.

Why porcelain?

Why all the fuss about porcelain? Well, hold up that plate or vase you inherited and flip it over. See the mark on the back, Meissen, Royal Delft, Noritake, Royal Doulton, or Wedgwood. Now hold it up to the light. It is see-through. And when you tap it, it rings, like crystal. That is porcelain made from clay and rock dug up from somewhere. The silica in the mix means the object has become vitrified, meaning it was transformed into glass and became non-porous when it was fired in the kiln, and will not crack with changes in temperature, or react to chemicals. On the Mohs scale, a streak plate of unglazed porcelain has a hardness of 7.0 on a scale of 1 (talc – as in talcum powder) to 10 (diamond). You are more likely to wear away the gold or silver decoration on the object by running it through the dishwasher, than chip or break the object itself. It will outlive you, as these objects outlived their makers, kings, warlords, despots, scientists and artists. To break it, you will have to smash it with a hammer or something. Then you will be left with shard so hard that will also still be there unchanged long after you’ve died.

It is actually an amazing story, and, once you have finished reading, you realize his style is appropriate to his subject and his message. Every quirk of grammar, format and metaphor has a purpose. I did then pick up my “Delft Blue” vase from Koninklijke Porceleyne Fles and hold it to the light. Yes, I could see my hand through it. I did not throw it out the window to test the hardness though. I might know a bit more about porcelain now, but I’m still not a believer.

About the author

book-review-September-The-White-Road-A-Pilgrimage-Of-Sorts-Edmund-de-Waal-Charlotte-Heathcote-607640Edmund de Waal’s website is gorgeous, and he has on it a list of recommended books if you want to know more about porcelain. The website for The White Road is here. My review of The Hare With Amber Eyes (2010 first ed.) is here. Apart from these two memoirs, he has written 20th Century Ceramics, about the development of ceramics in the modern age; Bernard Leach (1997 1st ed.), about the famous artist-potter; and The Pot Book (2011 1st ed.), an anthology of images of 300 ceramic vessels (2003 1st ed.).

In case you are wondering what he meant by comparing some porcelain to the music of Steve Reich, Reich is famous for his “minimal music” – few notes, few variations, repetition, pulses. Strangely hypnotic stuff.

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