I have wonderful and special memories of The Hare With Amber Eyes but could have done without the sticker to remind me. It was removed.
But since finishing The White Road, how surprised I have been to read some of the reviews...
Rachel Cooke in The Observer..
'...an agonising read I struggled to finish it...Why did no one edit this, and passages like it? Perhaps the esteem born of a surprise bestseller got in the way.'
Kathleen Jamie in The Guardian
'There are two kinds of people in the world. One lot are hoarders, those frightened to let anything go, who imbue objects with memories, who feel aghast, naked, stripped of their identity without their accumulations, collections, crowded cabinets and vitrines. They will love this book. The other kind, those who value silence and space, may feel they are asphyxiating, that time and a thorough edit would have revealed the book’s true shape, its “beautiful resonance”.
I think I've read a different book.
No struggle here.
Don't edit it, please leave me all the words in the same place.
I loved this book, so clearly, according to Kathleen Jamie, I must be a hoarder (I think we know that) and I am wondering if anyone out there who values silence and shape (which I thought I did too) and can manage without their cabinet of curiosities, has read The White Road and if so what did you think?
I'm feeling slightly invalidated by the idea that I'm 'frightened to let anything go'...or that I 'imbue objects with memories.' and have therefore found the 'true shape' of a book that the critics have, in some cases, shredded.
Might as well go the whole hoarding hog and share my accumulation of garden shards in that case, and you saw my cabinet of curiosities a few months ago.
It was the sense of pilgrimage that resonated with me, and searching around for an all-encompassing definition, I liked this one by Benedictine monastic and spiritual writer Macrina Wiederkehr...
'A pilgrimage is a ritual journey with a hallowed purpose. Every step along the way has meaning. The pilgrim knows that life giving challenges will emerge. A pilgrimage is not a vacation; it is a transformational journey during which significant change takes place. New insights are given. Deeper understanding is attained. New and old places in the heart are visited. Blessings are received and healing takes place. On return from the pilgrimage, life is seen with different eyes. Nothing will ever be quite the same again.'
'Porcelain warrants a journey,' suggests Edmund de Waal, and with no particular interest in porcelain I was happy to tag along and surprised to find myself quickly intrigued and interested. My expectations were of a journey of course, plenty of commitment and reflection, some sharing of the discomfort (what's a pilgrimage about if not waking at an unearthly hour and pondering life and doubt). I would expect an acute awareness of place, a sense of history, but above all I would expect the personal and Edmund de Waal delivers all.
Another critic James McConnachie, in the Sunday Times, suggests...
"It was clearly torture to write and it is, at points, torture to read … The problem with The White Road is that it is everything that porcelain is not. It is overthought and overworked, somehow both fragile and heavy.”
Who can know whether that was the case, maybe it was torture to write, just about every author I have met, bar one, seems to suggest their books take them through the nine circles of hell and back, but I have not found it anything other than a pleasure to read, that's for sure.
Porcelain is the Big Secret. The exact proportions of petunse and kaolin, then fused at great heat 'to create a glass that is vitrified', have been known for a thousand years in China and it took a long time for anyone else to find out (I resisted saying 'crack it' which I hope you appreciate was hard.)
From the 261 foot high porcelain Temple of Repaid Gratitude built by Emperor Zhu De in Nanjing in the fourteenth century, to the flamboyant French courts of Versailles, to Dresden and Meissen and thence to humble old Plymouth, the city where porcelain was first made in Britain, and to Cornwall and its china clay (kaolin) mountains.
From there to Wedgwood and the Cherokee territory of the USA before a return to Germany in the 1940s and the concentration camp at Dachau, Edmund de Waal's short chapters, his shards of writing and his people, made up a perfect whole, his own experiences and observations the glue that melded the book together for me and gave it shape. There are moments of introspection and self-reflection, moments of self-doubt and questioning of purpose...a baring of the soul, all essential requirements of the true pilgrimage. He has a means of investing himself knowingly into the lives of the main characters throughout history, and in a way that only someone who has been a potter for so long is entitled to do, and it worked for me.
There is a sense of humility too. In the face of some mighty endeavours throughout the history of porcelain, it is clear that Edmund de Waal is rediscovering his place in that grand scheme, and with it a sense of continuity that he had felt in the early days of his life as a potter...
'It was the feeling that something was being handed on in these long hours in the workshop. something that had come down from one potter to another across centuries, which had the feeing of being part of an elect.'
Yes, pilgrimage is definitely the word to hold onto if you are reading The White Road.
The writing of Jesuit priest Pere d'Entrecolles, a primary source for the porcelain industry in China in the early eighteenth century, provides the clues and I was delighted by the idea that William Cookworthy, our Plymouth man, has the wherewithal to spot it in a book some years later. I shall be on the man's trail around the city soon and looking yet again at the cabinets in the museum, but now with informed interest...
Famed for his installations, and for making many thousands of pots over the years, I would beg to suggest that a degree of obsession has been required by Edmund de Waal for him to stay the course. You have to love the product and the process, and enjoy what you are creating to sustain that enthusiasm (I guess it helps too that people admire and buy your work) and it is clear that Edmund possesses all this and more as he reflects on his life as a potter.
'This I think is what I've been trying to trace, the glimpse of white rising and then sinking below the waves again, the wind catching and eddying the white dust, settling and resettling.'
It doesn't bore him and on reaching the end of his pilgrimage the circle feels complete as he settles down again to his family, his wheel and working in his studio..
'I am not writing. I have written. And I am making again.'
You might enjoy this interview about the book with William Rycroft ...the big question is does Will walk away with that pot Edmund is making as he talks...
There are a lot of things The White Road is not and never claims to be ...it is not a text book and it makes no claim to be a definitive source of reference, hence no requirement (in my mind) for the distraction of footnotes and bibliographies. Don't be deterred, it is a readable quest, a journey to tell a history and rediscover the people, a means for a man to 'enrich his understanding of this rare material, 'the white gold' he has worked with for decades,' and thereby ours, and all from a very personal and personable perspective.
I for one have thoroughly enjoyed reading and travelling that road alongside him.
If you have read The White Road I would love to know your thoughts...
And what about the reviews..
Does a stinker of review deter or encourage you to read a book...
If you are a writer, I think I can guess how it might make you feel...