The White Road: A Journey Into Obsession
by Edmund de Waal
Published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Edmund de Waal is a well-known figure even beyond his ceramic specialty. His book The Hare With Amber Eyes was incredibly well received and saw a second expanded and profusely illustrated edition not long after the release of the less illustrated, but enormously popular original version. The website Goodreads, which helps readers track the books they’ve read and share their opinions of them, boasts more than 20,000 readers and holds an average rating of 3.83— which is good.
In contrast to The Hare With Amber Eyes, fewer than 125 people have listed his newest work, The White Road, as read on Goodreads and the reviews are rather dismal, most of them stating that the book is a massive disappointment after reading his previous book. They cite shifting aimlessness, poorly written and overwrought prose, and a tremendous sense of self-importance as The White Road’s major drawbacks.
I couldn’t agree more with the disappointed few who have read the book and further, I can’t keep from wondering about all those who picked up the volume and returned it to their shelves in short order, not bothering to finish it nor add it to their list of books they’ve read. This is a classic example of the literary “sophomore slump.” The term refers to when a second attempt, following a first and noteworthy attempt, fails to reach anything close to the level of its predecessor. In literature a common reason for the slump is that the first book took a large portion of the author’s lived life or something that they had had on their mind for several years and turned that into something useful, reflective and meditatively handled. Too often this leaves the author drained, uninspired and uncertain where to turn for a follow-up.
The White Road is de Waal’s exploration of the history of porcelain. It is unlike The Hare with Amber Eyes, which was a chronicle of de Waal’s family history as given through their (the de Waal’s) collection of Netsuke, small carved Japanese sculptures. This was interesting and allowed de Waal to come from a place of research and wonder while connecting with his past. The White Road, however, is an exploration of de Waal’s personal interests: his historical obsession with porcelain, including its rise and dissemination to the west. Porcelain is de Waal’s main medium and I would like to commend the author for his effort, relevance and what is obviously an attempt at inexhaustible research. It would be a difficult subject for anyone. (Even though the ceramics world tends to see de Waal as a writer first and artist second.)
And the history is interesting, don’t doubt that. What isn’t interesting and what is putting readers off is the verbose over-written prose of the book. de Waal, riding of the success of his previous book, has allowed himself to construct a voice, which comes off as out-of-touch and pompous. He calls historical princes “princelings,” for example and often, when employing metaphor or simile, he falls on things that few people can relate to, fine pastries for example.
The major defect of this writing voice is that, in the end, de Waal sounds like the 1%. The book creates an alienating experience for most readers. His globe-trotting and frequent flights between his studio and historically-significant sites for porcelain does not help.
If Donald Trump wrote a memoir about himself it might sound like this, self-important, self-reverent and privileged. But Trump would at least employ language that was common and everyday, words and allusions that a reader could relate to, while de Waal writes like a 19th century aristocrat displaced in time and displeased with the contemporary world.
I don’t think he means to sound like this, a fact that saddens me. I think that de Waal was attempting to elevate his voice, to bring his written work from a place of curiosity to a place of high literature. But this is problematic; seldom do artists get more than one medium, sad as the fact may be. This isn’t because we are inherently talented in one medium or another as individuals, but rather because our time and devotion poured into a craft pays off in the long run. Had de Waal given writing the devotion that he has given ceramics (and I don’t doubt he has tried to apply that same devotion to the art form of words) he would, I haven’t a doubt, be an excellent writer. But de Waal is a potter. His days and nights and public words (I’m thinking here of him speaking on ceramics, his own works and the works of others) have been spent in the realm of the wheel, and dust, and flame rather than pulp and ink and library stacks. He should be happy with this. We all should.
If de Waal writes a third book of this kind, a prose driven exploration of some historical angle or memoir-like experience, let him take the time to do it. If a follow-up comes out ten years from now, I will certainly read it, but if one appears in the next year or so I wouldn’t be able to bring myself to do it. I would know that he rushed it, that he had, as in The White Road, forced it along, letting confidence take on a significant part of the work, rather than studied thought, continual application and deep attention to literary form.
Christopher Johnson is a nationally published poet and book reviewer for cfile.daily.
Have you read the book? What did you think? Let us know in the comments.