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Book Reviews Review: The White Road is Edmund de Waal’s sensuous and fascinating history of porcelain

‘The White Road’ chronicles Edmund de Waal’s fascination with porcelain.

TOBIAS SCHWARZ/REUTERS

Title
The White Road: Journey Into an Obsession
Author
Edmund de Waal
Genre
Non-fiction
Publisher
Knopf Canada
Pages
401
Price
$34

"If you make things out of porcelain clay, you exist in the present moment," writes Edmund de Waal in The White Road. A world-renowned ceramicist and installation artist before publishing The Hare With the Amber Eyes, his bestselling 2010 literary debut, de Waal regards porcelain as "a material that records every moment of thinking, every change of thought," and he seems driven to endow his words with a similar genetic inscription. His prose is both sculpted and expansive, freighted with as much information about the process of its creation as it can bear. Sometimes more than it can bear.

Unabashed in its grandeur, exalting in its monomania, The White Road is "a journey into an obsession" with porcelain and some essential whiteness, melding art history, travelogue and memoir. "I know the dangers of an obsession with white," de Waal declares, "the pull towards something so pure, so total in its immersive possibility that you are transfigured, changed, feel you can start again." De Waal's journey takes him to China, Europe, Japan, the United States and his native Britain. De Waal is the book's protagonist, while his cast of supporting characters, most of them long dead, includes a Jesuit monk, a mathematician and a Quaker apothecary. The many objects de Waal seeks or discovers include a grey-green jar once written about by Marco Polo, a porcelain model of an execution found in a regional Chinese museum and a Nazi Bambi.

Early in The White Road de Waal explains the process and composition of porcelain in terms that alternate between the philosophical and the practical. Scale, he warns, is precarious for porcelain, which buckles easily. The same could be said of books, which also hold the danger of collapsing somewhere in their midpoints, when the seduction of an intriguing prologue and a well-measured coda can feel lamentably equidistant. It's a danger The White Road succumbs to, and the fact that you may accurately intuit eventual recovery doesn't make the dull parts easier to work through. Nor does the author's cognizance of this danger: "I wonder how many times I can write about setting out," de Waal writes just when I was wondering the same thing. This is the sort of book where at some point you find yourself getting bored and then you feel bad for getting bored because everything is so interesting. I'm going to guess that, at 400 pages, this book contains everything most readers will ever need to know about porcelain, but, in its defence, The White Road is not really a book about needed things. It is, rather, about the gloriously superfluous, the luxurious, the lust for certain objects of desire and the temptation to amass for mass' sake: porcelain's 1,000-year history features a lot of collectors with deep pockets and abundant storage space.

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In keeping with the austerity one typically associates with whiteness, The White Road bears the semblance of sparseness. The gap between each and every paragraph and the eschewing of indentation ushers more white space onto the page than a conventionally designed book. The problem with this approach is that it can feel affected, almost comical in its over-emphasis, especially when one of its isolated paragraphs contains but a single sentence and most especially when that sentence reads something like, "There will always be a need for mortars."

The semblance of sparseness. Written entirely in the present tense, and occasionally in the second person, The White Road takes numerous detours, some weighted with digressions into fairly banal writerly anxieties or the chronicling of the author's caffeine intake. The routes I found roughest going were those where de Waal invested much time in tracking the activities of his historical figures without infusing them with a strong sense of character, or those passages peppered with excessive or simply confusing flights of lyricism. "Versailles is desire realized," de Waal muses. "It is also crowded and jostled with need that can find no satisfaction."

To be sure, it's the strength of de Waal's writing and the meticulousness of his research that requires me to devote so much of this review to scrutinizing impurities in The White Road. This book can be as sensuous and fascinating as it can be overblown. Its prologue is probably the loveliest, most rapturous 19 pages of anything I've read this year. Likewise, its final sections possess some of de Waal's most evocative micro-narratives: de Waal taking a road trip with his son to a Carolina Quaker cemetery or going to the Allach porcelain factory, where inmates of the Dachau extermination camp laboured to produce the objects of Himmler's pride and joy. Significantly, it's in these late sections that de Waal grapples with the darker shades of white. Over the course of The White Road, white is imbued with numerous qualities. "White is truth; it is the glowing cloud on the horizon that shows the Lord is coming. White is wisdom." "A woman is sitting quietly, whitely." "White brings us all into focus, it disposes clarity." "It is Revelation itself." When we come to Nazi Germany, we find that white "searches out degeneracy." "White pretends to candour, covers so much." This is advanced colour theory, contending with both ethics and aesthetics. The book's final statement on white echoes its first: "white is a way of starting again." White is also forgiveness. In this case, forgiving an author's indulgences in lieu of his many moments of grace.

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