Book of the Week on BBC Radio 4
"Other things in the world are white, but for me porcelain comes first."
A handful of clay from a Chinese hillside carries a promise: that mixed with the right materials, it might survive the fire of the kiln and fuse into porcelain - translucent, luminous, white.
Acclaimed writer and potter Edmund de Waal sets out on a quest - a journey that begins in the dusty city of Jingdezhen in China and travels on to Venice, Versailles, Dublin, Dresden, the Appalachian Mountains of South Carolina and the hills of Cornwall to tell the history of porcelain.
Along the way he meets the witnesses to its creation - those who were inspired or made rich or heartsick by it and the many whose livelihoods, minds and bodies were broken by this obsession. It spans a thousand years and reaches into some of the most tragic moments of recent times.
In these intimate and compelling encounters with the people and landscapes who made porcelain, Edmund de Waal enriches his understanding of this rare material, the ‘white gold' he has worked with for decades.
Augustus Elector of Saxony admitted that he had 'la maladie de porcelaine' and possessed a collection of 35,000 pieces of exquisite porcelain to prove it. De Waal has a similar malady of whiteness, a porcelain obsession nurtured since he was five years old when he made his first pot and dipped it in white glaze. In this fascinating if self-indulgent book he travels the world including China, Venice and Dresden, the Appalachian Mountains and Cornwall.
The best parts of the book are those that teem with insights, varied facts and details of the history of porcelain and its manufacture: from the Chinese Emperors ordering tens and tens of thousands of matching plates, dishes and cups to Himmler's love of the pure 'undegenerate' white porcelain made in Dachau Concentration camp, to Chairman Mau's tea-set and the sealing of the seam which produced the clay after his death so that no duplicate could ever be made. The background to Wedgwood's spectacular success - which blackened the air of Stoke - is detailed from his buying up a complete obsolete wooden ship to provide fuel for his kilns to his acute business sense which made him send gifts of Queens Ware to Queen Charlotte.De Waal presents the seductive, sublime perfection of the finished artefacts as vividly as the terrible sufferings of the armies of oppressed people who produced it - including the skilled kiln packers, scrapers, those who wrecked their lungs grinding pigments or those whose homes were burned when kilns caught fire - and the worker who threw himself into the kiln rather than face the consequences of his imperfect firing.
The least interesting parts are those in which de Waal indulges in extensive analysis of whiteness and his obsessional pursuit of it. A little of that goes a long way. I found the narrator Michael Maloney, who has also read de Waal's Hare with Amber Eyes, far too irritatingly reverential, too exaggeratedly wonder-filled. There's clearly a spiritual element to de Waal and his pots - the sub title is 'A pilgrimage of Sorts' - and Maloney wants to convey this through his narration. But it's excessive - there's enough passion and ecstasy in the words without it being injected into every sentence.
But don't let that put you off - there's nothing else out there like this book - or quite like de Waal - and it's well worth listening to.
2 of 2 people found this review helpful
The White Road is a beautifully written and fascinating exploration of porcelain - it's origins, creators and makers, alongside its history, economics and socio-cultural value, This is a terrific book by an acclaimed potter and writer.
de Waal explores the Chinese development of porcelain as a remarkable marketable material and examines its production in Jingdezhen alongside its discovery and use in a range of other settings from the Appalachians to Germany to England and back to China. The social history is insightful regarding the punishingly hard work, the ill-health, and the secret recipes that abound wherever this unique (set of) substance(s) is used.
de Waal's thorough and personalised research invites our scrutiny - whether in China where it is produced by specialised local factories and kilns or in the Third Reich where the Nazis promoted it as a manifestation of Aryan white purity. Mao too gets a mention, highlighting how brutal dictators have sought to control this substance and how the craftsmen on the ground have responded and adapted to their demands.
de Waal interfaces these fascinating stories with his own craft and socio-historic exhibition. Full of wonderful enlightening facts and fictions...
1 of 1 people found this review helpful
A most wonderfully crafted propulsive quest of deep interest, poetry and philosophy. A companionable enlightening book.
Feverish, compulsive, beautifully written and read. Rich like life itself and confronting this road to the white purity of porcelain with the reality of mortality, such a poignant contrast in the Allach factory under Himmler where the inmates from Dachau creating the everlasting beauty of porcelain figures faced death on a daily basis. Beauty and cruelty face to face in this out of breath book on the road of life mixing all the ingredients carefully together to make sure life can stay upright like a pot on a shelf.
Would you try another book written by Edmund de Waal or narrated by Michael Maloney?
No. They are both so annoying in their individual ways.
Has The White Road put you off other books in this genre?
In the genre, no.
How could the performance have been better?
Narrator vastly overeggs it - says the most mundane things in a tense, excited voice that becomes hugely irritating.
You didn’t love this book--but did it have any redeeming qualities?
Interesting subject matter, if the writer could have stuck to the subject, porcelain, rather than larding it with tedious details about his personal life. Should have been edited, edited, edited to about half its over-inflated (like author's ego) size.
Really enjoyed this, even without any previous knowledge or interest in porcelain. The short chapters really suit the audio book form (I often find myself drifting off, particularly with non-fiction, so anything to maintain focus and purpose is great!), and the narrator's earnestness helps to colour the narrative.
The book goes off track a bit in the middle, but it's otherwise fascinating. de Waal combines travelogue, history, and art criticism to create something really unique. Well worth listening to the end, there's a couple of chapters there that don't fit the overall narrative of the book (mostly about the history of porcelain in repressive regimes) which are a great bonus, and almost enough of a subject to interest another book altogether.