Polyglot, steeped in art and literature and history, able to throw a pot and turn a sentence with equal skill, endlessly curious and stupendously diligent, aesthetic to his fingertips but also deeply moral, Mr. de Waal brings a lot to the table, and with The White Road he goes all in...The book itself is something vast out of porcelain, an eccentric, ungainly, one-off vessel, and it buckles like crazy. But crazy is the order of the day, so you understand.
A poetic memoir woven with copious amounts of engaging research, the book demonstrates the truism that an unexamined life is not worth living. Self-indulgent? Overlong? Perhaps. But De Waal digs deep into the substance of his life, and what he shares is precious.
[The White Road] is a diffuse and often tortured book, full of clouded narrative lines and vague poetical musings that strain too hard after the momentous...De Waal can tease a lot of atmosphere out of the most unprepossessing archival research...He’s not, however, a natural travel writer, and the many places he visits flicker past without making much of an impression, backdrops to his perpetual agitation.
This long road to the meaning of white affords a rich narrative, spanning centuries and a great deal of space. But it is also a rambling road, full of lengthy block quotations and repeated sentence structures that become tiresome as the text progresses.
The White Road is filled with marvelous examples of storytelling, and de Waal has a gift for inhabiting his characters. Also, the historical material is interleaved with stories from de Waal’s own life as a ceramicist, which adds an extra and very welcome dimension to the tale. But it is at heart an elliptical work, sketching rather than defining, impressionistic rather than explanatory, gestural rather than logical, rather like a kind of visual art.
There were...times when it felt as though he really wanted to be writing a historical novel, of the floaty poetic sort rather than a rip-roaring page-turner. But a man can only do so much. I never wished for more matter — the book is already bursting at the seams — but I did occasionally wish for a little less art. Still, this is a terrific book.
De Waal has a deft cinematic way of crystallizing a moment, in the same way that he can capture the uniqueness, for better or worse, of a handmade object. And in the art world of today, where the new things that get praise are knocked off and sold with a smirk or wrapped in stories of virtual this or that, he’s shared the mysteries of molding and heating dirt to turn it into something magical. Serenity trumps novelty, for once.
It comes as no surprise that a potter obsessed with the beauty and utility of his work would make something extraordinary of such a tale. In prose as shapely and well-turned as any cup or urn, de Waal follows the quest for the secrets of porcelain to the court of the Sun King at Versailles, to the kilns of Quaker entrepreneurs in England, to the hills of the Cherokee Nation, to the workshops of post-Mao China, and finally to the Dachau work camp where slave laborers fashion plates and cups for SS units.