Potter Edmund de Waal with books
Photo: Tom Jamieson

Master Potter Edmund de Waal on the Necessity of Revisiting the Past

The British artist considers unresolved histories through a series of imaginary letters in his new book, “Letters to Camondo.”
By Spencer Bailey
May 15, 2021
6 minute read

Practically everything the artist, master potter, and writer Edmund de Waal touches turns to dust. Or at least toward the idea of dust. In each of his books—2010’s The Hare With Amber Eyes, 2015’s The White Road: Journey Into an Obsession, and the just-published Letters to Camondo (Farrar, Straus, and Giroux), out this weekdust serves as a profound metaphor. Throughout his work, whether in pottery or prose, de Waal explores various notions around the archive and the library, digging into the dusty corners of the past to pull together the lost and little-known. “Dust is the uncontrollable bit of history, isn’t it?” de Waal says. “It’s the unnoticed, it’s the gratuitous, it’s the stuff that Walter Benjamin talks about, which is the forgotten, ragpicker ends of history, the bits in the archive which haven’t been looked at.”

Letters to Camondo collects 58 imaginary letters de Waal wrote to Moïse de Camondo, a banker who amassed an impeccable collection of French 18th-century art. Born to a Jewish family in Constantinople (they were known as the “Rothschilds of the East”), Camondo’s family immigrated to France and settled in an extravagantly appointed house on Rue de Monceau in Paris, where they lived until 1943, when they were arrested, deported to concentration camps, and later killed by the Nazis. Although at moments the letters read as stream-of-conscious meditations, they also stem from deep research in the archives of the Musée Nissim de Camondo, which invited de Waal to organize a forthcoming exhibition. Like the Japanese practice of kintsugi, in which cracked or broken ceramics are mended with gold, Letters to Camondo brings together and unpacks various themes from his previous books: family history, antisemitism, porcelain, netsuke figures. Here, we speak with de Waal about his impetus for writing the book, and what it means to memorialize something.

Why did you decide to frame this book in the form of letters?

It wasn’t a strategic approach. It was simply that I needed to talk to [Moïse], and realized that letters were a way of working across different registers. It wasn’t continuous prose. I just needed to write to him about things that annoyed me and pleased me, and were points of connection. Letters seemed to me the right way of doing it. There’s a kind of intimacy about them.

It was only when I got the book in my hands, about a month ago, that I realized there’s the other side of it, which is that they’re unanswered letters. I’ve written a book where there is no response.

Inherent to this project is the notion of intergenerational thinking. What effect do you think this kind of letter writing to generations past could have on culture or society?

We’re in a moment in our culture where we’re working out what intergenerational, unresolved histories mean. You can see that in B.L.M, and you can see that powerfully in refugee and emigre communities. You can absolutely see that in Holocaust-era families, down the generations, where people are really trying to work out what’s been passed down and what hasn’t been passed down, and what’s been closed down or what’s been forgotten, or elided. 

Writing back to history is actually a very interesting thing to [do], because it says, “I don’t know this stuff, but it matters to me. Talk to me. Tell me what it was like.”

Letters to Camondo
connects directly to your previous books. Do you view it as an extension of them?

Certainly, with the first book—The Hare—I thought I’d sorted out my family history. I’d closed it down so that my kids didn’t have to inherit any shit; I’d sorted out my relationship with my dad. But what happens is, you write something, and it’s freestyle. It metastasizes, and becomes a whole complicated thing. It takes you apart, basically. In that sense, I do go back to the same territory and find myself different. It’s been eleven years since I published The Hare, but twenty years since I started that particular journey. Of course there are things that I need to work out again or return to—that iterative thing.

When you’re talking about trauma or family history, it’s something that one processes always, continually. History shouldn’t be brought to conclusion, because if it was, then in some ways, it’s being made safe, or commodifiable, or contained. The real things in our lives—and in cultural history—aren’t closed.

There’s a memorial quality to this book. How do you personally think about memorialization?

Memorialization is a really significant thing. I’ve been so conscious of this because of my first book: How does one honor and record a lost family, or a lost history or lost culture? How can you possibly represent that? You can do it in a book; you can make something.

Because it’s so intimate, I couldn’t help but think that this book is one long, deeply personal, heartfelt obituary. How do you see it?

I’ve never thought of it as an obituary because an obituary is formal, considered, and post hoc. The reality is, I’m still in conversation with [Moïse]. I’m a little shocked to hear that he has died. That doesn’t quite sit emotionally with me, because he’s a very real person whom I feel very intimately bound up with. In terms of the tense of it, I’m not writing to him as if he’s dead.

But it absolutely is about memorial. If you think that a memorial is, in some ways, a way of walking away from some traumatic collective moment in history, or personal moment in history, then you’re not telling yourself the truth. Because it isn’t. A memorial is an act—which is part of the act of mourning—but mourning doesn’t stop.