Life & Culture

Interview: Edmund Dewaa

David Herman meets a renowned potter whose excursion into writing shows that his artistry is more than ceramic


"Well done. You found it." Edmund de Waal seems genuinely surprised that I've managed to locate his studio, in south-east London - left at the charity shop, past the Co-op, the kebab house and launderette and right, down a dusty path, past cars being fixed with much drilling and banging.

It is a world away from the palatial homes in 19th-century Paris and turn-of-the century Vienna of the Jewish Ephrussi dynasty, the subject of his family memoir. Houses full of beautiful art collections, libraries full of precious books.

Charles Ephrussi knew - and commissioned - the Impressionists. Viktor had "100 old paintings" and thousands of rare books. They were fabulously rich. They made their money in trading wheat and then went into banking. In Joseph Roth's masterpiece, The Radetzky March, Trotta deposits his wealth in the Efrussi Bank. Viktor Ephrussi was worth the equivalent of $400 million today.

It is an extraordinary story, beautifully told. The Hare with Amber Eyes is possibly the best Jewish book for years. Full of personal and historical drama, adultery and Big History, from Dreyfus to Hitler. Proust knew the Ephrussis. Rilke corresponded with Edmund's grandmother. Freud wrote about her mother's great-aunt. Charles commissioned work from Renoir. The book follows the Ephrussis from Odessa to Paris and Vienna, to Tokyo and finally, here, to Edmund's studio, the linking thread being a collection of miniature Japanese artefacts.

At first glance, de Waal is an unlikely author for such a book. He is a ceramicist, not a historian, and the white room where we sit is lined with beautiful pots, simple, elegant, very different from the great gilt desk the Nazis threw out of the window of the family's Vienna home, "with a sound of splintering wood and gilt and marquetry".

"I grew up in the heart of the Church of England," he says. "My mother writes on church history and is the daughter of an Anglican vicar. My father is a clergyman. So I've grown up in cathedrals, with evensong and theological conversations around the dinner table." So how did he end up writing this intensely Jewish, European book? He describes how his father came to his studio with a small cache of photographs, "some 40-odd", two thin files of letters and "a family tree annotated by my grandmother in the 1970s. 'You are now the keeper of the family archive,' he tells me."

Why him? It is clear from the book how close he was to his great-uncle, the one who left Vienna for America and then Tokyo, the most-travelled member of a family of wanderers, and to his grandmother. She was the one who corresponded with Rilke, left Vienna and then returned to rescue her father and held the family together in exile… in Tunbridge Wells. "I spent a lot of time listening to her stories." And why now, why put aside his work and spend his mid-40s writing this book? He has three young children: "When you have children, you come to think about what you're going to do about family stories. Whether or not they are going to be passed on - and in what way."

And not just stories. De Waal inherited the great family collection of those beautiful miniature Japanese figures - netsuke. He shows me some. They are exquisite. His book (named after one of them) follows the netsuke as they pass from Paris to Vienna to Tokyo and, now, to London.

His book is about choices, sometimes silent, unspoken choices. Choices about Jewishness - "put aside in Tunbridge Wells, in Vienna, in Odessa - part of a process of separation, of anxiety about Jewishness." Choices about home and belonging, important for a family always on the move. And then how to pass on these stories about choices? De Waal has found a very distinct voice, rich with cultural references, telling historical details, fragments.

"How dare I write about this period?" he says. "It would be hubristic to attempt this. So you have to write about fragments." And he manages to pull all this together into a compelling narrative, beautifully written; a book about his family, about memory - and about himself.

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