The Artist Whose Secret Family History Became the Surprise Book of the Year; Edmund De Waal's Manuscript Was Turned Down by Almost Everyone -- but Reviewers and Readers Saw Its Rare Quality. David Sexton Met the Author Coming to Terms with His New Fame

The Evening Standard (London, England), December 22, 2010 | Go to article overview

The Artist Whose Secret Family History Became the Surprise Book of the Year; Edmund De Waal's Manuscript Was Turned Down by Almost Everyone -- but Reviewers and Readers Saw Its Rare Quality. David Sexton Met the Author Coming to Terms with His New Fame


Byline: David Sexton

THIS time the Books of the Year choices came up with one stunning result. Sure, there were plenty of mentions for Jonathan Franzen and Candia McWilliam. But the clear winner among British writers was a new face -- Edmund de Waal for his family memoir, The Hare with Amber Eyes, which tells its story via a collection of Japanese netsuke that has been inherited through the generations.

The tributes were almost embarrassingly profuse. In the Times Literary Supplement, the book was chosen over and over again. For once, sisters A S Byatt and Margaret Drabble could agree -- this was the book of the year. The military historian Michael Howard called it "the book, not only of the year, but of the decade ... a quite enchanting book, to be kept and reread by as many generations as it describes".

This coup followed on from a complete set of extraordinarily acclamatory reviews when the book was published back in June. In this paper, Rosemary Hill praised the book for combining the charm of a personal memoir with the resonance of world history.

In the Sunday Times, Frances Wilson said pretty definitively: "In the present literary climate of dumbed-down, throwaway narratives, to be handed a story as durable and exquisitely crafted as this is a rare pleasure ... Like the netsuke themselves, this book is impossible to put down. You have in your hands a masterpiece."

And for once, sheer excellence, critically acclaimed, has prevailed commercially as well. The Hare with Amber Eyes, originally published with modest sales expectations, has become a bestseller, now on its 12th reprinting, outdoing most of the idiotic ghosted celeb memoirs that the publishers paid over the odds for yet again.

From the beginning, it has been enthusiastically supported by independent bookshops who continue to exist partly in order to find books such as this and back them against the tide of discounted trash. Latterly, the chains have joined in, with stacks of the book now prominently displayed all around Waterstone's, a privilege usually paid for. Altogether, the success of The Hare with Amber Eyes hearteningly proves that the whole business of publishing and bookselling can still respond to merit alone. Who knew? And none of this applause is exaggerated, I daftly proved to myself while going to see de Waal in his studio in Tulse Hill last Friday. Although I had read the book when it came out, I started browsing a chapter again and was soon so absorbed that, when I next looked up, I had sailed past my stop and was in East Croydon, necessitating an icy little tour of south London before I could get back, an hour late.

Although this is de Waal's first appearance as a literary writer, he's not an unknown quantity. Indeed, his eminence in his other career, as a ceramicist, could hardly be greater. His porcelain pots, increasingly made to be installed in large groups, are enormously sought after and much imitated. His writings on ceramics, which include a caustically revisionist study of Bernard Leach, have revolutionised the subject. His position was pretty much formally recognised when, for the re-opening of the V&A ceramics galleries last year, he made an extraordinary, scarlet-framed circular installation high in a dome, reconceiving the museum's riches, from early Chinese celadons through to high modernism.

For all his charm and apparent diffidence, de Waal, now 46, has achieved all this through the most ferocious dedication. He decided that he wanted to become a potter -- as soon as he'd tried it -- aged five. At King's School Canterbury, he was taught by the Leach-inspired potter Geoffrey Whiting and although he went up to Cambridge to read English, taking a First, he kept working at it. After graduation, he set up a pottery in the Welsh borders making repeat domestic ware, as the Leach tradition demanded.

But in his late twenties, studying in Japan, he discovered both that Leach's claim to have understood Japanese tradition was flawed -- and that he wanted to make quite different pots, not heavy green stoneware but fluid, gleaming porcelain, a material with great historical resonance, at the time remarkably little used by studio potters. …

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