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 week—dust 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.
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New York–based stylist Kate Young, one of Hollywood’s most highly sought-after, is known for putting the women she dressVogue. This week, Young debuted her new YouTube show, Hello Fashion, created with The Slowdown, where she dives deep into the ins and outs of her trade, and the superior craftsmanship of first episode of the weekly series focuses on how she created a series of photographic art for musician Selena Gomez’s new album, “Re
Earlier this month, Francesca Johanson, editor of the Architectural League’s online publication Urban Omnibus, launched Memory Loss,” a new series with Guernica magazine. These essays seek out sites of remembrance in New York City, addressing a “continuum between private and publ
In the era of Covid-19, you might think that Julia Cooke’s book Come Fly the World: The Jet-Age Story of the Women of Pan Am (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), out this week, was inspired by a longing for air travel, but you’d be wrong. “What I reall
How Snøhetta Translated the Ethos of Bronx-Based Chef Collective Ghetto Gastro Into an Experimental Kitchen
Three years ago, on New Year’s Eve in Havana, artist José Parlá introduced Craig Dykers, a founding partner of the archiSnøhetta, to Jon Gray, one-third of the Bronx-based chef troupe Ghetto Gastro. The two began what would become an ongoing converBurnside, an intimate, flexible café and culinary event space for the Tokyo creative agency En One. (Health restrictions have pr
Blackness as a color and, in some ways, as a culture often finds itself in close proximity to death. Despite the vivid b
In 2019, Madrid-based designer Jorge Penadés founded Extraperlo, a nonprofit exhibition platform for unorthodox work andCurating Curators,” on view Feb. 18–20 at Penadés’s warehouse-like studio as part of this month’s Madrid Design Festival, upends the conv
Hanna Nova Beatrice is the founder and editor-in-chief of The New Era, a recently launched independent Scandinavian design publication. “It grew out of a strong belief in the [power of] priResidence magazine, prefers to consume media the old-fashioned way, with an eye toward periodicals that innovate on physical page How do you start your mornings?
As the world adapts to pandemic life, we’ve seen creativity heroically emerge, in nearly every sector, amid limitations.Kei Truck Garden Contest in Osaka, which brings nature closer to city-dwellers in the form of compact, foliage-filled creations. (The date for t
For most of us, the urge to bring smartphones into our bedrooms is too strong to resist—even when science, and firsthandattest to the habit’s harmful effects. One way to curb the temptation: Loftie, an alarm clock designed to transform sleep spaces into phone-free sanctuaries. Calibrated for the digital age, the dev
Those visiting Japan’s beloved gardens during the winter might be struck by the sight of trees confined within mysteriouyukitsuri—the term for these intriguing rope webs—is a traditional Japanese gardening technique intended to protect trees’ long b
Design can be a powerful tool in times of crisis, when creativity is a crucial element for survival. At the start of theDesigners Against Coronavirus, and in the fall, took the project a step further by documenting 272 of the works in a book of the same name. Nearly all the resources to publish it, from the paper to securing the copyright for each image, were donated, and the
Formgivning, the Danish word for “design,” serves as both a thesis and a call to action in a new book, Formgiving: An Architectural Future History (Taschen), by the Copenhagen-born architectural practice Bjarke Ingels Group (BIG). This is no project-by-project compe