There’s an unsettling quality to de Waal’s pursuit of Camondo that isn’t fully explained until late in the book, in a powerful address that is both a rupture with and a binding to all that precedes it. Yet from the start we intuit that de Waal, in the words of W.G. Sebald, is keeping ‘appointments in the past, in what has gone before and is for the most part extinguished’.
It can’t be easy to write to a stranger who died 86 years ago, which may account for occasional lapses of tone. A two-line missive telling the count what he already knows is tinged with preciousness (‘Nissim is Hebrew for miracle, your son is named for your father’), as are de Waal’s self-consciously poetic musings on porcelain (‘You can break it but you cannot destroy it. That is why the world is full of shards’). Sentences such as ‘Can I talk to you about the children’s bedrooms, Monsieur?’ and ‘We need to talk about this again’ underscore the epistolary artifice.
With elements of art history, social history, personal experience and quest, a book of this sort could so easily go wrong. In the absence of conventional plot, the challenge is to create a forward momentum, something that Bruce Chatwin, say, was notably skilled at doing. (Chatwin’s novel about a Meissen porcelain collector, Utz, is, I think, a clear influence.) However, de Waal is a writer of grace and restlessly enquiring intelligence, and Letters to Camondo succeeds admirably.
De Waal’s excavation of the meanings of assimilation is considered, compassionate and appreciative of its costs, not only in blood and treasure, and its benefits, “a welcome of sorts and tolerance, a place to settle, a hill of friends and cousins, conversation among equals”. As an artist best known for his installations of multiple porcelain vessels, he is authoritative on how objects work together and what they can mean to the people who own them and see them. But it is his own history, quietly revealed as he probes Camondo’s life, as much as his knowledge and expertise, that enriches this book.
Everyone who bought, read and loved Edmund de Waal’s first book. The Hare With Amber Eyes, will find equal interest and delight in Letters to Camondo. It is a beautiful and fascinating book, even if its last pages are painful and depressing. It is also beautifully produced, on good paper with fine illustrations, and how Chatto & Windus can do this at less than the price of many shoddily-published novels beats me.
Letters to Camondo is a melancholy book about rootlessness and restitution, about how objects carry the past into the present or, as de Waal writes, “belong in all tenses”. Visually, it resembles an exhibition catalogue, which is no coincidence. It appears to have been written to precede the show de Waal has curated for the Musée Nissim de Camondo, due to open later this year. It also bears the strong influence of WG Sebald, who embedded photographs into texts, and covered similar themes: memory, decay, Jewishness, the traumatic aftermath of two world wars.
Letters to Camondo is the opposite of a page-turner. It’s a page-pauser. It is subtle and thoughtful and nuanced and quiet. It is demanding but rewarding. It will make you think differently about trunks in the attic and it will make you read old letters with new eyes.