Letters to Camondo by Edmund de Waal, the July selection for my public library's book club, is a book about archives and memory, memorials and loss. I read it a first time with interest. A second reading to formulate discussion questions (see below) deepened my interest to admiration, sorrow, and gratitude.
Edmund de Waal
Letters to Camondo
Essais are a start of conversation, contingent and digressive. You cannot be completely sure where they will lead you. (p. 114)
Big Questions for Discussion
1. What are the main themes of the book? Are they evenly intermingled throughout? Is there a progression?
2. What are the smaller, concrete topics? Do they help divide the book into rough sections? Which ones interested you most?
3. Did any observations strike you specially?
4. Did you find the choice and placement of illustrations interesting or helpful?
5. The book recounts de Waal's effort to understand Moïse de Camondo. Were you interested in both men? Did you feel you came to know one better than the other?
6. Do all the family names and complications, the erudition and allusions, provide depth or are they obstacles to understanding? Do the essays work even if you don't catch every reference?
7. How are the author's curiosity and playfulness balanced against undercurrents of sadness and anger?
8. Were you prepared for Letter XLIX?
9. What big question would you ask the group?
Questions for Closer Reading
1. What purpose is served by the epitaph lacrimae rerum? Is its thematic connection to the overall book expanded by the gloss in the back?
2. What is the effect of assigning Roman numerals to the letters and centering them in the upper margin of the page?
3. What other aspects of the typography, layout, and choice of artwork shape the reader's experience either consciously or subliminally? Is it important for this book to be a beautiful object?
4. De Waal begins Letter III with a mild joke about being English. Where else does his Englishness come into play?
5. The salutations vary: "Dear friend," Dear friend," "Monsieur," etc. What do the differences signal?
6. Why is there no signature until the last letter?
7. The letters vary in length. What is the impact of the very short ones? Specifically, compare the three shortest—VIII, XXVIII, and L. How do they punctuate the text?
8. What shifts in tone or topic occur within the longer ones? What rhythms does de Waal achieve at the level of sentences, paragraphs, individual letters, or series?
9. What adjectives would you use to describe the voice? Does the tone change from time to time?
10. What is the effect of occasional drop in the level of diction? Such as "my God, she has style" (p. 48).
11. Does the last line of each letter bring an essay to a close, alter it, or point ahead?
12. What is the advantage of ostensibly addressing Moïse de Camondo? Is the author also talking to himself? Does he sometimes address the reader directly? Are there shifts in the author-addressee-reader triangle within single essays or in the overall course of the book? Do you identify with the speaker, or do you look over his shoulder?
13. Letter II begins "I am making an archive of your archive," and each paragraph contains or is part of a list. How often do lists, apostrophes, series occur in the book? What purposes do they serve?
14. Letters V and VI are linked by the words air, Aeolus, and exhalation on p. 10, the illustration on p. 11; and movement of air on pp. 10–12. The end of Letter XLII is immediately contradicted by the opening of Letter XLIII? Did you notice other direct linkages?
15. Words such as conversation and traces recur throughout. What others did you notice? Why are they important?
16. Charles Ephrussi is introduced on p.10. In what ways does he weave in and out of the book? What about the rest of de Waal's Ephrussi relatives?
17. The author is a father as well as a son and grandson. Does this overtly affect the content? Implicitly?
18. The author is a potter. Does this have an effect on his examination of material objects? on his attention to the placement of things in a room? on his prose?
19. Of the bigger topics—wealth, Paris, objets d'art and their arrangement, architecture, family, Jewishness, antisemitism, national identity, etc.—which ones did you follow? Why?