James Clavell | Critical Essay by William F. Buckley, Jr.

This literature criticism consists of approximately 5 pages of analysis & critique of James Clavell.
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Critical Essay by William F. Buckley, Jr.

SOURCE: "James Clavell, RIP," in National Review, New York, Vol. XLVI, October 10, 1994, pp. 23-4.

Buckley is an American political commentator, nonfiction writer, and novelist. In the following tribute, he reminisces about his friendship with Clavell.

A dozen years ago Chilton Williamson, at the time our book-review editor, called me to deliver a mildly complicated diplomatic message. It was this, that the young writer Terry Teachout (this was before he became famous) wished to have an interview with James Clavell, for publication in National Review. But Mr. Clavell, or perhaps someone on his staff, had passed along the word that Mr. Clavell would grant the interview only if I called him on the phone and requested it. I thought that protocol a little unusual, but not preposterous; and so I did call him. I have no memory of the conversation, in which I presumably gave the bona fides of Terry Teachout and assured Mr. Clavell that his name was not on National Review's secret list of evil people who needed to be impaled. But I walked away with the impression that James Clavell was rather formal in his habits.

He gave the interview (it was published on November 12, 1982). Mr. Teachout began his story by adducing Noël Coward's answer to the question, "Isn't there anyone worth reading on the best-seller lists any more?" Yes, Coward had said—James Clavell. Teachout went on, "To call Clavell a 'popular novelist' is an understatement: incredibly, he is now among the most widely read authors of the century." In the interview, Clavell repeated several times that he thought himself, pure and simple, a "story-teller."

Six years later we met in Switzerland, at our place in Rougemont. He was striking in appearance, in the Bengal Lancer mode, with greying hair and rubicund cheeks, a prominent chin and light blue eyes. He limped on his right leg but maneuvered without difficulty. In a matter of minutes (sometimes these things happen) we were talking as though we had been to school together. At one point, chewing on a chicken leg, he eloquently and indignantly spoke of how his third publisher had cheated him out of royalties, and I was nodding my head sympathetically as he gave the predatory details. At this moment a Khan (I can't remember which one) breezed by: "What are you two talking about?"

Clavell looked up with his furtive smile and determined voice: "Something that concerns you not at all: money." All three of us enjoyed it.

We were in regular touch, he and his wife, April; my wife, Pat, and I. The day before leaving Switzerland in March I wrote him, "Well, finished novel. Don't much like the very end, but easy to change down the line. We should chat, though of course I'll see you very soon"—James had told us he'd be in Connecticut to visit his daughter "in a couple of weeks." I concluded my note as I had so many others, with reference to a computer program I was (am) so wildly enthusiastic about, the American Heritage Dictionary. "… I yearn to hear from you that the dictionary has brought such joy into your life as it has into mine!!!"

He didn't call—and didn't, during the summer, send along any of his two-line faxes. His silence was surprising, and then a week ago Roger Moore, his close friend and ours, called to say James had died of cancer, which he had fought all summer long.

Three years ago I had teased James in a brief passage in one of my books (Windfall) about a long lunch we had had together. I wrote, "A spirited session, as always with James, about this and that, with heavy emphasis on his bad luck with his failed musical, Shogun. That evening … I remarked to my wife, 'You know—James didn't ask what I've done since we last met. If he had, I could have said, "Waal, James, let's see: In the ten weeks since I last saw you, I've played two harpsichord concerts; I've retired as editor of National Review, after 35 years; I've crossed the Atlantic Ocean on a sailboat; I've published two books, one fiction, one non-fiction; and I have become a senior citizen."' (I am running no danger whatever that James will see these words—he doesn't read my books, and I haven't read all of his. And what I am recording is by no means intended as critical: mere social piquancy, curious, scientific bemusement over solipsistic social manners.)"

I wasn't surprised after my book was published, in January 1992, not to hear from James about it. But in August I had one of his quick faxes. "Hi. Whatcha mean I don't read your books? J." And at one point this winter, when I said I was finishing my writing assignment, he gave me his look, one-half sternness, one-half the derisive smile: "Don't you go and put me into this book."

He would never let out the mise en scène of his own ongoing book until galley-proof time. He would simply report that he had put in his day's work, which was ten to twelve pages of manuscript and, later, fifty pages of copy editing. He came regularly to inspect my electronic equipment, and referred to himself once as our "electrician."

We very much enjoyed our fax camaraderie. Feb. 19, 1994: "To: the guru of gurus. M'aidez si vous plait. Could you press THE button and tell me did King Kong come out of Conan Doyle's Lost World? cir 1912? J." And I'd fax him an occasional column, especially if I thought he'd be amused by it, as by the bizarre suicide of the Tory MP Milligan last February, who was discovered with odd pieces of this and that tucked into odd parts of his body. "Another of the great joys of having the Buckleys en residence is the daily fax illuminating the world that I would otherwise miss. Quelle horreur to be so uneducated. Poor Tory Milligan. Why in the mouth? I could understand if it was in the other place, particularly if he had been a socialist, for there is ample room for a baker's dozen. Poor fellow. Did he just like oranges? He clearly wanted to tell us something—or his friend, assailant, or partner. Another of life's sweet tapestries. Would you and herself care to come to lunch one day—dinner I presume is out for you this way. Yours till hell etc. J."

I never told him how many of his books I had read, to which the answer is—only two. The reason is that I read slowly and have a terrible time taking on books of the length of James Clavell's. But the two I read confirm the reasons for his popularity. He was the supreme storyteller. Socially he was a retiring man, the sometime Australian who at age 18 was taken by the Japanese into one of their legendarily terrible war camps, where he stayed five years. He was in his thirties before he began to score his heavy successes as the great fiction chronicler of Asia.

When we put down the telephone, after Roger described his final weeks, we both felt a void of loneliness which will gnaw at us for years to come. Our friendship wasn't that of one writer for another. It was as simple as that I delighted in his company.

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This section contains 1,223 words
(approx. 5 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by William F. Buckley, Jr.
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