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Critical Essay by Terry Teachout
SOURCE: "James Clavell, Storyteller," in National Review, New York, Vol, XXXIV, November 12, 1982, pp. 1420-22.
In the following essay, based on an interview with Clavell, Teachout discusses Clavell's ideas on writing, political views, and his novels, particularly Noble House.
At 18, Sub-Lieutenant James Clavell of the British army was thrown into Changi, a Japanese prison camp in Singapore, where he spent the last three and a half years of the Second World War. At 29 he emigrated to Hollywood and made a name for himself as one of the most successful writer-producer-directors in town; he eventually became a naturalized American citizen. At 35, idled by a screen-writers' strike, he wrote King Rat, a novel about his struggle for survival in Changi. Three years later, when he sold the film rights to King Rat for a cool $157,000, Clavell pulled up stakes, headed for Hong Kong in search of inspiration—and found it.
Today, at 57, James Clavell is the author of four novels about Asia that have collectively sold some 14 or 15 million copies. Even non-readers have gotten pleasure out of his lucrative knack for telling an appealing story; two years ago, more than 125 million Americans watched a 12-hour, five-night television adaptation of Shogun, Clavell's most popular novel to date. To call him a "popular novelist" is an understatement: incredibly, he is now among the most widely read authors of the century.
"I'm not a novelist, I'm a storyteller," says Clavell. "I'm not a literary figure at all. I work very hard and try to do the best I can; and I try and write for myself, thinking that what I like, other people may like. My attitude is perhaps more romantic than psychiatric. I've never been trained as a writer, either. I stumbled into it in a funny way; I do not know how it works; and I'm petrified that it will vanish as easily as it came!"
Clavell's modesty about his literary reputation is plainly genuine, though he has been publicly accused of false modesty. "I'd certainly like the Nobel Prize for Literature," he says with a smile, "but I'm sure they're not going to give it to me this year! Seriously, my concern is with the people who read my books for pleasure. Hopefully, I can give them pleasure; hopefully, I can entertain them; hopefully, I can pass on a little information which I find interesting. And hopefully—perhaps—I can be a bridge between East and West."
An Excerpt from Gai-jin
"God Almighty, look there! It's the French girl …"
"What's amiss? Christ, look at her clothes …"
"Cor, it's her, the smasher, Angel Tits, arrived couple of weeks ago …"
"That's right, Angelique … Angelique Beecho or Reecho, some Frog name like that…."
"My God, look at the blood!"
Everyone began converging on her, except the Chinese who, wise after millennia of sudden trouble, vanished. Faces began to appear in windows.
"Charlie, fetch Sir William on the double!"
"Christ Almighty, look at her pony, poor bugger will bleed to death, get the vet," a corpulent trader called out. "And you, soldier, quick, get the General, and the Frog, she's his ward—oh for God's sake the French Minister, hurry!" Impatiently he pointed at a single-story house flying the French flag. "Hurry!" he bellowed, the soldier rushed off, and he trundled for her as fast as he could. Like all traders he wore a top hat and woolen frock coat, tight pants, boots, and sweated in the sun. "What on earth happened, Miss Angelique?" he said, grabbing her bridle, aghast at the dirt and blood that speckled her face and clothes and hair. "Are you hurt?"
"Moi, non … no, I think not but we were attacked … Japanners attacked us." She was trying to catch her breath and stop shaking, still in terror, and pushed the hair out of her face. Urgently she pointed inland westwards, Mount Fuji vaguely on the horizon. "Back there, quick, they need, need help!"
Those nearby were appalled and noisily began relaying the half news to others and asking questions: Who? Who was attacked? Are they French or British? Attacked? Where? Two-sword bastards again! Where the hell did this happen …
Questions overlaid other questions and gave her no time to answer, nor could she yet, coherently, her chest heaving, everyone pressing closer, crowding her. More and more men poured into the street putting on coats and hats, many already armed with pistols and muskets, a few with the latest American breech-loading rifles. One of these men, a big-shouldered, bearded Scot, ran down the steps of an imposing two-story building. Over the portal was 'Struan and Company.' He shoved his way through to her in the uproar.
"Quiet for God's sake!" he shouted, and in the sudden lull, "Quick, tell us what happened. Where's young Mr. Struan?"
"Oh Jamie, je … I, I …" The girl made a desperate effort to collect herself, disoriented. "Oh mon Dieu!"
James Clavell in his Gai-Jin, Delacorte Press, 1993.
There is a dignity in James Clavell's utterances that makes one approach his books with a sense of promise: and that promise is largely fulfilled in the reading of them. For Clavell is very much a born "storyteller," and an exceedingly craftsmanlike one as well. Even his most hostile critics acknowledge his ability to spin a ripping tale of derring-do. (The New Yorker, while dismissing Shogun as "a slick, ambitious, 802-page popular novel … which disadvantageously combines the worst qualities of the fact-crammed historical novel with the sort of flashy Hollywood dialogue … that [hasn't] been around much since the heyday of the Errol Flynn movie," admitted in the very next sentence that "Mr. Clavell does have a decided gift for storytelling.") What is not so often acknowledged, at least by the upper-crust critics, is the fact that James Clavell, within the sphere of his limits and inclinations, is a first-rate novelist of the second rank—the kind of popular writer, like Marquand or Maugham, who provides genuinely stimulating literary entertainment without insulting the sensibilities.
Clavell's methods are displayed to fine effect in his most recent novel, Noble House. The fourth volume of Clavell's Asian Saga, Noble House brings the activities of the Struan clan, first heard from in his 1966 novel Tai-Pan, up to date. A novel of unusual length—1,370 pages in soft-cover—Noble House is also unusual in its recognition of the unities; once past the prologue, which introduces Ian Dunross, the current "tai-pan" (merchant overlord) of Struan and Company (the fictional Hong Kong trading company known as "Noble House"), the novel confines itself to the events, chronologically narrated, of a single week in November 1963. Although the plot does not lend itself to elegant précis, this is roughly what happens: Two Americans come to Hong Kong with the intention of triggering a sort of Oriental proxy fight between Struan's and its historical archrival, Rothwell-Gornt, and feeding on the wreckage. Between one Sunday and the next, Hong Kong experiences an earthquake; all of the principal personages in the novel are involved in a fire on a floating restaurant; there is a disastrous run on several major banks; the KGB and the Mafia do their best to take advantage of the general confusion; and a substantial amount of what one reviewer called "decorous sex" is engaged in by a variety of characters. The good guys win.
Obviously, this sounds preposterous; and it must be conceded that Clavell piles one cataclysm on top of another with a slightly excessive—and transparently improvisational—panache. ("In Noble House," he confesses amiably, "I wanted to write a story about two Americans who go to Hong Kong to try and usurp the Noble House, and en route they have lots of adventures. That's all I knew I was going to do beforehand." He adds, with a touch of regret: "In the old days—say, in Tai-Pan—when I got myself into a hole I could always kill somebody. It wasn't that easy in Noble House.") But what sounds preposterous in the telling is surprisingly convincing in the reading, and one races through Noble House like a fire engine, torn between savoring each tasty bit of local color and wanting to find out as soon as possible what new outrage Ian Dunross will put down next. Even the (generally) happy ending is satisfactory; anything else would have been contrived. (It should be noted that all of Clavell's other novels are like this, more or less; and all of them are every bit as rousing as Noble House.)
Another unusual aspect of Noble House is its political stance. It is refreshing to note that each and every one of the KGB agents in Noble House is a no-good bastard gleefully committed to the destruction of the West. And it is even more wonderful to find that all the good guys in Noble House are … well, conservative. One of the most engaging characters in the book, an intelligence specialist for Her Majesty's Government who slips Ian Dunross an occasional high-level evaluation on the side, likes to toss off informal speeches about such things as (this is 1963, remember) the future of the Panama Canal:
"Very well, plan that the Panama Canal will be lost to America."
"Oh, don't look so shocked, Mr. Dunross! It's too easy. Give it ten or 15 years of enemy spadework and lots of liberal talk in America, ably assisted by do-gooders who believe in the benevolence of human nature, add to all this a modest amount of calculated Panamanian agitation, students and so on—preferably, ah, always students—artfully and secretly assisted by a few highly trained, patient, professional agitators and oh so secret KGB expertise, finance, and a long-range plan—ergo, in due course the canal could be out of U.S. hands into the enemy's."
"They'd never stand for it."
"You're right, Mr. Dunross, but they will sit for it."
Ian Dunross, for that matter, sums up his own personal politics as follows: "I'm royalist, I'm for freedom, for free-booting and free trade. I'm a Scotsman, I'm for Struan's, I'm for laissez-faire in Hong Kong and freedom around the world." When one considers that Noble House, jammed full of pleasingly inflammatory statements like the ones quoted above, sold a whopping 488,905 hardbound copies in 1981 alone, one is sorely tempted to say that James Clavell has written, without the pretentiousness of the original, the Atlas Shrugged [Ayn Rand's 1957 novel] of the Eighties. (The New York Times, which in the past has carried generally friendly reviews, now seems to have Clavell's political number. A profile of him that ran last year in the Times Magazine turned out to be a freelance scalpel job full of discreet sniggerings at his right-wing tendencies.)
In private life, Clavell expresses himself far more mildly, steering clear of the outright conservative label. "I don't have any political views," he claims. "Very seriously. Please be kind enough to point that out to your readers. I'm not a politician; I'm not a rabble-rouser, not a fanatic, not anything. I'm a storyteller." But then comes the measured declaration: "Now if you're going to tell a modernday story, such as I did in Noble House, you've got to consider the things that bother people in a modern way. Obviously, my position would be that we are under siege, and obviously it's quite clear that there's something wrong in the world. I am not limp and socialistic. I'm certainly for 'free trade and freebooting.' And I'm for the American way of life, and the English way of life, and the French way of life, and the German way of life—which is one of freedom. I think that if that is a political attitude, then I would say that is my attitude."
One issue on which Clavell parts company with American conservatives, though, is the China problem. "If I were President of the United States—and I did, in fact, write him a letter about this at one time—I would propose that our State Department should say openly to Mainland China: 'We would like to have eternal friendship with you. Tell us what you need. The Taiwanese problem? Well, you settle that—in a Chinese fashion. But don't rock the boat, and don't beat your breast in public, and don't wash your dirty linen in the streets.' You must remember that we in America have a historic attitude toward China that only recently has been screwed up: our historic task was to try and help them. That's all they want: to know that we're going to be friends. They have a billion people to feed, and enormous problems of every kind; and it seems to me that they're trying to do it in the best way they can. I obviously don't approve of the Communist attitude; but that is their present government, and the Chinese have a thing that whenever they're threatened from the outside, it's just like the Fourth of July—they support the Emperor and repel the barbarians, under any circumstances whatsoever. I get bonkers, as they say in England, at the stupid and unnecessary mistakes our country has made with respect to China. For instance, at the time of the Geneva Conference, when Chou En-lai was there with Foster Dulles, he went up to him and said: 'Please excuse me, Mr. Dulles, let me introduce myself.' He put out his hand, and Dulles looked at him, turned his back on him, and walked away. What the Americans don't understand is that that's going to be remembered for ten thousand years."
When in the proper frame of mind, James Clavell will gladly expand on his "nonpolitical" attitudes; but he greatly prefers to stick to the business he knows best—the craft of writing popular fiction. Although he is superstitious about discussing his novel-in-progress ("I'll tell you what: how about this? It's about this handsome chap who writes for this famous right-wing paper, and he's got himself this beautiful bird"), other than to admit that it is about Japan and is tentatively called Nippon, he will tell you about his methods of revision ("I write twenty pages for every one that sees print"), his favorite writers (Hemingway and Steinbeck), or his tendency to get "apoplectic" when he runs across "one fraction of one word that's hostile in a thousand-word review."
And, with a directness that rules out any possibility of affectation, James Clavell refers to himself time and time again as "just a storyteller." The implied distinction is a fair one; his work, for all its enormous appeal, makes no real attempt at the ambiguity and intellectual complexity of serious fiction—though King Rat, his first novel, suggests an untapped and underrated potential in this quarter. But Clavell rightly insists on the appropriate credit due him. "It used to be that the profession of storyteller was very honorable, you know, and I think that I would like to be one."
One inevitably thinks of those lines from another famous "storyteller" with an eye on the East whose reviews, like those of James Clavell, tended to be mixed.
Since the beginning of history men have gathered around the campfire or in a group in the marketplace to listen to the telling of stories. The desire to listen to them appears to be as deeply rooted in the human animal as the sense of property. I have never pretended to be anything but a storyteller. It has amused me to tell stories and I have told a great many.
So, near the end of his career, spoke W. Somerset Maugham: no great writer, but still a superlative teller of tales whose best work has turned out to be of interest to a generation of readers far too young to know or care about the fussy demurrers of his fastidious contemporaries. It is not a bad summing-up for James Clavell, either; and if he lives to be as old and prolific as Maugham was, the world will unquestionably be the happier for it. Short of genius, who could reasonably ask for more?
This section contains 2,641 words
(approx. 9 pages at 300 words per page)