James Clavell | Critical Essay by Susan Crosland

This literature criticism consists of approximately 10 pages of analysis & critique of James Clavell.
This section contains 2,706 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Susan Crosland

Critical Essay by Susan Crosland

SOURCE: "Maybe I'm James Clavell," in The Sunday Times, London, November 2, 1986, pp. 41, 43-4.

In the following essay based on an interview with Clavell, Crosland discusses Clavell's experiences as a prisoner of the Japanese during World War II and his writing career.

James Clavell was 18 when he was captured in Java in 1942. The next three years were spent in Changi. Even among Japanese prison camps, Changi was notorious. One in 15 men survived. Not until the early Sixties was Clavell able to write about it in his first novel, King Rat. Yet 10 years after that, he wrote Shogun, the colossal historical novel that seems to be pro Japanese.

When Shogun was televised, Clavell became a millionaire. His fortune spiralled with film rights and continuous reissue of his Asian saga books, each a blockbuster. Whirlwind, about a team of British-based professional helicopter pilots caught up in Iran's nightmare (or is it the path to paradise?), will be published tomorrow. Clavell has been paid $5 million for the American book rights alone.

Where does he live? What is he like? Not easy to discover. He gives and receives sparingly. In Changi all his friends died. Changi formed him. Intensely private, guarded, he allows insights into himself only obliquely (like the Japanese). Though English in dress and speech, he has a rootlessness about him. "Changi taught me always to present a moving target." When he and his wife are in Europe, they move between pieds-a-terre—Sussex, Gstaad, the Riviera. Outsiders are not welcome in his home. "It's just not on," he says in a polite voice, the underlying steel unmistakable.

So we meet first on my territory. Assured, well over six feet tall, wide-shouldered in his navy blazer, he has light blue eyes and sandy hair, eyelashes and brows gold, gold hairs gleaming on sun-browned hands. He is friendly in a deeply reserved way until I ask a direct question about himself. Then the gold lashes come down over his eyes; he looks at his watch. The message is clear: I don't have to answer you. Drop dead.

Our second meeting is on his territory, currently the Riviera. He rings to finalise logistics. "How am I to let you know I'm on course?" I ask. Pause at the other end. Then: "I'll be staying with friends. Hang on while I get their telephone number." I've no doubt it's his own number, but that's the way he plays it, so I follow suit.

The James Clavell who walks into the Negresco, Nice's belle époque hotel, wears a robin's-egg blue short-sleeved shirt open at the neck, arms of a casually slung, sweater draped either side. While still secretive, this Clavell is relaxed, gradually willing to acknowledge the traps he lays in conversation. He has the brigand's pleasure in ambush. It's not malicious: it's to keep you on your toes.

Half Irish, half English, he was born in Australia. His family was Royal Navy, and he went to a service preparatory school in Portsmouth. From this narrow society he joined the Royal Artillery when he was 18. Months later he was shot by the Japanese and captured.

"My generation went from 17 or 18 to being shot at, killed, mutilated. Of course it's a shocker—to be petrified for short periods, find you have guns but no ammunition, discover senior officers are a bunch of bloody idiots." All this is said good-naturedly. But the residue of bitter resentment of government reveals itself recurrently.

The round scar on his right cheek is from the Japanese bullet that broke his jaw. When he was put in Changi, the wound was still open. As there weren't any antibiotics, he stuffed the hole with cotton wool dipped in vinegar. He couldn't chew. "It didn't make much difference," he says equably. "There wasn't anything to eat."

In Changi the basic unit was four men. "One guarded. One foraged. One was sick. One was about to be sick. Like a family. All for one and one for all, whatever you feel for each other. Governments come and go, 'isms' come and go. What matters is the family unit."

In King Rat he describes terror but little atrocity. I ask about this.

"By 1943 the Japanese accepted the Geneva Convention. Sometimes. Prior to that, to surrender put you off limits: they didn't go for our live-and-fight-another-day. You'd given up your claim to dignity. And it was the first time that large numbers of the British—the bosses—were captured, Shanghai down to Singapore. Normally if one Briton was attacked, lo and behold over the horizon came the battleships. Suddenly the Japanese conquer thousands, who are then paraded to show they're not all-powerful: the mask has been pulled away. This was a kind of a heady experience."

He insists that historically the Japanese do not go in for torture. "Generally." When you think Clavell has completed a statement, he throws the whole thing into doubt by adding: "sometimes", "generally", "perhaps".

"They get peed off with people," he says. "In the 17th century they were anti-Christian because Christians were whipping up the Japanese to favour the Shogun in Rome. Difficult to stamp out. So they got hold of the Jesuit priests and hung them by their feet over a pit until the blood went into their heads. It was extremely uncomfortable and probably would kill them. But the Japanese didn't get a kick out of it. Usually. They killed one in order to terrorise 10,000."

And their treatment of prisoners in World War II?

"The earlier marches were brutal, primitive, but they were not torture. People were marched until they dropped and died. You hadn't food. You had to build a bridge, and if you didn't they bashed you on the head. But they didn't slit your nose, weren't like red Indian women who used to insert a thorn in the penis and then pull it out. The Japanese are a very, very gentle people. They cry a lot—privately or inside."

He thinks being English plus his naval background enabled him to survive Changi. "I was given the ability to dominate my own fear. You had to have a highly developed sense of humour, which the English have—probably because the weather's so dreadful. And my heritage makes it impolite to show emotion." Most of the time. After Changi he was the only POW on the flat-top taking him back across the Pacific.

"People looked at me out of the sides of their eyes. One survivor out of 15 is a substantial mortality rate." And there wasn't much flesh on him. "A commander handed me a proclamation welcoming the glorious warrior home. I was suddenly so angry I tore it up and threw it in his face: I wasn't a conquering bloody hero. He said, English style: 'Oh. Let's go have a drink.' If he'd reacted in a different way, I'd probably have gone bonkers."

In England, he saw a friend who'd had the bottom half of his leg cut off. "He said: 'Do you know something? My pension depends on the inches of stump I've got.' That kind of stayed in my mind. 'You boys go off and fight the war and we'll look after you.' You come back and it's not true."

In his view, governments lie, cheat, look after themselves. "Survival instinct. Governments are not concerned with me and my family."

He has a stable marriage and is extremely family-orientated and protective. "Just before I went overseas as a young officer, at my sister's school there was this scruffy little 12-year-old who said: 'I'm going to marry you. Oh yes I am.' When I came back, this broken heroic figure," he says drily, "I was going up the escalator. I saw April Stride billed in a play. I went to see the show. It was the same person. She said: 'I never said that.' 'You bloody did, you know.' So we got married. She decided."

In 1953 they went to Hollywood, he became a script writer on rock-bottom wages, then a director. Two daughters, now in their twenties, were born.

Then in the early Sixties he began writing King Rat; the turned-in-on-itself experience of Changi surfaced. Clearly the book was a purge. Even so, how was he able 10 years later to make the leap to Shogun which subtly presents the Japanese in a sympathetic light?

"I don't know. You tell me."

"You must speculate sometimes."

"I speculate at length," he concedes. By now we're getting used to each other. "You might have a theory. I might have a theory. There's no one single answer."

He has written of a tremendous affinity between the British and Japanese before 1939. I ask about their different forms of stoicism in bearing pain.

"The English don't want to embarrass others. The Japanese don't want to shame themselves; their prime duty is to themselves, keeping in balance—yang, yin. They don't go in for the western thing of being their brother's keeper." In his teasingly sang-froid manner, he gives an example of a Japanese who screwed up a coup and therefore decided to commit ritual suicide with his wife as witness. Then she kills herself. "From the western point of view, he was terribly selfish: blood, crap, entrails all over the place, and she has to look at this mess, smell the smell. Then she writes: 'I witness my husband's death.' Then she cuts her throat: that's the way women commit hara-kiri. In hara-kiri you cut open your centre. Maybe for a woman the centre is her vocal chords," he says, laughing. "In western terms, the husband would kill her first, then himself. It's a matter of manners."

When I speak sloppily of "Japs", he says curtly: "Japanese." Manners are an essential in Clavell's personal ethos. In King Rat, for instance, he merely alludes to the prisoners' limited sexuality. "Instead of writing 'jerk off' or 'masturbate', I write: 'And they did that which was necessary.' There has to be good manners in things. Perhaps also that's more intriguing to a reader."

In Shogun, eroticism is presented from the Japanese point of view. What westerners today may call "the big O", Clavell in oriental guise calls "the clouds and the rain". He smiles at the image. "Not only is the expression more pleasant: it makes you smile." He refers to a series of paintings of samurai and courtesans locked in improbable contortions. "In one picture, they are both looking off. Over there is a mirror directed at their parts. The maid is coming in on her knees with two cups of tea. If you're English, the maid-coming-in situation would spoil everything. And I'm sure it's not normal for the maid in Japan to come in while they're banging away. But the picture is trying to describe it in an interesting way—for humour as well as eroticism."

A voracious reader, he did a couple of years' research on his new book, Whirlwind. It covers three ghastly weeks in Iran just after the Ayatollah's return. Clavell builds up almost unbearable suspense without eschewing his sense of "good manners in things". Generally, I ask why the Rakoczy torture scene had to be so drawn out and explicit.

"It's all in your head," he replies. "It's not on the written page. People come in and see the way he was wired up. I do not describe the rest. I don't say anything about the smell. 'They did unmentionable things.'"

"But we hear his response to the unmentionable things being done to him."

"You like violence," says Clavell.

"Why do you say that?"

"You keep bringing it up." He goes on to say that he himself had to watch the entire scene in his mind before presenting any part of it to the reader. "Sometimes I frighten myself: the whole thing is so awful. Where does it come from? Personally I detest violence of any sort."

I switch to a less morbid subject and ask about one of the erotic, rather ambiguous, scenes in Whirlwind where two delectable Iranian wives are sharing a bath. "Does the pleasure you describe of touching each other's skin evolve into a completed lesbian act?"

"What do you think?"

"I don't know."

"Re-read one sentence. Then you'll know. You'll probably be wrong. Maybe. Perhaps." This time he mocks both of us.

He takes no sides in Whirlwind. "Every author tries to transmute into the characters he's writing about. I know how the Mullah feels about his wife, about the man whose head he's just blown off. He doesn't consider himself cruel: it's the will of God. He's going to paradise."

But the James Clavell who is sitting here on the Riviera—does he feel a little squeamish about the Muslims' eye for an eye?

"When I'm western I find it absolutely shocking. Of course. But there are a billion Muslims out there who believe in it. I'm not going to editorialise: that's cheating. What I find appalling is there's little chance of their attitudes and our attitudes coming together. The irresistible force has met the immovable object. I'm very, very bothered. I don't want to be a politician—those bloody idiots. I don't want to pontificate. I'm a writer. I know very well there's not much I can do except open people's eyes to how others think."

He has enthralled a mass audience. Intellectual critics admire the spellbinding historical narrative. But they withhold the accolade of "literature". I expect this annoys him without eating into his soul. He raises it obliquely. I ask if he cares about anyone except his family.

"The lack of justice?" he says. "Of course. But I don't shout from the ramparts. I do it more subtly."

"In your novels?"

"You must decide. I'm merely a storyteller. Take a real writer like Dickens," he says deadpan. "Is he getting rid of his anger in a subtle way? Is he saying the poor are being jumped on by the industrial revolution? Or is he just telling a story? It's for you to understand these things."

He certainly doesn't care about literary laurels in 100 years. "By that time I'm a little dead." He's enjoying his rewards here and now. His second job is selling the film rights of his books. He skis, plays tennis, flies helicopters. He doesn't like a Cadillac or Rolls waiting at the airport. He cannot bear anyone else being in control of his life. (Sooner or later everything circles back to Changi.) If people ask him to do something he doesn't want to do, his "drop dead money" means he can tell them to push off. But he's polite about it. He sacked his agent politely. "Because of my experienced nature, I'd always try to give somebody face. Why create enemies?" His elder daughter, a relative newcomer to the publishing world, now handles his foreign rights. "She's tripled my foreign income."

He avoids cameras that may catch him unguarded. "Every time I'm photographed, a part of my soul is stolen." He uses various names on credit cards and bank accounts.

Christened Charles Edmund Dumaresq Clavell, he has a nice choice. "Dumaresq was the first Australian admiral. James is a nickname." As well as a device for anonymity, it's fun. I say: "I was told you live near Cap Ferrat."

"No, Near Menton." He starts laughing. "Today I think I shall tell you a truth. Sort of."

Recently he found he wanted to write a children's book—Thrump-O-moto. A sensitive, moving story about a crippled girl, it has been exquisitely produced. (He oversaw the whole thing the way he wanted and then offered it to the publishers). "Unlike your novels," I say, "here you openly take sides: goodness is rewarded, badness punished."

"It's a fantasy. And it's not that evil is punished. He just happens to be overcome. Good gets there in the end, but only if you give yourself a hand."

Once he said: "After Changi, nothing can hurt you ever again." "Why not?" I ask.

"Oh. Well. Having experienced Changi and still been physically and mentally alive, what hurts normal people does not hurt me, what hurts me does not hurt them. The fear of most people is to be fired. So what? I know I can feed my family on a bag of rice." Plainly he is talking of the years before his bulging bank account.

I ask him what he fears that others do not. This time he bursts out laughing straight away. "I'm certainly not going to tell you. You must be joking. I may not know myself. Maybe."

(read more)

This section contains 2,706 words
(approx. 10 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Essay by Susan Crosland
Follow Us on Facebook