James Clavell Essay - Critical Essays

Clavell, James (du Maresq)


James (du Maresq) Clavell 1924–

English-born American novelist, scriptwriter, poet, and dramatist.

Clavell is known as an entertaining, rather than a "serious" writer. Most critics agree, however, that his stories are riveting and many readers appreciate Clavell's work for its action-packed plots and intriguing Asian settings. His most famous novels are his four Far Eastern historical adventures—King Rat, Tai-Pan, Shōgun, and Noble House. Of the four, King Rat and Shōgun have been adapted for the screen.

The Children's Story, Clavell's first departure from an Asian setting, is a controversial fable concerning the brainwashing of youth. Published as a magazine story in The Ladies Home Journal in 1963, it was reissued in book form in 1981 and also adapted for television.

(See also CLC, Vol. 6 and Contemporary Authors, Vol. 25-28, rev. ed.)

Granville Hicks

["King Rat"] is quite unmistakably bad and yet might, one feels, conceivably have been good….

[This] is a novel about the inhabitants of a Japanese camp called Changi, near Singapore….

[Whatever] an author's material, the question is what he is able to make of it, and this is closely related to another question: what attitude does he take towards it? By the end of this book, at any rate, Clavell's attitude can be defined: survival requires a kind of adaptation that controverts most accepted moral codes….

Clavell's approach to his material, then, is serious, at least in intention; but, as everyone knows, a novel is concerned only incidentally with ideas, and...

(The entire section is 593 words.)

Martin Levin

James Clavell's blockbuster of a first novel, "King Rat,"… presents an age-old dilemma against the background of a Japanese prison camp….

[The] chief dramatic interest in "King Rat" is not so much the clash of ideals as the unremitting pressure of the Changi compound itself and its effect on the thousands of prisoners living and dying within its boundaries. Some become informers; some rise to new levels of heroism; some are reduced to dithering protoplasm. In Mr. Clavell's story, an unusual friendship arises between moral opposites: the Corporal ("King Rat") and Flight Lieut. Peter Marlowe, who are really not so far apart as their hereditary attitudes would indicate. This friendship and its...

(The entire section is 194 words.)

Orville Prescott

[Many] of the most popular contemporary novelists are storytellers. Some of them produce such crude works that they don't seem worth discussion in this space. Others, although their novels are crude also, tell their tales with such compelling force and unceasing narrative drive that they demand critical attention. James Clavell is such a writer.

His first novel, "King Rat," was an utterly engrossing tale of violence and corruption inside a Japanese prisoner-of-war camp. It asked but did not answer important moral questions. Mr. Clavell's second novel, "Tai-Pan," is not nearly so good a book as its fine predecessor; but it is almost an archetype of pure story-telling. It's about the first six months...

(The entire section is 515 words.)

W. G. Rogers

In 1841, an Englishman and a Chinaman worked together to secure English rights to the Chinese island of Hong Kong. Only a few years later both were dismissed from their posts, the one (in theory) for getting something of too little worth, the other for getting too little for it….

The historical Englishman and the Chinaman are turned most freely into second-rank characters in ["Tai-Pan"], James Clavell's long-drawn-out novel of those turbulent days [of Hong Kong's early development]. In the foreground are the greedy dealers in tea and opium: a couple of deadly foes from England and an American. The book takes its title from the English big-shot (or Tai-Pan), Dirk Struan. (p. 38)


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In his bestselling first novel King Rat, James Clavell may have been only clearing his throat for [Tai-Pan], which seems every bit as long as it is. Its narrative pace is numbing, its style is deafening, its language penny dreadful. All the characters whirl like dervishes, especially Dirk Struan, a kind of Scottish superman who can borrow $5,000,000 in silver ingots from an Oriental tycoon, invent binoculars, and corner the world supply of cinchona bark, all without breathing very hard. Well, almost. His Scots accent wavers a bit under stress….

It's all nonsense, of course. But there are worse literary crimes than that. Clavell's book can claim kinship to those wonderful lithographs...

(The entire section is 162 words.)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

Not only is "Noble House" as long as life, it's also as rich with possibilities. For by the time you're halfway through this fourth installment in Mr. Clavell's fictional history of the Far East—the previous three entries in which were "King Rat," "Tai-Pan" and "Shogun"—there are so many irons in the fire that almost anything can plausibly happen. It may even be that Mr. Clavell himself loses track of his story. It seems to me that there's a spy or two whose fate is never resolved. And whatever happened to the threat of hepatitis that kept looming over some of the characters?

But for all its complexity of plot—and for all Mr. Clavell tries to teach us about local Hong Kong color, the Asian...

(The entire section is 451 words.)

Webster Schott

James Clavell's "Noble House" is an extravagantly romantic novel for people who really like to spend time reading novels. It's fiction for addicts….

It has 30 or 40 characters—many with interchangeable attitudes, body builds and speech habits. Thus you can concentrate on the dramatic action and tough talk instead of complexities like character and motive. It has so many plot lines—I counted at least 13 plots crisscrossing through the novel—that you can story-hop, like changing TV channels, whenever your interest in one of them wanes….

From start to finish the novel follows the economic war for control of the Noble House; there are shifting alliances, attacks on banks and...

(The entire section is 320 words.)

Anne Collins

[In Noble House] James Clavell has given us a game or two to play. The first is called pick-the-hero and it isn't so easy because both candidates wear white hats bespattered with the grey mud of Hong Kong. (p. 61)

But let's leave that game for a moment and get on with the next. It's the easier pastime of pick-the-genre, and any answer out of four or five choices is correct. Squeezed into the course of 10 days in Hong Kong in 1963, Noble House is an espionage novel along the lines of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, dealing with KGB and Communist Chinese infiltration of British government and business…. There's also a 19th-century Trollope-style chronicle of the manners, mores,...

(The entire section is 500 words.)

Henry S. Hayward

[In "Noble House" Clavell] has shifted his scene from medieval Japan to the Hong Kong of 18 years ago. But one is still in Asia—where the clash of cultures and ideologies remains as intense in 1963 as in the 1600s.

James Clavell is a master yarn-spinner and an expert on detail. Indeed, one sometimes feels overwhelmed with the masses of information and wishes a firmer editing pencil had been applied. But the author, nevertheless, is in a class with James Michener and Robert Elegant in his ability to handle a massive cast and hold your attention through the intricacies of a 1,200-page plot.

This book should last a weekend reader most of the summer. But since the action is limited to...

(The entire section is 487 words.)

Paul Bernstein

Despite the enormous success of his Asian books, James Clavell … seems equally preoccupied at the moment with American politics…. Indeed, his "The Children's Story" … has the overtones of a campaign speech on foreign policy; the "speech" has already caused considerable controversy, and can now be expected to cause more. (p. 47)

He wrote it in one "magical" day, compared with an average of three years for each of his last two novels—but then "The Children's Story" is only 96 pages long …, and it is a padded 96 pages at that…. The story concerns a young, attractive, well-trained teacher who rather effortlessly wins the hearts and minds of her primary-school pupils, shortly after their...

(The entire section is 387 words.)

R. V. Williams

[The Children's Story] represents a new sort of work for the author of King Rat and Shogun. Frankly didactic and with an explicit moral, it can be read in less than the twenty-three minutes of its action, but during the short duration of the drama, events take place which leave the reader uncomfortably thoughtful about severe current social ills and parental irresponsibility in the intellectual development of their children. The Children's Story details the possible consequences of that neglect. (pp. 243-44)

It is no small task effectively to help in the development of a young mind, but Mr. Clavell suggests we must try. Though first, he says, we must care. Failing that...

(The entire section is 168 words.)