James Clavell

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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

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["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 primarily with people. The moral dilemma that concerns Clavell is embodied in the lives of many characters, three of whom are of basic importance. Central is "the King," an American corporal who in a community of hunger, filth, and poverty manages, through various ingenious and audacious kinds of skulduggery, to have plenty of food, clean clothing, and money. The King has one great enemy, Lieutenant Grey, provost marshal, who is determined to get him. And he has, in addition to countless underlings and hangers-on, one real friend, Flight Lieutenant Peter Marlowe.

What one feels before one has gone far is that none of these characters is wholly credible, that each of them is more a type than an individual….

In manipulating these characters—not quite puppets and not quite human beings—Clavell is a good deal less than sure of himself, and his uncertainty is revealed in his handling of the point of view, He reserves the right to tell us at any time what any character is thinking and feeling…. [Clavell] gives us information that we don't need, withholds information that we have a right to, and some of the time seems to be as much in the dark as the reader about the motives of the characters. If the story had been told from the point of view of Peter Marlowe, it might have had a firm direction and reached a strong climax. As matters stand, the novel is diffuse and the conclusion weak….

One can analyze a bad novel in many ways—its style, structure, character, and all the other categories discussed in courses in novel writing—but in fact one responds to a novel as a whole, and if the badness is there, one simply feels it. To put my complaint briefly, Clavell's talents aren't worthy of his subject. In the background is physical suffering of the grimmest sort; in the foreground is a chronicle of horrible moral deterioration.

Clearly such themes as these demand a treatment that is consistently serious if not truly tragic. There can be comic episodes (as there are) and there can be episodes that are full of a Hollywood kind of excitement; but...

(This entire section contains 593 words.)

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the reader should never be allowed to forget the terrible meaning of the experiences about which he is reading. The King himself, of course, is incapable of grasping this meaning, but Clavell shouldn't be. He does grasp it in some degree some of the time, but at other times it gets away from him. Often he takes what seems to me a most unpleasant satisfaction in the King's chicanery and callousness, and this is indicative of his fundamental confusion. But confusion—moral and literary, and of course they aren't wholly unrelated—is what one feels from start to finish.

Granville Hicks, "Powerful POW in Signapore," in Saturday Review (© 1962 Saturday Review Magazine Co.; reprinted by permission), Vol. XLV, No. 32, August 11, 1962, p. 21.

Martin Levin

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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 repercussions—especially the hatred of the British P.O.W. provost marshall, who detests Marlowe for his upper-class origins and King for his classless adaptability—are the core of the narrative. But all personal relationships pale beside the impersonal, soul-disintegrating evil of Changi itself, which Mr. Clavell, himself a Japanese P.O.W. for three years, renders with stunning authority.

Martin Levin, "Reader's Report," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1962 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), August 12, 1962, p. 24.∗

Orville Prescott

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[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 of English settlement on the island of Hong Kong in 1841 and the general atmosphere of violence, intrigue and the clash of European and Asiatic ways of life seem unpleasantly reminiscent of "Hawaii."

Is "Tai-pan" only another helping of cold-boiled Michener? The answer is no. James Clavell has his own way with similar material and no matter how grievous his sins against probability, he holds attention with a relentless grip. "Tai-pan" frequently is crude. It is grossly exaggerated much of the time. But seldom does a novel appear so stuffed with imaginative invention, so packed with melodramatic action, so gaudy and flamboyant with blood and sin, treachery and conspiracy, sex and murder.

"Tai-pan" certainly isn't art; it is undoubtedly grand entertainment. If it doesn't become a great best-seller all the omens have misled me. And the inevitable movie version will probably be as long as "Gone With The Wind" and just as spectacular….

Mr. Clavell relies on basic ingredients of proved reliability. But his theatrical gusto and his unflagging ingenuity in contriving unexpected twists of plot are fresh and vigorous.

Sometimes all the feuding and fighting, intriguing and double-crossing, sex and sadism, become a trifle excessive. But these matters alternate with many an interesting exploration of the mysteries of the Chinese concept of "face" and many a neat demonstration of the methods by which business was done in the Orient in the days of the opium trade.

How accurate "Tai-pan" may be as to the historical facts of the founding of Hong Kong I have no way knowing. But since Mr. Clavell has made his hero responsible for everything we can suppose that the facts were rather different. This is not a novel to be taken seriously, although I think Mr. Clavell is serious about some aspects of it—about its general background and about the rudimentary code of honor (rudimentary, indeed) to which Dirk Struan clings.

Like most books of its kind, "Tai-pan" is much too long and ought to have been brutally cut. And also like most novels of its kind, its dialogue is rhetorical and stilted. In fact, Mr. Clavell has a tin ear for human speech…. There are some anachronisms, too. But why carp at trifles? Hordes of readers will revel in "Tai-pan."

Orville Prescott, "The Founding of Hong Kong in Brilliant Technicolor," in The New York Times (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 4, 1966, p. 45.

W. G. Rogers

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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)

[There is a multitude of] cutthroat business operations, and throats aplenty are cut. That is not the bloodiest part of the novel. A succession of pitfalls, treacheries, piracies, infidelities, murder, rape and whoring constitute the nonstop plot. The author has left out nothing…. There are frequent furtive glances to check on Peking, London and Washington, just like today. (pp. 38-9)

Heathen Chinese and pagan or Christian Westerner are taken apart, so you learn what makes them tick. No stone is left unturned, so you can see what's underneath.

"Tai-Pan" is a complete, all-inclusive, economy-size book, from the bound feet of the past to the first railroads—and the steamers to outspeed the clippers on the Far East trade routes. The men who hate each other on page one wait till almost page 590 to settle their scores; some readers will not be so patient. This is a blockbuster in dimensions but not in wallop. If the spaces between the free-for-alls had been contracted, it would have been a bang-up good novel. (p. 39)

W. G. Rogers, "Complete with Scrutable Orientals," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1966 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 22, 1966, pp. 38-9.


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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 of the Battle of the Little Bighorn that once decorated every barroom. It isn't art and it isn't truth. But its very energy and scope command the eye. (pp. 108, D4)

"Bigger Than Life," in Time (copyright 1966 Time Inc.; all rights reserved; reprinted by permission from Time), Vol. 87, No. 24, June 17, 1966, pp. 108, D4.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

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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 mind, the Chinese love of gambling, the wonders of free enterprise and the threat of the Soviet Union to the free world's security—what makes "Noble House" succeed as an adventure is really very simple. What makes the novel work is simply Ian Dunross, its profoundly middle-class hero.

You really have to hand it to Mr. Clavell. His storytelling is as clumsy as always, with its sudden and arbitrary shifts in point of view, its incredible self-motivating interior dialogues and its onstage whisperings that let you know that something important has happened without revealing yet precisely what. The dialogue is often pure comic-book, and some of the soliloquies are so wooden you could build a raft with them….

But despite the novel's many faults, Mr. Clavell is masterly at manipulating one's identification with Ian Dunross. And this identification occurs because Dunross, though he operates on a heroic scale, is basically the head of a household who, like Thornton Wilder's George Antrobus, is bringing home the bacon and protecting the women and children from the elements. It's interesting that despite the novel's purported anti-Puritanism in sexual matters, Ian Dunross is the only major male character who never comes close to having sex, even with his wife—though of course he's amusingly worldly about everyone else's peccadilloes. Yet we find ourselves rooting for Ian above all others, and even preferring him to characters much more like ourselves in their foibles and failings.

In short: "Noble House" isn't art. It isn't even slick. But it touches a number of nerves. And its scale is occasionally dizzying. At 1,200 pages, it's a book you can get lost in for weeks. In fact, some readers may disappear into it and never be heard from again. (p. 317)

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt, "'Noble House'," in The New York Times, Section III (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), April 28, 1981 (and reprinted in Books of the Times, Vol. IV, No. 7, July, 1981, pp. 316-17).

Webster Schott

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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 airlines, partial truces, parleys at lavish parties, and references by all to Sun Tzu's "The Art of War." (p. 13)

Once Mr. Clavell has the Noble House under pressure, he explodes this story into connecting plots involving Hong Kong police swindles, Cold War espionage, the Macao gold trade, a kidnapping, several murders, the U.S. Mafia….

There is another war raging in "Noble House" for control of Asian intelligence. It's a three-way struggle between the K.G.B., the People's Republic of China and Britain's M.I.6 and the American C.I.A. With fast plotting and lots of coincidences, Mr. Clavell manages to connect this high-powered cloak-and-dagger story, complete with its own cast, to the power play for the Noble House….

One comes to realize, finally, that "Noble House" isn't primarily about any particular story or character or set of characters. It's about a condition that's a place, Hong Kong. Mr. Clavell perceives that city to be a unique setting for extremes of greed and vengefulness, international intrigue and silky romance. Ian Dunross may be Mr. Clavell's hero, but Hong Kong is his protagonist. (p. 42)

Webster Schott, "Lots of Plot in Hong Kong," in The New York Times Book Review (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), May 3, 1981, pp. 13, 42.

Anne Collins

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[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, business and politics of the embattled British ruling class of Hong Kong. Then there's the pot-boiling dynasty novel, with the Gornt-Dunross rivalry carried out of Clavell's earlier historical best seller Tai-Pan. And lastly, the Horatio Alger saga of millions of Chinese intent on scoring (by any means) enough money to raise the "face" of their families permanently. As they say in Hong Kong, moh ching, moh meng. No money, no life.

Five into one won't go, though Clavell tries mightily (1,206 pages) to encompass them. Money is his tool, the "fragrant grease" of the plot. Hong Kong reeks of it. Two corporate Americans come to find it, and send Dunross and Gornt into final combat—bank runs and stock market the chosen weapons. With money as its heart, Noble House suffers the same fate as the women in the novel, sought for size and configuration rather than qualities of the soul. Though the search for riches was the motivating factor of both Clavell's excellent historical novels, Shōgun and Tai-Pan, neither were so busily hollow. God, culture, loyalty, nationhood were not yet debased currency, allowing him the layers of meaning necessary to set epics in motion. In Noble House, too much money, no life.

To a great extent, that is his point. The governor of Hong Kong, Sir Geoffrey Allison, muses, "greed pride lust avarice jealousy gluttony anger and the bigger lust for power or money ruled people and would rule them forever." But Clavell creates no character who sets up in admittedly foolish opposition to that thought. Which is why it's interesting to play the hero game. Dunross, of course, comes out cleanest—the book is called Noble House. But he is only better than or different from Gornt in one way: he is the taipan, and suffers none of the insecurity of the also-ran. Gornt in pursuit of power is quite ready to sacrifice anyone…. Dunross is the hero because he can take care of his own. The book says grab those dollars and you too will be able to take care of your own. You may as well read How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years. It's shorter. (pp. 61-2)

Anne Collins, "Seeking Fortune in Taipan Alley," in Maclean's Magazine (© 1981 by Maclean's Magazine; reprinted by permission), Vol. 94, No. 19, May 11, 1981, pp. 61-2.

Henry S. Hayward

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[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 a little more than one week and the chapters are identified by the time of day, the story can be laid down and resumed without too much puzzlement. Even so, this reviewer was not always certain which character was which—or if all the pieces fitted together. Nor do the British, American, and Soviet spymasters in "Noble House" seem as sophisticated or believable as those in recent works by John le Carré and Graham Greene.

Briefly, this opus has colorful, suspenseful incidents galore—more than enough for another television series. There is the interaction between the few, close-knit Britons and the masses of Chinese, rich or poor, in the prosperous little British Crown Colony. Added to that is the bold intrusion of business-minded Americans, and Russians determined to carry both the East-West espionage race and their bitter rivalry with the emerging China into the Hong Kong arena.

The Noble House is Struan's, a fictional Hong Kong family company, the oldest, biggest, and most powerful one. Struan's origins in the 1840s will be familiar to readers of Clavell's "Tai-Pan." The present tai-pan (supreme leader) of Struan's, Ian Dunross, suddenly finds himself in deep financial trouble, with enemies about to take over his company. Moreover, he must fulfill the ancient pledge by the founder of the trading house to grant "whatsoever he asks" to anyone producing the other half of a certain gold coin. How Dunross maneuvers out of these twin challenges forms the central plot.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong itself provides the backdrop for fascinating characters and violent events….

Mr. Clavell puts the city and its denizens through their paces so competently that one hesitates to quibble about his language. Yet I found some of his unusual contractions hard to take….

A final word about the hero, Tai-Pan Dunross. He comes across as an authentic Hong Kong type who could probably hold his own anywhere in the world. Everyone else is equally ruthless, so you end up hoping he will win out. And, guess what, he does.

Henry S. Hayward, "Epic Yarn from Author of 'Shogun'," in The Christian Science Monitor (reprinted by permission from The Christian Science Monitor; © 1981 The Christian Science Publishing Society; all rights reserved), June 24, 1981, p. 17.

Paul Bernstein

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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 homeland loses a war, and persuades them to tear the national flag into pieces. One reader's reaction was to suggest that Clavell would be more at home in Pravda. The John Birch Society called him un-American, and called for his impeachment, though from what it did not say.

If the book becomes a success … he will have his daughter, Michaela, to thank. As an adult she helped design the [recent] edition; as a child, she inspired the story, when she came home from first grade excitedly reciting the pledge of allegiance…. Not only had Michaela's teacher neglected to explain what the words meant, but Clavell found upon asking his adult friends that none of them knew who wrote the pledge, or when it became an obligatory ritual in schools, or why it was considered so important. "It was then that I realized how completely vulnerable my child's mind was—any mind for that matter—under controlled circumstances," Clavell says.

It is curious that the heavy criticism of "The Children's Story" should have come then from the right, since Clavell himself sees "The Children's Story" as "bluntly and cleanly right-wing." (pp. 47, 88)

[One advance reader] suggests that "The Children's Story" will have a greater impact than one of simply affecting current politics. Wouldn't it be ironic, she says, "if this slim, passionate and chilling volume" turned out to be what Clavell was best remembered for? Thus far, however, none of Clavell's other works have riveted the American public's attention as "Shogun" has. (p. 88)

Paul Bernstein, "Making of a Literary Shogun," in The New York Times Magazine (© 1981 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), September 13, 1981, pp. 46-7, 88, 90, 92.

R. V. Williams

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[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 responsibility, we condemn children and the adults they become to live with accepted ideas they do not understand, leaving them ripe as potential toadies for the next snake oil merchant who comes to town. (p. 244)

R. V. Williams, "Fiction: 'The Children's Story'," in Best Sellers (copyright © 1981 Helen Dwight Reid Educational Foundation), Vol. 41, No. 7, October, 1981, pp. 243-44.


Clavell, James (Vol. 6)