Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1077
Clavell, James 1924–
An English-born American novelist, poet, and playwright, Clavell is also a noted writer, director, and producer of films. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 25-28.)
I can't remember when a novel has seized my mind like ["Shōgun"]. Perhaps it was James Clavell's Hong Kong book "Tai-Pan," nine years ago. Clavell has a gift. It may be something that cannot be taught or earned. He breathes narrative. It's almost impossible not to continue to read "Shōgun" once having opened it. Yet it's not only something that you read—you live it. The imagination is possessed by … medieval Japan. Clavell creates a world: people, customs, settings, needs and desires all become so enveloping that you forget who and where you are. "Shōgun" is history infused with fantasy. It strives for epic dimension, and occasionally it approaches that elevated state. It's irresistible, maybe unforgettable and, finally, exhausting. Two volumes in one, and a half million words….
Clavell's hero is not a person. It's a place and time: medieval Japan on the threshold of becoming a sea power.
Of course, since he is writing fiction based on historical events …, rather than a history, Clavell must create his Japan by using human means: his people give us the country. What happens to them and how they respond tell us what they believe and why….
Clavell wants everything in "Shōgun," and he nearly gets it: living characters, tumultuous events, stories that shine, a culture assembled like a jigsaw puzzle. His proportions go wrong: a tea ceremony runs on for several pages…. His novel cries for cutting—it's not sacred.
James Clavell is neither literary psychoanalyst nor philosophizing intellectual. He reports the world as he sees people—in terms of power, control, strength. He loves the Orient; he researches extremely well. He writes in the oldest and grandest tradition that fiction knows. (p. 5)
Webster Schott, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1975 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), June 22, 1975.
["Shōgun" is a] slick, ambitious, eight-hundred-and-two-page popular novel about seventeenth-century Japan which disadvantageously combines the worst qualities of the factcrammed historical novel with the sort of flashy Hollywood dialogue and derring-do that haven't been around much since the heyday of the Errol Flynn movie. Mr. Clavell does have a decided gift for storytelling, and he makes a heroic effort to provide the right atmosphere for this violent, transitional period in Japan's history (he spent a year doing research for the book), but most of the time his characters' absurdly slangy modern speech (as, for example, when a Dutch sailor says "Shut your face") keeps the tone of the book at least forty degrees off course. (p. 80)
The New Yorker (© 1975 by The New Yorker Magazine, Inc.), July 28, 1975.
[Shōgun: A Novel of Japan] testifies to an immense amount of historical and cultural research, and in one aspect could be said to be a tourist guide to medieval Japan: plainly it is based on Tokugawa Ieyasu's victory over his rivals and the inauguration of Tokugawa rule, which lasted for the next two and a half centuries—and more specifically on the true story of Will Adams, the tempest-tossed Elizabethan sailor who became Ieyasu's tutor in mathematics and adviser on ship-building and foreign relations.
Mr. Clavell certainly makes the most (if not rather too much) of the exciting time he has chosen…. By Mr. Clavell's own account it was a considerably bigger time than that of little King Arthur and his handful of worried knights, and in some ways closer to the big time of the czars of the Chicago underworld….
[We must note] a reviewer's accurate summary of Shōgun. "The novel begins on a note of maelstrom-and-tempest … and teems for about 900 pages … of relentless lopped heads, severed torsos, assassins, intrigue, war, tragic love, over-refined sex, excrement, torture, high honor, ritual suicide, hot baths and breathless haikus…." To this catalogue of attractions may be added earthquakes, grasping Jesuits, [and many, many other phenomena]….
But mostly we are kept engaged with informative tidbits on [exceedingly numerous details of culture]….
One has to admire the creativity James Clavell exhibits, whether the subject is Jesuits intriguing or samurai urinating, creativity which has nothing to do with "art," neither transcending it nor the opposite, but simply belonging to a world of different values. Yet, taking it as entertainment of a lurid while busily "instructive" nature, one wonders if it doesn't suffer from its author's touching desire à la Thomas Mann to be meticulous and exhaustive. (Even disregarding the big difference: with Mann you have to bring something to the feast; here, you simply take away.) (p. 44)
A last thought. The Japanese, let's remember, are masters of the miniature, believing (like Ben Jonson) that "In small proportions we just beauties see," and an old haiku comes to mind.
O lonely pine-tree
Spare a little of your bark
For my love poem …
Painstaking also takes paper, and [this book] must have accounted for a small forest.
D. J. Enright, in The New York Review of Books (reprinted with permission from The New York Review of Books; copyright © 1975 by NYREV, Inc.), September 18, 1975.
Each page [of Shōgun: A Novel of Japan] is the length of a short story, and scarcely a one passes without some new extravagant delight: earthquakes, sea-storms, tortures, decapitations, religious barneys and a welter of pillowing. The witness of these jollifications is John Blackthorne, the pilot of a Dutch ship who stumbles on Japan in 1600; and the ensuing culture-shock inspires numerous strange oaths, modern instances, and wise saws…. Blackthorne's linguistic vivacity comes from catching the latest avant-garde stuff at the Globe Theater (sic) during shore-leave. Mr Clavell's yearning prose could do with similar attention to original sources. His narrative chugs along in timeless Mock-Elevated ('the ship knew not her rudder and neither did the sea'); but the dialogue shows up a wincingly sporadic grasp of Elizabethan vernacular: random examples include 'wog', 'son of a bitch', and 'I could use a cold beer'. However, it is possible to be too Parnassian about all this. Personally, I enjoyed Shōgun as a basic primer of Japanese. Every page contains at least half-a-dozen of those funny little yellow words, all helpfully italicised. What is more, they seem to be arranged in accordance with the standard learning principle of graded reinforcement. As long as the Japanese is more trustworthy than the English. Neh? (p. 650)
Julian Barnes, in New Statesman (© 1975 The Statesman & Nation Publishing Co. Ltd.), November 21, 1975.
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