There are certain people who believe they don’t belong in the place where they were born and raised, and that they should be living be in a radically different country or world. Then they relocate. Some of them are painters or writers, including such major figures as Paul Gauguin, Arthur Rimbaud and T.E. Lawrence.
Now Jamie James has come out with a new book, “The Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic,” which will be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux on Tuesday and concerns the lives of those transplants. He chose six of them, with Gauguin — who famously went from working at a French stock exchange to being — a Tahiti-based artist among them. The others are Javanese painter Raden Saleh — who had a highly successful career in Germany and Holland — and German artist and musician Walter Spies, who made a home in Bali; writer-adventurer Isabelle Eberhardt, who was born in Geneva but found herself in Algeria and the Sahara, believing herself to be a Muslim man; avant-garde filmmaker Maya Deren, a Russian-born New Yorker who became obsessed with Haiti and voodoo, and French doctor-archaeologist-ethnologist-writer-poet Victor Segalen, who traveled around the world and spent long periods of time in Polynesia and China, writing extensively about each.
James, who has written two novels and four other works of nonfiction, among them “Rimbaud in Java: The Last Voyage,” himself is one of these people, whom he refers to as “exotes,” rather than expatriates, and autobiographical section chapters begin and end “The Glamour of Strangeness.” He has done a great deal of travel writing, and has written for The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic and been art critic of The New Yorker and The Times of London. In 1999, James went to Indonesia to live with his partner, Rendy, whom he had met in 1995 while in Jakarta, Indonesia, to profile the novelist Pramoedya Ananta Toer. They live in Lombok, Bali, where Rendy owns a number of local businesses.
“It started really with meeting my partner,” James says. “I made some friends among expatriates, and I began to consider that you can actually live outside the U.S. So that was when I began to not focus so much on traveling around seeing new places, I became really interested in Indonesia at that point, when I really hooked up with Rendy.”
Earlier, the pair thought that Rendy would move to the U.S., “but because he’s a single Muslim man trying to get in, even before 9/11, if you were a Chinese student who got into Stanford and your father was rich, you would be fine.” But he couldn’t get a residential visa, and James went to join him in Bali instead. He writes in the book that he was appalled by what was going on in the U.S. at the time — the impeachment of President Clinton — so he was happy to get away.
He continues, “The first five years of living abroad are so exciting, it’s an immersion in an unfamiliar culture. Everything is just so interesting; their lives are so different from yours. Eventually, [if you’re] successfully transplanted, that becomes more familiar. My sister has only just stopped asking me, ‘When are you going to come home?’”
Between James and Rendy, he notes, “At this point, our positions have kind of reversed. He operates four restaurants and a small hotel. He’s like the little guy in the top hat in Monopoly. [But in the beginning], he was really trying to get established. Meanwhile, the editorial universe has been turned upside-down. Freelance journalism is gone or has gone completely digital. I’ve been very fortunate to have the loyalty of Farrar, Straus. This is kind of a dream to be writing a book like this. If I were still toughing it out with my apartment in New York — it’s just incredibly difficult living in New York.”
Shortly after he moved to Indonesia, the government was overthrown in what he calls a “street revolution.”
“In the history of these Asian countries, they don’t have a great interest in reconciliation committees,” he adds. “They usually regard the powers of government as beyond their control. But in 1998 — I don’t want to sound too naïve — but it was like the French Revolution. People were so incredibly excited. But the elite people who had the real power rather quickly restored things. ‘Meet the new boss, same as the old boss.’”
James was exposed early to the figures in the book. German scholar “Werner Kraus organized an exhibition of Raden Saleh paintings, and the exhibition was fantastic,” he says. “It traveled to Germany, but I already knew about Raden Saleh because he’s also a local hero in Java. There’s a major street in Jakarta that’s named after him, and his house has become a hospital in Jakarta. There were two artists traveling in parallel yet opposite — Java and then Bali — who created this original view of their surroundings and had this fantastic life in Holland and Germany. The book became a dual biography of these two guys [Saleh and painter Walter Spies], then Jonathan Galassi, editor at Farrar Straus & Giroux, said, ‘Why don’t you expand the scope?’ People may hate Gauguin’s dating life [he slept with many women, including some who were underage, which gave him the syphilis that eventually killed him], and I had some things to say about him, so I started with him.”
Now that he’s started with “exotes,” James is hooked on the theme and plans to explore it further. “My next book is about expatriate writers and artists in Capri. The reality is I’m friends with [some expatriates] — ‘My fabulous lifestyle, come to my estate in the mountains where my liveried little Balinese orchestra will play tinkling tunes,’” he says, imitating one of them.
“Then there’s the American who is able to go out for dinner to sports bars and fancy restaurants, and when he hits retirement, he goes back to the home country. But the exote finds himself or herself changed by the new home.
“Meanwhile, back at the ranch, home is also changing. Home changes considerably, and the pace of that change picks up considerably. The last time I was in New York, I went to Harlem for the first time in 20 years, and it was like going to South Kensington in London. And my friends said, ‘Oh, my God, Harlem was 10 years ago.’”
He says of one of his subjects, Deren, “I was just so glad to have an American among the cast. She is just so complex in her work. She was actually really a discovery for me. I read ‘The Divine Horseman’ when I was in college, what her life was like because of economic conditions and political conditions in the Fifties, for in those days, if you were a foreigner going to Haiti, you can’t really pay the local rate for things. She never tried to legally emigrate to it.
“But she was very brave; she did not compromise an inch. She had a dream. She had her dream of film as a fine art, and she was just never going to compromise. I talk about her last film, ‘Maeva,’ set in Tahiti, in the January issue of the Yale Review, which is publishing my transcription of her script, from a film which was thought to be lost. It’s kind of a junky film, but there’s another interesting little twist to the story. The film was directed by this guy [Umberto] Bonsignori, who had no career in movies whatsoever. The film was shown at the Venice Film Festival. Then he got a job at MGM, and got his Ph.D. at UCLA. He was very proud of this film, and kept it under his pillow all his life, but he directed his granddaughter to throw it out when he died. She did, but then thought better of it, and tried to rescue the film before the garbage men came. But it was too late — somebody had already taken it.”
Years later, James notes, Bonsignori’s daughter put a little notice in a local newsletter that circulated in the retirement complex where he had died, asking if anyone knew anything about this film that had been put out with the trash several years before. Amazingly, she was contacted by the couple who had taken the reels and a new print of the film was made from that.”