review page


New York Times Book Review, full page review by Joseph O’Neill
August 19, 2016

In this esoterically learned and ­always entertaining book, Jamie James offers biographical sketches of aesthetic extremists who decided to settle somewhere foreign to them, usually a hotter and poorer place: The Pacific and the ­Caribbean figure luminously in these ­pages. (Funny how people don’t seem to reinvent themselves in Swindon or Stuttgart.) James names his subjects “exotes.” Unlike the traveler or the tourist, who belongs somewhere and intends to return there, the exote is a “voluntary exile who goes to distant lands in search of a new home with no intent to repatriate.” Rimbaud was an exote. Marco Polo wasn’t.
A Texan who wrote art reviews for The New Yorker in the 1990s, James is himself an exote. After years of incessant travel, in 1999 he upped sticks from New York and moved permanently to Bali, where, by all appearances, he has found his métier as a writer of fiction and nonfiction with local and regional themes. James is passionately interested in Pacific culture, Indonesian in particular, and he has an inordinate, and no doubt cost-ineffective, appetite for research. He may be a blue-chip ­professional writer (and one with a subtle sense of language and a very good idea of where his reader is), but there’s no question that his new book is the work of an amateur in the strictest, most laudable sense: the one who acts, in this case writes, out of love ... read more

The New Yorker, January 2, 2017
Artists and writers who journeyed to distant lands to “create a new self in a new place” are the subject of this study: Paul Gauguin, Victor Segalen, Walter Spies, Isabelle Eberhardt, Maya Deren, and Raden Saleh. James tells their stories and assesses their works, which (Gauguin’s excepted) have often been overlooked. One reason is that the cultural fusions they produced—Spies’s gorgeous Balinese landscapes, Segalen’s proto-modernist poems in the shape of Chinese “steles,” Eberhardt’s Russian-Muslim romances—resist categorization. James demonstrates their importance in shaping Western conceptions of the East (and vice versa), and he rejects the charge of Orientalism, insisting that his subjects were not mere tourists but sincerely engaged in translating one world to another... See review

Tash Aw, in the Financial Times
FT Weekend, August 12, 2016

More than 60 years before the painter Paul Gauguin travelled from Paris to Tahiti in order to refashion his life and work “in isolation and virtual savagery”, another artist had made the voyage in the opposite direction, a journey that began with considerably less fanfare than Gauguin’s, but which also involved a deliberate invention of a near-mythic public image, complicated cultural loyalties and, ultimately, a less than happy ending.
Raden Saleh’s is perhaps the most moving of the half-dozen portraits of “exotes,” the term Jamie James uses throughout his entertaining, erudite study of a rarefied group of people whose experience of other cultures transcended mere travel, who sought instead “to immerse themselves in otherness” over the course of 100 years, starting from the 19th century... read more

Wall Street Journal: Seeking the Strange and Savage
Review by Ben Downing, August 19, 2016

Are you an exote? Probably not. Exotes are a rare breed, and my guess is that few read this newspaper. “But what the devil is an exote?” you ask. “Some kind of gender-bender or cutting-edge hipster?” Actually, the term, coined in 1904 by the French writer Victor Segalen, denotes a passionate, self-immersing traveler to exotic realms, as against a mere “impressionistic tourist.” In “The Glamour of Strangeness,” a splendid book marred only by its awkward title, Jamie James borrows and adapts Segalen’s term, applying it to a number of 19th- and 20th-century writers and artists who, in his view, exemplify the type. To label the book a biographical study would be to scant its originality. Shifting fluently from subject to subject, teasing out patterns but not pressing them too hard, bringing his own experience to bear in illuminating ways, Mr. James has written a book that defies easy classification and is completely at ease in its skin... read more

Publisher’s Weekly starred review
April 4, 2016

In this exciting book, novelist and critic James (The Snake Charmer) examines six artists (and many interesting secondary figures) whose travels allowed them to find inspiration and belonging far from their homelands in locations across the globe. James primarily focuses on the painter Paul Gauguin (1848–1903), who left Paris to settle in Tahiti; Raden Saleh (1814–1880), a Javanese painter who traveled across Europe; and French poet and doctor Victor Segalen (1878–1919), for whom China became a second home. Also dominant are Isabelle Eberhardt (1877–1904), a Swiss writer who emigrated to French Algeria dressed as a man; Walter Spies (1895–1942), a painter nearly forgotten in modern Germany, who moved to Bali; and the American filmmaker Maya Deren (1917–1961), who immersed herself in voodoo culture in Haiti. In addition to analyzing his subjects’ art, James details their rich lives, mining their published works, personal archives, journals, and letters, and often revealing serendipitous connections between the artists. Many of his subjects refused to conform to the social norms of their birthplaces, namely monogamy and heterosexuality, and the description of these struggles is illuminating. James also includes his own perspective, reflecting on his travels through Asia, South America, and Europe, and his permanent relocation to Bali, where he has witnessed firsthand the effects of globalization. This well-written text is a sharp, thought-provoking contribution to the ongoing conversation about transculturation.

Starred review in Kirkus
May 15, 2016

Six artists in quest of the exotic. Throughout his career, novelist, cultural critic, and travel writer James (Rimbaud in Java: The Last Voyage, 2011, etc.) was drawn by "the romantic allure" of the mysterious and remote; since 1999, the Houston-born writer has made a home in Indonesia. Like the artists he profiles in this richly detailed, absorbing cultural history, the author well understands the motivation of "exotes," "an elite group of travelers who seek to immerse themselves in otherness." His major focus is on painters Paul Gauguin, Walter Spies, and Raden Saleh; writers Isabelle Eberhardt and Victor Segalen; and filmmaker Maya Deren. All from different places, they shared a cosmopolitan background, confused cultural identity, unconventional private lives, and an overwhelming desire to reinvent themselves. Gauguin, "sexually frustrated and perpetually in debt," left France for Tahiti, intent on starting a new, liberated life but always with an eye on the Paris art market. James sees him as "a pioneer of a new vision of travel as a one-way proposition." Like Rimbaud before him and Spies after, he was motivated "more by a disgust with the homeland than by an informed attraction to the new home." Unlike James' other subjects, who fled from the stultifying materialism of Western culture, Saleh, "an enthusiast who fervently idealized Europe and European ways," left Java for Germany, where he became a dandy, painting and socializing with aristocrats. Handsome, blond Spies left his famous lover, filmmaker F.W. Murnau, in Germany when he sailed to Bali, where he "created a cosmopolitan social whirl of his own," with guests who included Charlie Chaplin, Noel Coward, and Leopold Stokowski. James does not argue for the artistic greatness of his lesser-known characters, but they prove to him "that cultural identity can be a choice," pursued with joy. Abundant primary sources inform James' sharply drawn, sympathetic portraits.

“Exceptional erudition and nimble eloquence”: starred review in Booklist
Donna Seaman, July 1, 2016

James’ seductive title refers to the fascination that inspired artists to travel far from their birthplaces to find a land that truly felt like home. An art critic, travel writer, and author (The Snake Charmer, 2008) from Texas and long based in New York, James came under the spell of the exotic and moved to Bali in 1999, an experience that infuses his zestful inquiry in earlier “transcultural” adventures with simpatico perceptions. After a fresh look at Gauguin in Tahiti, James turns to lesser-known, more alluring seekers. Raden Saleh was a Javanese painter who, at 18 in 1829, left Indonesia for Holland with a Dutch colonial official and launched a triumphant European career as a flamboyantly attired high-society painter. A century later, Walter Spies, an openly (at great risk) gay German painter and musician, found his paradise in Bali. The French naval doctor and writer Victor Segalen flourished in early twentieth-century China. The marvelously audacious Swiss writer Isabelle Eberhardt roamed late nineteenth-century North Africa dressed as a man. And the avant-garde American filmmaker Maya Deren discovered her spiritual wellspring in Haiti. James is merrily entertaining in his exceptional erudition and nimble eloquence, and fluently and movingly insightful in his psychological, sexual, social, and aesthetic interpretations as he tells these astonishing, often tragic tales of intrepid self-creation and ardently chosen homelands.

Boston Globe, review by Matthew Price
August 19, 2016

They were painters, filmmakers, writers, and cultural vagabonds. But, besides being connoisseurs of faraway lands, the subjects of Jamie James’s fascinating new cultural history, “The Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic,’’ were seekers, suffering from an existential kind of homelessness, destined to “roam the world in search of the home they never had in the place that made them.”
James dubs them “exotes,” a term he borrows from the French writer, doctor, and sinologist Victor Segalen, one of the subjects of his book, for those who choose “to immerse themselves in otherness.’’ In these nine linked essays, James focuses on the lives and travels of a half dozen artists who took deep dives in such locales as Tahiti, Java, China, Haiti, and the deserts of North Africa from the 19th century through the middle of the 20th, before the “cultural homogenization’’ ushered in by the rise of global capitalism and personal technology and the Internet... read more

Harper’s Magazine, August 2016, review by Christine Smallwood
Rebirth, like self-invention, is a privilege, and can be withheld by political forces. When Raden Saleh, the Javanese painter, returned to the Dutch East Indies in 1851 — after more than twenty years of hobnobbing with European royals whom he allowed to believe that he, too, was royalty — he shrank from the necessity of appearing at the Dutch colonial court in “native costume.” He wrote to King Willem III of the Netherlands for a dispensation, suggesting that instead of going shirtless in a sarong, he might wear a Western uniform, as the Javanese officers of the Dutch army did. Specifically, Raden Saleh asked to be allowed to wear a “fantasy uniform,” the garb of the Batavian civil-defense cavalry, “which is worn neither by the Dutch nor by the Dutch Indian military.” Besides, he added, if he were to appear in the local garb, how could he wear the decoration that Willem had awarded him, the medal of a knight of the Oak Crown?
As Jamie James notes in The Glamour of Strangeness, (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, $27) a “fantasy uniform” is a potent metaphor not only for Raden Saleh’s fantasy identity but for the insupportable position of the “educated native” under a colonial regime. I am grateful to James, without whom I would never have learned the story of Raden Saleh’s life — a life that also has the contours of a fantasy. One of six “exotes,” James’s grand word for exotic-seeking expats across the late nineteenth and the twentieth century, Raden Saleh studied orientalist painting in the Netherlands and brought it to Saxony, where it failed to catch fire. More influential was his importation of modern European art, or at least a European sense of aesthetic detachment, to Java. His 1863 canvas Drinking Tiger subordinates the animal to “the primordial majesty of the land”; it was the first painting by a Javanese artist to make the forest its main subject. “In the context of Javanese art,” James writes, “Drinking Tiger is as revolutionary as Olympia.”... read more