Books

'Paper Houses': Loving one half of the country, detesting the other

by Jason James

Contributing Writer

One of the many intriguing characters who washed up in Japan in the 1920s was the novelist and poet William Plomer (pronounced “Ploomer”). Plomer was British, but largely brought up in South Africa.

Paper Houses, by William Plomer.
262 pages
HOGARTH PRESS, Fiction.

It was the success of his 1925 anti-apartheid novel “Turbott Wolfe” that interested the Japanese in him; Japan was fighting to gain equal treatment with the white races, and had unsuccessfully tried to insert a racial equality clause into the Treaty of Versailles at the end of World War I. So along with his friend Laurens van der Post, Plomer was invited by a Japanese shipping company to make a two-week visit in late 1926. He ended up staying for 2½ years.

Plomer was gay, so he would have found Japan a more congenial environment than the U.K., where homosexuality remained illegal until 1967. Japan in the 1920s was highly conservative, but men, at least, had broad sexual latitude. With militarism on the rise, the authorities seem actually to have encouraged male homosexuality.

Plomer wrote: “It was common to see two buck privates in uniform strolling about hand in hand with a far-away look in their eyes, and I was credibly informed that this was not an expression of ordinary matiness but of an emotion to some extent encouraged in the armed forces, no doubt in the belief that greater love hath no man than this, that he lay down his life for his emperor, but that there will be an extra incentive if by so doing he is also laying down his life for his friend. Such intense relationships have of course a place in the samurai tradition.”

Plomer was ahead of his time in many ways. His opposition to racism is one example, but he also decried the “enslavement of women” in Japan, as well as the frequency of suicides, which he described as “annoyingly common.” Both these themes feature strongly in “Paper Houses,” his 1929 Japan-themed volume of short stories.

The Japanese presumably hoped that Plomer would praise Japan in his writings. Shortly after he arrived he met Foreign Minister (later Prime Minister) Kijuro Shidehara, who suggested he would become “the second Lafcadio Hearn.” But Plomer felt that Hearn had praised Japan too unquestioningly, and replied “No sir, I shall be the first William Plomer.” In fact, Plomer had decidedly mixed feelings about Japan, stating “I learned to love half its life … I hated the other half.” The final story in “Paper Houses” is a vicious satire entitled “Mother Kamchatka,” in which he ridicules Japan’s extreme deference to the emperor and its strict social codes. His description of the fictional country of Kamchatka includes a gigantic Statue of Discipline in the harbor “in the shape of a colossal policeman.”

It was Plomer’s dislike of Japan’s fascist tendencies, and its growing xenophobia, that became the main reason for him leaving the country — and perhaps it’s just as well that he got out before “Paper Houses” was published. Unlike his fellow British author Edmund Blunden, who also lived in Japan in the 1920s, and retained a rose-tinted view of the country right up to Pearl Harbor and even beyond, Plomer was early to sense where things were heading. He wrote in 1929, “I detest their tendency to nationalistic paranoia and their particular politico-religious superstitions … which, if persisted in, will have terrible results.”

But there were also aspects of Japan that Plomer greatly admired. He had many close Japanese friends, and lovers, and he had the highest respect for Japan’s cultural attainments, stating that “artistically, they had already done all that art can ever do when the miraculous Nara sculptures were set up in the eighth century.” It was his admiration for Japanese theater that, in the end, led to one of his most important legacies. He wrote “Japan almost took away my appetite for the English theater: there the art of acting, which is hereditary, has attained perfection.” He was a particular fan of bunraku and noh.

So although Plomer himself never returned to Japan after leaving in 1929, he urged the composer Benjamin Britten to go to a noh play when the latter visited in 1956. “I strongly recommended the Japanese theater in its various forms, kabuki, bunraku and noh — particularly the noh.” Britten took the advice, and was so struck by the noh play he saw that, with Plomer as librettist, he turned it into his opera “Curlew River.”

The clear-sightedness Plomer displayed in Japan became a valuable asset. In later life, he was a key player in the British literary world as chief reader for the publisher Jonathan Cape. Among many other achievements, he encouraged Ian Fleming to write thrillers, and persuaded his skeptical colleagues to publish the resulting “Bond” novels. With “Bond 25” currently in production, it is a legacy that stands to this day.

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