Moving abroad has likely never seemed a more popular notion than in the wake of a disastrous election. Whether it was Brexit earlier this year or the still unfathomable electoral-college triumph of Donald J. Trump, an urge to expatriate has, at least impulsively or fleetingly, bubbled up in people distressed by the current situation in their homelands. Few will actually take that next step, but political, societal and economic unrest has caused many people throughout history to seek out rosier climes. In his latest book, The Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic, Jamie James focuses on how it’s not only distaste for one’s native society that creates a drive to seek out new lives abroad, but rather a kind of wanderlust-taken-root that propels them to settle down in places that reshape quotidian existence.

An American expat himself and a former critic for The New Yorker and The Times of London, James has lived in Indonesia with his partner since 1999. Because of this, it’s little surprise that his adopted home plays a large role in this latest book. James’ 2011 book, Rimbaud in Java, which chronicled the detour that 19th century French poet Arthur Rimbaud’s life took when he deserted his military post and ran off to live in the jungle for a mysterious span of time, also prominently featured an Indonesian island. Several years prior to that story’s narrative, an 18-year-old Rimbaud had predicted as much, saying, “My day is done; I’m leaving Europe. The sea air will burn my lungs; lost climes will tan my skin.”

Such an intrepid sentiment sums up the impetus for The Glamour of Strangeness’s six principal figures to leave the familiarity of home in an urgent search for something new. While James doesn’t present a chapter specifically dedicated to his exploits, Rimbaud factors heavily into a discussion otherwise devoted to his contemporary Paul Gauguin, the post-Impressionist painter and sculptor who left Paris for Tahiti, where he would live out his days. Many of the book’s wanderers are Western artists moving elsewhere. French poet and novelist Victor Segalen makes his new home in 19th century imperial China; the Russian-Swiss writer Isabelle Eberhardt takes off for Saharan North Africa; German painter Walter Spies leaves for Bali (an Indonesian island close to the author’s heart); and Russian-American filmmaker Maya Deren repeatedly treks to Haiti. Meanwhile, the book gets its cover from a painting by Raden Saleh, a man who went the other way and moved from Java into the art scene of Europe.

James terms these artists “exotes,” those people who don’t fit the definition of a tourist (who returns home quickly) or a traveler (who bounces around from place to place). Rather these people represent someone who undergoes a personal transformation by immersing themselves in a specific culture and making it their new home. These particular exotes are glamorized in some instances by James, but the author also points to reasons why the romanticized “other” can ultimately lose its luster once the novelty wears off. James delves deeply into each of these artist’s stories, making for an intensely esoteric book; a casual reader can easily get lost in the historical or socio-cultural asides. Other notables drift in and out, most interestingly with Nosferatu director F.W. Murnau, a lover of Spies, who would go on to name his boat “Bali” and spend his later years eagerly sailing toward Spies’ distant new home but never quite reaching it.

The Glamour of Strangeness may be a book that’s largely about a desire for a unique place and culture, but it’s principal figures also share a common penchant for craving the “otherness” in people and perception as well. Lurid sexual exploits, taboo-breaking behavior and substance abuse serve as a common thread throughout, not to mention relatively early deaths. But these are intriguing art-world figures who defied convention and sated their appetites for the “exotic” by setting off for uncharted waters. James has given us exhaustive and intriguing insight into what turns a case of wanderlust into the desire to carve out a home in a strange new land. Our technologically interconnected world may not allow for the same kind of immersion into a complete unknown as it did a century or more ago, but whether you flee the country to avoid a new regime or move elsewhere to redefine your sense of self, James would insist that home is wherever you make it.

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