Dandies in dissolving times

A new collection of essays celebrates genius in exile and culture in the midst of squalor. The Missionary and the Libertine by Ian Buruma Faber, pounds 16.99

The reason Ian Buruma is worth reading about the East is that he has strong and definite tastes. He is as far removed as possible from the average travel writer, flitting from place to place, armour-plated with irony and condescension. Buruma does not flit: he spent years and years in Japan, more years based in Hong Kong. And in a new collection of essays, this writer, whose chief failing till now has been an air of rather chilly superiority, allows us to come closer than in any of his previous work to his humanity.

He does this by showing us what he likes. Roughly half the essays in The Missionary and the Libertine are about people, and several of them are about the writers and film directors Buruma admires. It is a connoisseur's list: the Japanese novelist Junichiro Tanizaki; Satyajit Ray, the Bengali film director; Nirad Chaudhuri, the Indian historian, now resident in Oxford; V S Naipaul; and a largely forgotten turn-of-the-century Dutch novelist called Louis Couperus.

Through his meditations on the works of these men, Buruma allows us to see what it is, emotionally and intellectually, that has drawn and held him to the East. Certain key words emerge over and over again: decadence, dandyism, patrician, elitism, deracine. All Buruma's heroes emerge from, and are beneficiaries of, literary cultures of immense wealth and sophistication. But none can escape the curse (or ambiguous blessing) of living in these interesting times, when all such cultures are in dissolution.

Tanizaki, Ray and the rest achieve greatness by neither succumbing to vulgarity nor scurrying back into their libraries and slamming the door, but by fashioning their works in full sight and knowledge of the modern world and the absurdity of their position in it. The result is Buruma's favourite word, "dandyism". Of Ray and his background, he writes, "Calcutta somehow managed to wear its decadence with a certain amount of grace; the anomaly of high culture in the midst of squalor is a kind of dandyism."

It is tempting to see Buruma's veneration of these figures as a way of meditating on his own work and potential, a quest for masters. If, in Howard Jacobson's formulation, the rootless Jew is the prototype of every modern hero, someone like Naipaul is the type of the modern heroic writer: freighted with culture, but spiritually always on the road. By his own long sojourns abroad, his marriage to a Japanese, and an education divided between Holland and Japan, Buruma has rendered himself deracine, too: hence his sympathy for those who have taken that condition and produced greatness from it. But part of the problem with deracination is to know who exactly you are writing for. If, like Naipaul, you are obsessional and serious enough, by writing for yourself alone you write for the world. Buruma's case, however, is rather different.

Part of the time - writing for example about the "suicidal dandy" Yukio Mishima, or the relationship between political radicalism and pornography in the work of another oriental dandy, the film director Nagisa Oshima - he is writing, one feels, for his own pleasure, and one shares in it. But for half of this book - long pieces on the Seoul Olympics, on the Phillipines or on Singapore - he is writing about subjects that, interesting in a journalistic sense, do not engage him at so deep a level.

It is in these very competent pieces that one senses the absence of an audience with whom Buruma has a relationship. Most were written for the New York Review of Books; but Buruma has never lived in the United States, and has no political engagement with it. He is not, like Naipaul, strenuously talking to himself; nor, like say Christopher Hitchens, is he firing off polemics, trying to change people's minds.

Buruma tries to compensate for this lack by a tone of dry, sometimes supercilious authority - which is a pity, because, as this book shows, there is a warm, beating heart in there. One would like him to follow its urgings more often.

Arts and Entertainment
Art on their sleeves: before downloads and streaming, enthusiasts used to flick through racks of albums in their local record shops
musicFor Lois Pryce, working in a record shop was a dream job - until the bean counters ruined it
Arts and Entertainment
Serial suspect: the property heir charged with first-degree murder, Robert Durst
TV review
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

Arts and Entertainment
Igarashi in her

Art Megumi Igarashi criticises Japan's 'backwards' attitude to women's sexual expression

Arts and Entertainment
Could Ed Sheeran conquer the Seven Kingdoms? He could easily pass for a Greyjoy like Alfie Allen's character (right)

tv Singer could become the most unlikely star of Westeros

Arts and Entertainment
Beyonce, Boris Johnson, Putin, Nigel Farage, Russell Brand and Andy Murray all get the Spitting Image treatment from Newzoids
tvReview: The sketches need to be very short and very sharp as puppets are not intrinsically funny
Arts and Entertainment
Despite the controversy it caused, Mile Cyrus' 'Wrecking Ball' video won multiple awards
musicPoll reveals over 70% of the British public believe sexually explicit music videos should get ratings
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister and Ian Beattie as Meryn Trant in the fifth season of Game of Thrones

Arts and Entertainment

book review
Arts and Entertainment
It's all in the genes: John Simm working in tandem with David Threlfall in 'Code of a Killer'

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Far Right and Proud: Reggies Yates' Extreme Russia

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West was mobbed in Armenia after jumping into a lake

Arts and Entertainment
The show suffers from its own appeal, being so good as to create an appetite in its viewers that is difficult to sate in a ten episode series

Game of Thrones reviewFirst look at season five contains some spoilers
Arts and Entertainment
Judi Dench and Kevin Spacey on the Red Carpet for 2015's Olivier Awards

Ray Davies' Sunny Afternoon scoops the most awards

Arts and Entertainment
Proving his metal: Ross Poldark (played by Aidan Turner in the BBC series) epitomises the risk-taking spirit of 18th-century mine owners

Poldark review
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne is reportedly favourite to play Newt Scamander in Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Arts and Entertainment
Tom Hardy stars in dystopian action thriller Mad Max: Fury Road

Arts and Entertainment
Josh, 22, made his first million from the game MinoMonsters

Grace Dent

Channel 4 show proves there's no app for happiness
Disgraced Top Gear presenter Jeremy Clarkson
Arts and Entertainment
Game face: Zoë Kravitz, Bruce Greenwood and Ethan Hawke in ‘Good Kill’

film review

Arts and Entertainment
Living like there’s no tomorrow: Jon Hamm as Don Draper in the final season of ‘Mad Men’

TV review

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Revealed: Why Mohammed Emwazi chose the 'safe option' of fighting for Isis, rather than following his friends to al-Shabaab in Somalia

    Why Mohammed Emwazi chose Isis

    His friends were betrayed and killed by al-Shabaab
    'The solution can never be to impassively watch on while desperate people drown'
An open letter to David Cameron: Building fortress Europe has had deadly results

    Open letter to David Cameron

    Building the walls of fortress Europe has had deadly results
    Tory candidates' tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they seem - you don't say!

    You don't say!

    Tory candidates' election tweets not as 'spontaneous' as they appear
    Mubi: Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash

    So what is Mubi?

    Netflix for people who want to stop just watching trash all the time
    The impossible job: how to follow Kevin Spacey?

    The hardest job in theatre?

    How to follow Kevin Spacey
    Armenian genocide: To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie

    Armenian genocide and the 'good Turks'

    To continue to deny the truth of this mass human cruelty is close to a criminal lie
    Lou Reed: The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond the biographers' and memoirists' myths

    'Lou needed care, but what he got was ECT'

    The truth about the singer's upbringing beyond
    Migrant boat disaster: This human tragedy has been brewing for four years and EU states can't say they were not warned

    This human tragedy has been brewing for years

    EU states can't say they were not warned
    Women's sportswear: From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help

    Women's sportswear

    From tackling a marathon to a jog in the park, the right kit can help
    Hillary Clinton's outfits will be as important as her policies in her presidential bid

    Clinton's clothes

    Like it or not, her outfits will be as important as her policies
    NHS struggling to monitor the safety and efficacy of its services outsourced to private providers

    Who's monitoring the outsourced NHS services?

    A report finds that private firms are not being properly assessed for their quality of care
    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    Zac Goldsmith: 'I'll trigger a by-election over Heathrow'

    The Tory MP said he did not want to stand again unless his party's manifesto ruled out a third runway. But he's doing so. Watch this space
    How do Greek voters feel about Syriza's backtracking on its anti-austerity pledge?

    How do Greeks feel about Syriza?

    Five voters from different backgrounds tell us what they expect from Syriza's charismatic leader Alexis Tsipras
    From Iraq to Libya and Syria: The wars that come back to haunt us

    The wars that come back to haunt us

    David Cameron should not escape blame for his role in conflicts that are still raging, argues Patrick Cockburn
    Sam Baker and Lauren Laverne: Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    Too busy to surf? Head to The Pool

    A new website is trying to declutter the internet to help busy women. Holly Williams meets the founders