Simon Leys, navigator between worlds

By Martin Krygier
Reflections on one of the great essayists at the launch of a new biography

In March 1975, I had just begun my doctorate in Canberra, and I was also editing book reviews for Quadrant, which was once a serious magazine. Professor Google was not yet born, so I used to drive every few weeks to the British high commission where I could look for ideas, in current copies of the Times Literary Supplement. I came across a review of a book that sounded intriguing, Ombres Chinoises (later to appear in English as Chinese Shadows). The reviewer identified the author as “a European sinologist under the pseudonym Simon Leys”. I went back to the university to ask another sinologist I knew to review it; I also asked if he knew who this guy was and where he was. As I recall, he smiled slightly but didn’t let me know that if I’d crossed the street I could have found Pierre Ryckmans, Leys’ alter ego, in the department of oriental studies.

A little more than a year later, Mao Zedong died and the Australian National University held a debate about his achievement and legacy, between a then friend of mine who studied contemporary Chinese politics, and Pierre, whom I had not met. My friend praised the Great Helmsman in the most exalted, unqualified terms, as was exceedingly common in those days. In response, Pierre quietly listed a litany of Mao’s horrific crimes, which were really beyond imagination, and, quantitatively at least, dwarfed those of Stalin, which I knew something about, as I did about earlier apologists for his crimes who had spoken in terms similar to my friend’s. Though I knew little about China, I quickly realised one thing: it was impossible for these two contradictory accounts to be given of the same events, without one of the experts being a liar. Though I didn’t know him then, it was obvious to me that Pierre was not lying, couldn’t lie (in any event, with such a hostile and suspicious audience he couldn’t have got away with it). And so I asked a question which raised that issue; it lost me a friend, but allowed me to introduce myself to Pierre.

One thing came of that meeting, of which I like to boast. Some time later, I was giving a seminar on Trotsky’s explanation of Stalin’s murderous victory over him (though he himself had not yet been murdered, of course, millions of others had, some by him). Trotsky went to extremely complicated lengths to explain how he, and the revolution, had come to be “betrayed”. It wasn’t easy for him to do. He couldn’t just blame Stalin, both because in Marx’s account only social classes, not individuals, move history, and because he couldn’t bring himself to believe that that individual in particular, that “grey blur”, that mediocrity who “knew no foreign languages”, had triumphed over him, Trotsky, second only to Lenin in the Bolshevik pantheon. I’d come to believe that Trotsky’s explanation was absurdly over-theorised, because he couldn’t face some simple truths, when I came across a remark allegedly made by Al Capone. Asked in 1923 what he thought of Mussolini’s chances, he’s said to have replied, “He’ll be OK, so long as he can keep the boys in line.” That seemed to me to get it in one. Pierre was at my seminar and asked if he could use the line in a column he was writing for Newsweek, since he thought it more perceptive than the mountains of words used and abused to try to deny or explain the horrors of the cultural revolution that Mao had unleashed on the China Pierre loved, and of which he had arguably become and remains the world’s most eloquent and persuasive moral witness.

I think that line from Capone was the only thing Pierre ever learnt from me. I and countless others, however, learnt an unrepayable amount from him. Even if his searingly honest, brave, and devastating exposés of Maoism had been the only things he had written, there would already have been a need for a book such as this; though it might have been a bit shorter. However, Pierre exhibited, to use the title of a chapter of this book, a truly “protean curiosity”, and he contributed to our intellectual, cultural and moral nourishment in so many ways: as reader, writer, thinker, novelist, aesthete, translator, sailor and writer about the sea, unflinching moralist, impassioned amateur and producer of art and literature in French, English and Chinese. Ian Buruma, who has recently become editor of the New York Review of Books, called him “one of the great essayists of his age. His reputation will continue to grow as long as there are people who love language.” Julian Barnes writes, in his introduction to this edition: “His work fits no previous or current literary profile. As Mérimée wrote of Stendhal, he was ‘original in all matters – a rare achievement in this age of greyness and timidity’ … I trusted every word he wrote: his prose breathed integrity, though never a self-conscious integrity.” And he was truly, as the subtitle of Philippe Paquet’s Simon Leys (La Trobe University Press; $59.99) proclaims, a “navigator between worlds”. He has few peers in any of the worlds he has inhabited, still fewer – I can’t think of any – who embodied in his individual person so many cultural treasures. Perhaps that is why, to share the burden as it were, he chose to write under two names.

It should also be recalled, for those unfamiliar with his writings, that he could be very funny, if sometimes the humour could be dark, as often his subjects were. Just to turn to some examples quoted in the book, our navigator observed of the Great Helmsman that “In Maoist navigation, every lurch of the boat meant half the crew fell overboard”. Perhaps that is why, as he wrote elsewhere, a Maoist Pekinologist must “carefully watch the celebrations of anniversaries, the non-celebration of anniversaries, and the celebration of non-anniversaries”. In his merciless television debate with and filleting of the hitherto applauded Italian Maoist Maria Antonietta Macciocchi, which fans of blood sport can watch on YouTube, he notes in the gentlest possible way that “fools say foolish things. Just like apple trees produce apples. It’s in their nature, it’s only normal. The problem is that there are readers who take them seriously.” More mercifully, he responds to sometimes fanciful attacks on him by his former friend Han Suyin, after he had criticised her unstoppable adulations of Mao: “I should be grateful to her for her moderation: after all, while she was at it, she could well have accused me of stealing her watch or her umbrella.” Even Christopher Hitchens, rarely successfully put down or one-upped by anyone, learns from an angry review of his book on Mother Teresa that “what follows is not much of a book review. But then, what is being reviewed is not much of a book either.”

And it wasn’t all criticism. He spent 18 years translating a book by an obscure 19th-century American, RH Dana, and writes of it:

It’s often said that Richard Henry Dana’s Two Years Before the Mast is the most beautiful of all books of the sea, but this seems to me a somewhat poisoned compliment, as if one were to praise Madame Bovary for being the best account of adultery in Normandy or to celebrate The Diary of AO Barnabooth [by Valery Larbaud; I had to look that up] as a master of hotel and railway sleeping-car literature.

So he often makes you laugh. But fundamentally he was that very rare thing, perhaps especially rare among intellectuals: he was a totally authentic being. And he was profoundly serious. He was not always thanked for that. Sometimes the reasons were obvious. He thought that what thousands of intellectuals believed was idiotic, often ignorant, sometimes evil. That sort of judgement is rarely received with gratitude. He was at times remorseless, as again with apologists such as poor Mme Macciocchi, because what they apologised for was unforgivable, and so therefore were the apologies – not the apologists, whom he could forgive, but what they said. He could, not without cause, be disgusted. Thus on the modern university he often recalled, from an 1872 letter from Flaubert to Turgenev, words that have lost none of their aptness today, indeed perhaps were never truer: “I have always tried to live in an ivory tower; but a tide of shit is beating at its walls, threatening to undermine it.” He was notoriously and self-confessedly indignant at what he called, in writing of his revered Orwell, “the horror of politics”, or when he spent six of the late years of his life assaulting the Belgian bureaucracy that refused to give his twin sons the Belgian passports to which they were entitled. Eventually he won.

And there was more. He was uncompromising where the stakes were high; many of us settle for less. He swam deliberately, courageously, sometimes even outrageously, against the current, and one thing we know about currents is that most of us find it easier to swim with them.

I think it would be impossible to agree with everything Pierre believed or said, unless you were him, and maybe not even then. I can’t agree with it all, and have found some of his views disconcerting, but even when I wonder, I never for a second doubt that he was – to use a phrase of his own, but which he didn’t apply to himself – an “inspired talent” – and of course that’s a problem in itself. People might forgive lots, but not that. As Pierre wrote of Hitchens’ book on Mother Teresa:

In every department of human endeavour, inspired talent is an intolerable insult to mediocrity … The need to bring down to our own wretched level, to deface, to deride and debunk any splendour that is towering above us, is probably the saddest urge of human nature.

Pierre wasn’t thinking of himself when he wrote this passage, and by the end of his life he had received rich and apt recognition, throughout the world, of his extraordinary contributions. But he had experienced what he writes about above, “on his skin”, as the Poles say, more than once. One local example will stand for many. In 1996 he delivered the Boyer Lectures, The View from the Bridge: Aspects of Culture, which are arresting equally for the beauty of the prose in which they are expressed, the distinctiveness of the sensibility they betray, and the individuality of the intelligence with which they are composed. They are musings of grace, elegance and erudition, very rare in Australian public life.

So, perhaps in revenge, a prominent Sydney political columnist conceded that Simon Leys had once done some good work against Mao and written a novel, so – savour the prose – his “standing is strong enough to withstand one dud lecture series and resultant booklet”, but he then moved to spray these lectures – “a bridge too far; a prize too many” – by cherrypicking from the text a bunch of five-word provocations/distillations of a unique sensibility and distinctive argument, without once trying, even for a second, to understand them. Perhaps it was an admission that he couldn’t do so, however hard he tried, but it was a remarkable feat.

The lectures were deep, sometimes playful, always serious, reflections on the character and predicament of high culture in the modern world, on learning, reading, writing, thinking, and on the unique human significance of culture: its constituents, its glories, and its contemporary, threatened condition. Like a laser, his critic pierced in a trice through all that snobbish stuff, to find their true subject: “contemporary political and social comment”, as to which, needless to say, he himself knew heaps. By contrast, “as a political and social commentator Dr Ryckmans is, well, a first-rate Sinologist and novelist … out of his depth”. That’s an interesting phrase.

The sage of Sydney, more specifically the Sydney Institute, pronounces his crisp, snide and dismissive verdicts with a know-nothing insouciance and a quite astonishing disregard for the texture and argument of the lectures, but his real mistake was elsewhere. He didn’t have a clue what he was reading. I was so astonished by this tone-deaf bluster that I penned one of my very-few-ever letters to the Sydney Morning Herald, which ended: “It is true that the lectures do not comply with the exactingly philistine standards of their critic, but in that lies a good part of their charm and their power. And also the discomfort they cause.” In the year Pierre died, this literary paragon was appointed chairman of the judging panel for the prime minister’s prize for nonfiction literature. Beyond parody and, as they say, no joke.

But it would be wrong to end on this note or in this tone. For what is immediately evident to a reader of this book, of the lectures, of any of Pierre’s writings, is his fierce, rare, and gargantuan capacity for love: for the “exquisite woman” Hanfang, with whom he spent his life and to whom he dedicated his books, for his family, for China, for Belgium, for his adopted country Australia where he expected to come for a few years, stayed for his whole life and to which he felt deep gratitude and affection, for the sea, for culture as the defining human virtue, for language as its potentially glorious vehicle, and for great literature which he loved beyond measure, and mined deeply in all the languages he knew. He discovered treasures there, and offered them free to those of us less intrepid, erudite, perceptive, than he – which is most everyone.

To conclude: this splendidly produced, elegantly translated, insightful, meticulous, intimate, respectful and revealing tribute is a monumental book about a monumental talent, character, sensibility, courage, intelligence, taste and much else. The great virtue of the book is that, unlike many biographies, it is not a pallid reduction of a more vivid original. On the contrary, the book is absorbing in itself through all its 551 pages of text (and 86 of informative, sometimes delicious, footnotes). More than that, even if you had never known or read Pierre Ryckmans or Simon Leys before wandering into this gallery – perhaps looking for Brett Whiteley, this book exposes why that is a mistake that needs repair. If Leys is rightly described as a navigator between worlds, Philippe Paquet is an admirable cartographer of the worlds he explored, and of Leys as a fascinating world in himself, to investigate and enjoy. Julie Rose is an exemplary translator of them both, and as always Black Inc and La Trobe have put this handsome craft together impeccably. So it gives me great pleasure, here appropriately overlooking one of the most beautiful harbours in the world, to launch it.

Delivered at the launch of Philippe Paquet’s Simon Leys: Navigator Between Worlds, UNSW Art Gallery, 28 September 2017.

Martin Krygier

Martin Krygier is a professor of law and social theory at the University of New South Wales. He is the author of Civil Passions: Selected Writings, a collection of essays. He also writes extensively on issues of political and legal theory and morality, and central and eastern European politics and law.

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