July 2011

Arts & Letters

‘The Hall of Uselessness’ by Simon Leys

By Linda Jaivin

The Hall of Uselessness, a compendium of Simon Leys’s cultural and political commentary, is an elegant mansion of many rooms, connected by ingenious pathways, carpeted with wit and perfumed with what the Chinese call shuxiang – the scent of learning. From the antechamber of Quixotism we wander into the bowers of literature, China, the sea and university, before looking around Leys’s pantry of marginalia. Along the way, our host invites us to contemplate the spirituality of Don Quixote, the aesthetics of Chinese calligraphy, the characterisation of Victor Hugo’s writing by Henry James as “windy sublimities”, the mischievous joy of reading Evelyn Waugh, the challenges of literary translation, the purpose of literary criticism, and the importance of universities holding out against “the utilitarian temptation”.

Simon Leys (pseudonym of Belgian–Australian Sinologist, novelist and translator Pierre Ryckmans) has a rare profound knowledge of both European and Chinese intellectual and artistic traditions. This allows him to show how the two resonate with each other (or don’t) in ways that surprise and illuminate.

As those familiar with Leys’s work would expect, at times The Hall of Uselessness becomes a veritable House of Flying Daggers. Of Christopher Hitchens’ book on Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position, Leys, a committed Catholic, remarks: “We live in an age of hyperbole. Plumbers are now called ‘sanitation engineers’ … and Christopher Hitchens’ own little piece of solid waste is called ‘a book’.” Other targets include André Malraux’s “impudent lies”; Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism (“300 pages of twisted, obscure, incoherent, ill-informed and badly written diatribe” leading to “one sound and fundamental truism”); “China experts” such as Han Suyin, “who knows China inside out, [but] seldom lets her intelligence, experience and information interfere with her writing”; and the late Chinese premier Zhou Enlai (“one of the greatest and most successful comedians of our century”).

Whether discussing the puzzle of Balzac (“that such a great writer should have written so badly”) or the imagist nature of Chinese poetry, Leys’s lucid and stylish prose ensures that The Hall of Uselessness is an open house, free of academic jargon or intellectual pretension, approachable and accessible. You might not share his opinions – my views diverge from his on euthanasia and gay marriage, for example – but his arguments are always worth reading.

I met this superhero of Chinese studies in the mid 1980s, as Ryckmans was my then-husband’s PhD supervisor. It was like meeting the Sinological Clark Kent: in person he is softly spoken and possessed of old-world charm. I smiled at reading, in his essay on GK Chesterton, that readers are often astonished when a “fierce polemicist” turns out to be “a quiet, shy and retiring man”. It is Leys’s description of Miguel de Unamuno, however, that best sums up his own achievement: “multiform genius”.

Linda Jaivin

Linda Jaivin is an author and translator of Chinese. Her books include Eat Me, The Infernal Optimist and A Most Immoral Woman. Her most recent works are the novel The Empress Lover and the Quarterly Essay ‘Found in Translation’.

'The Hall of Uselessness', by Simon Leys, Black Inc, 512pp; $49.95
Cover: July 2011

July 2011

From the front page

Unpopulation policy

The PM’s efforts are too little too late

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany

This new novel is most striking in how it diverges from its predecessors

Illustration

Ben Quilty in bleeding colour

The Australian artist opens up on the eve of a retrospective exhibition

Hatestream

Australia’s Islamophobia problem goes right to the top


In This Issue

Words: Shane Maloney | Illustration: Chris Grosz

Howard Florey & Alexander Fleming

Chris Bowen working the stage in Canberra. © Donglei Chen

The hot seat

Chris Bowen and the Malaysian Solution

'Nagasaki: The Massacre of the Innocent and Unknowing', By Craig Collie,Allen and Unwin, 352pp; $32.99

‘Nagasaki: The Massacre of the Innocent and Unknowing’ By Craig Collie

The Gillard government is set to triple the number of Headspace youth mental health centres. © Jason South/Fairfax Photos

Minds at risk

Choosing the right path for adolescent mental health


More in Arts & Letters

Image of Prime Minister Julia Gillard and Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, 2010

Rats, heroes and Kevin Rudd’s ‘The PM Years’

This memoir answers some questions about his deposal and return but raises others

Image of Gerald Murnane

Tracking time: Gerald Murnane’s ‘A Season on Earth’

Forty years on, the author’s second novel is reunited with its lost half

Image of Matmos

Clicks, plinks, hoots and thuds: Matmos’s ‘Plastic Anniversary’

The American experimental duo embrace the ‘sounds’ of a ubiquitous material

A French Western? Jacques Audiard on ‘The Sisters Brothers’

The celebrated director explains how he made a Hollywood staple his own


More in Noted

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany

This new novel is most striking in how it diverges from its predecessors

‘Zebra and Other Stories’ by Debra Adelaide

Difficult-to-grasp characters populate this new collection

The 9th Asia Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art at QAGOMA

Politics, culture and colour collide in Brisbane

Still from The Cry

ABC TV’s ‘The Cry’

This Scottish–Australian drama successfully subverts the missing-child genre


Read on

Image from ‘Destroyer’

Hell hath no fury: Karen Kusama’s ‘Destroyer’

Nicole Kidman confronts in this LA crime thriller

Image from Hobart’s school strike for climate

The kids are alright

Climate-striking students have every right to protest

Image of Defence Minister Christopher Pyne

The Teflon Kingdom

Saudi Arabia is confident it can buy out the West, and Australia is happy to oblige

Image of Nationals leader Michael McCormack

Instability again threatens the Nationals

What can history tell us about the party’s current strife?


×
×