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

Surveillance grates

The government’s response to the Richardson review needs close scrutiny

Image of Stephen Bram’s work, Untitled, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 210 x 390 cm.

Currents of joy: Stephen Bram and John Nixon

Overlapping exhibitions by the two abstract artists convey their shared radical modernism

In light of recent events

Shamelessly derivative summer puzzle!
Image of Earth from the Moon

Pale blue dot

The myth of the ‘overview effect’, and how it serves space industry entrepreneurs


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 Dhambit Munuŋgurr's Bees at Gäṉgän, 2019

Blue is the colour

The idiosyncratic work of Yolngu artist Dhambit Mununggurr

Image of ‘Empire and the Making of Native Title’

Dividing the Tasman: ‘Empire and the Making of Native Title’

Historian Bain Attwood examines the different approaches to sovereignty in the New Zealand and Australian settlements

Image of Shirley Hazzard

Shirley Hazzard’s wider world

The celebrated Australian author’s ‘Collected Stories’ sets private desperation in the cosmopolitan Europe she revered

Image from ‘Mank’

Citizen plain: ‘Mank’

David Fincher’s biopic of Orson Welles’s collaborating writer favours technique over heart


More in Noted

Image of ‘Jack’

‘Jack’ by Marilynne Robinson

History and suffering matter in the latest instalment of the American author’s Gilead novels

Image from ‘The Dry’

‘The Dry’ directed by Robert Connolly

Eric Bana stars as a troubled investigator dragged back to his home town in a sombre Australian thriller

Image of ‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’

‘The Living Sea of Waking Dreams’ by Richard Flanagan

The Booker Prize winner’s allegorical new novel about the permanence of loss

Image from ‘Kajillionaire’

‘Kajillionaire’ directed by Miranda July

A family of con artists are the American writer-director’s latest offbeat protagonists in a surreal but heartfelt film


Read on

Image of Stephen Bram’s work, Untitled, 2019, acrylic on canvas, 210 x 390 cm.

Currents of joy: Stephen Bram and John Nixon

Overlapping exhibitions by the two abstract artists convey their shared radical modernism

What elitism looks like

Flagrant conflicts of interest abound at the top

Image of Anne Ferran, Scenes on the Death of Nature I, 1986

‘Know My Name’ at the National Gallery of Australia

An exhilarating exhibition considers a persistent gender bias in the visual arts

Image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison

Morrison’s climate flip

Australia has a lot of catching up to do on emissions reduction


×
×