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

Hard-pressed

The government appears to be dragging its heels on media law reform

Photograph of Harold Bloom

Canon salute

Remembering Harold Bloom (July 11, 1930 – October 14, 2019)

The NBN-ding story

New developments in the interminable debate over broadband in Australia

‘The weekend’ cover

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood

The Stella Prize–winner returns with a stylish character study of women surprised by age


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

Still from Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

No one’s laughing now: Todd Phillips’ ‘Joker’

A gripping psychological study of psychosis offers a surprising change of pace in the superhero genre

‘Penny Wong: Passion and Principle’

‘Penny Wong: Passion and Principle’

Margaret Simons’ biography of one of the country’s most admired politicians

Patricia Cornelius

Patricia Cornelius: No going gently

‘Anthem’ marks the return of the Australian playwright’s working-class theatre

East Melbourne liturgy


More in Noted

‘The weekend’ cover

‘The Weekend’ by Charlotte Wood

The Stella Prize–winner returns with a stylish character study of women surprised by age

‘Act og Grace’ cover

‘Act of Grace’ by Anna Krien

The journalist’s propulsive debut novel tackles the aftermath of the Iraq War

‘Here Until August’

‘Here Until August’ by Josephine Rowe

The Australian author’s second short-story collection focuses on the precipice of change rather than its culmination

Image of ‘The Godmother’

‘The Godmother’ by Hannelore Cayre

A sardonic French bestseller about a godmother, in the organised crime sense of the word


Read on

Photograph of Harold Bloom

Canon salute

Remembering Harold Bloom (July 11, 1930 – October 14, 2019)

Image from ‘Judy’

Clang, clang, clang: ‘Judy’

The Judy Garland biopic confuses humiliation for homage

Image of Joel Fitzgibbon and Anthony Albanese

Climate of blame

Labor runs the risk of putting expediency over principle

Afterwards, nothing is the same: Shirley Hazzard

On the splendour of the acclaimed author’s distinctly antipodean seeing


×
×