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
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