October 2014

The Nation Reviewed

Pierre Ryckmans

By Murray Bail
Pierre Ryckmans
Remembering a man of letters, and a friend

“Dying is so banal,” Pierre Ryckmans said from his bed in Sydney a few weeks before he died. To a visitor who suggested he’d call again the following week, on the Tuesday or Wednesday, he said from his bed set up in the lounge room facing the harbour and the sunrises, “I’ll be here.” And now that he has died he is here, and yet not here. He is no longer here, not among us anymore, no more of his enquiring conversations, and the letters written in a small hand, not with a fountain pen, certainly not a biro, but one of those Rapidographs, employed by architects and town planners in the 1960s, his Canberra address written in full on top of the letter, and written again – just in case – on the back of the envelope, also in Indian ink, letters which sometimes consisted almost entirely of additions to a thought marked by an asterisk, and written at right angles to the main letter. The meandering manner of his letters became his distinctive style which had spilled over from his essays, the Montaigne method taken to extreme. Some years ago he made the journey to Montaigne’s chateau in Bordeaux and had himself photographed at the front gate.

Pierre Ryckmans is no longer here in any of those sorts of appearances, yet he remains with us through his one and only novel, or novella, The Death of Napoleon, and his essays, mostly for the New York Review of Books and various French journals, often reviews which had spread into essays, and his translation of Confucius (1997), which is notable for having more pages of notes, all interesting – more than interesting – than the entire Analects. At least a writer can be conscious of a slight advantage: there is always the possibility of an afterlife, although the writer cannot know if or for how long it will be, even if in the next century somebody picks up a writer’s book from a dusty shelf, or in a rubbish tip, and begins reading.

A writer’s thoughts can be transmitted when he is no longer thinking. In 1971 Pierre’s indignant view of China after Mao and the Cultural Revolution, set out in The Chairman’s New Clothes followed by Chinese Shadows, landed like a rock in a pond, giving fright to the fish feeding near the surface, the ripples which affected a generation still spreading. But the list of essayists who continue to be read after a hundred years is not long – Montaigne, Hazlitt quickly come to mind. Many more?

Dumas, Victor Hugo and Dickens, whose novels were immensely popular in their day, had over time mysteriously entered the upper echelons of the high-cultural, Pierre liked to point out. Such a trajectory fitted his conservative instincts. Although he knew most of French literature, including much that is yet to reach English, as well as the main Russian and German novels, his persistent interest – curiously – leaned towards England: Chesterton, Maugham, Evelyn Waugh and Graham Greene were some. And Johnson: he would not allow a word to be said against Dr Johnson, even the Doctor’s absurdly trenchant, “No man but a blockhead ever wrote except for money” – although Pierre himself never wrote merely for money.

He was a conservative, the product of a Catholic childhood in Brussels. It was a family of long-established law publishers. An uncle was governor-general of the Belgian Congo. All very solid. Perhaps too solid. In 1949 his brother entered a monastery, where he remained for many years. Pierre turned east, to the vast complexity of China. Remaining European, he turned from Europe. To his wife, Hanfang, he would begin a sentence in English, switch to French, then finish in Mandarin. At the same time, Pierre’s traditional values were given flexibility by his attraction to personalities who had broken free of the majority. Mother Teresa in the Calcutta slums Pierre defended against Christopher Hitchens. And there was Simone Weil, an infuriating outsider of a different order. In 2012 Pierre translated and introduced Weil’s utopian pamphlet proposing the abolition of all political parties, which in itself is way to one side, almost to the hinterland of the other side. His sympathies extended to George Orwell, the Etonian turned policeman who argued clearly and firmly against the establishment; and when Pierre spoke of Géricault it was not the well-known Raft hanging in the Louvre or the paintings of shivering horses, but his five portraits of patients from an insane asylum.

He could hardly be called a relativist, or a post-modernist; he wasn’t even a modernist. These were academic definitions. And it was Pierre, remember, who had wondered aloud (in print) whether universities were needed, as if they were like so many Belgiums in miniature.

If he thought a work deserved it, he readily proclaimed “a masterpiece!” This he applied to the gold standards, such as Proust and War and Peace, but also to the lesser known, Canetti’s The Voices of Marrakesh, for example, or a Simenon novel. It was refreshing to have someone nearby to honour without apology the highest achievements in art. The last film he saw was in black-and-white from Poland, Ida. It was the most affecting film he had seen in years, a masterpiece.

An assiduous cultural tourist he nevertheless (in the Boyer Lectures) spoke of the reductions produced by mass tourism, how the visual experience was altered, even diminished by the unseeing crowds. Vermeer, Bruegel, Daumier and Corot were some of the painters he admired. Of the moderns it was Vuillard, Bonnard, not Cézanne; Bonnard’s spreadeagled nude in the National Gallery of Victoria was one of Pierre’s “it’s a masterpiece!”, as it surely is. He was forever curious as to why anyone should prefer Cézanne.

Similarly, of Australian painters he preferred Lloyd Rees to Sidney Nolan. And yet it was Fairweather who lived in isolation on a mosquito-infested island he responded to most, partly because of Fairweather’s Chinese line and subject matter – only partly, because it was always the spiritual that Pierre expected from art. His essay on Fairweather, where he places him in the exalted tradition of the amateur in Chinese painting, remains one of the best things written about the artist. Aside from Chinese calligraphies he was wary of abstraction. And he actually found it worthwhile every year to trudge around the Archibald Prize portraits, with a mind open to surprise.

He was industrious, yet he wrote essays in praise of doing nothing.

In 2007 he “wrote” a book, Other People’s Thoughts, consisting entirely of quotations of others. It begins, “Adventure is a product of incompetence” – Amundsen.

More and more he became interested in the lives of writers, how their behaviour in ordinary life, their marriages and so on, was in contradiction to the more nuanced and compassionate treatment given to their characters – Tolstoy would have to be the most alarming example. Pierre’s affectionate essay on Balzac which catalogues some of his contradictions and his bizarre behaviour generally is so relentless as to have the reader unable to stop laughing – in admiration of both Balzac and the essayist – and in the one on Simenon, he marvels in a forensic aside at the crime writer’s staggering output and his staggeringly prolific success with women. Often he preferred the short reminiscence: he said he got more from Shirley Hazzard’s sightings of Graham Greene on Capri than all the words in the official three-volume biography.

Pierre was drawn to water, even the brown shallows of Canberra’s Lake Burley Griffin, where he managed to sail, but especially the ocean. The attraction was certainly not trivial: his history of the sea in French literature, published in French in 2003, came to two volumes, and later there was his account of the wreck of the Batavia, concentrating on the gruesome behaviour of the survivors. Perhaps without realising he included an “octopus” in the title of one of his books of essays. With his silver beard Pierre from some angles maintained a nautical air. The number of copies of Two Years Before the Mast he handed around must have kept the book afloat. He envied anyone who had been on a recent voyage, and turned positively childlike in anticipation of travelling around the Pacific visiting islands for 15 days in 2010, on a French warship of his choosing, one of the fringe benefits of being made an Honorary Commander along with 19 other writers, of the French Navy. Needless to say, he had read Conrad many times, a writer of many masterpieces, not only the novels and stories (‘The Secret Sharer’), his essays and letters, and every scrap concerning his life, quoting the extreme difficulty Conrad suffered in writing, although the final results showed no trace of difficulty at all.

Pierre was attentive, softly spoken. It is unusual for anybody, especially over 65, to centre their conversations unaffectedly around questions. As he turned slightly deaf, he would lean forward, more attentive still. Only when giving approval, “a masterpiece!”, did the voice rise, although playing boules he was inclined to shout out “merde!” a bit too freely. A gent, who opened the champagne; yet now and then he smoked a cheap dark cigar, and for some reason stopped halfway down, where he cut it to finish the next day. Again, this is not what a cigar smoker is supposed to do. He liked living in Canberra, he said, because it was “secretive”. And just to make quite sure, the house was in a cul-de-sac, with natural bush behind, away from the sea where he had asked for his ashes to be scattered.

Murray Bail

Murray Bail is a writer. His most recent novel is The Voyage.

From the front page

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

OnlyFans and the adults in the room

The emerging OnlyFans community offering training and support to adult-content creators

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history

cartoon:In light of recent events

In light of recent events

Who’s preferencing whom?

Detail of cover of Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

Ghost notes: Simon Tedeschi’s ‘Fugitive’

A virtuoso memoir of music and trauma, and his experiences as a child prodigy, from the acclaimed Australian pianist

In This Issue

‘Stone Mattress’ by Margaret Atwood

Bloomsbury; $25.99

‘Acute Misfortune’ by Erik Jensen

Black Inc.; $32.99

Early examples of gene silencing in transgenic plants

Dr Graham’s patented elixir

Gene silencing, miracle cures and Balmain’s biggest biotech company

‘The Political Bubble’ by Mark Latham

Macmillan Australia; $32.99

More in The Nation Reviewed

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Where did all the bogongs go?

The drastic decline of the bogong moth could have disastrous ecological consequences

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

OnlyFans and the adults in the room

The emerging OnlyFans community offering training and support to adult-content creators

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

ANAM Set and music in lockdown

The project that commissioned 67 Australian composers to write for each of Australian National Academy of Music’s musicians in lockdown

Illustration by Jeff Fisher

Flooding back

Watching the Brisbane River swell, once more, to a destructive force

Online exclusives

Image of US President Joe Biden meeting virtually with Chinese President Xi Jinping from the Roosevelt Room of the White House, November 15, 2021. Image © Susan Walsh / AP Photo

The avoidable war

Kevin Rudd on China, the US and the forces of history

Composite image of Prime Minister Scott Morrison and Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese speaking during the first leaders’ debate on April 20, 2022. Image © Jason Edwards / AAP Images

Election special: Who should you vote for?

Undecided about who to vote for in the upcoming federal election? Take our quiz to find out your least-worst option!

Image of the Stone of Remembrance at the Australian War Memorial, Canberra. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Remembrance or forgetting?

The Australian War Memorial and the Great Australian Silence

Image of Opposition Leader Anthony Albanese, Labor MP Emma McBride and shadow housing minister Jason Clare after meeting with young renter Lydia Pulley during a visit to her home in Gosford on May 3, 2022. Image © Lukas Coch / AAP Images

Property damage

What will it take for Australia to fix the affordable housing crisis?