Simon Leys: The Hall of Uselessness

Today marks the exciting publication of Simon Leys’ collected essays, The Hall of Uselessness. I wasn’t familiar with Leys before starting this collection, but this goes down as one of my favorite collections. Please forgive what may appear to be gushing enthusiasm. Forgive it, because there was nothing to be done about it.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

Review copy courtesy of NYRB Classics.

Simon Leys is actually the pen name of the famous sinologist Pierre Ryckmans. In 1971, when he was about to publish The Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, a scathing report on the destruction of Mao’s cultural revolution, one of the first of its kind, his publisher recommended he use a pseudonym. In this way, as Pierre Ryckmans he could continue to visit and report from China.

As you might expect, then, this collection contains several (fourteen, to be exact) essays on China, and they’re fascinating, ranging in subject from Confucianism (for beginners) to the Chinese attitudes toward the past to Roland Barthes in China to the Cambodian genocide. Besides these perhaps more familiar topics (though Leys treatment is never rote), there are more obscure topics. For example, an article on Father Laszlo Ladany, a Jesuit priest based in Hong Kong who published the weekly China News Analysis, in the essay entitled, “The Art of Interpreting Non-Existent Inscriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page.” While the essays are interesting, readable, and witty, the most striking feature is the humane passion Leys displays that he easily transmitted to me via the page. When talking about Chinese calligraphy, for example, Leys says:

Like painting (which, being born of the same brush, is its younger brother rather than its twin), Chinese calligraphy addresses the eye and is an art of space; like music, it unfolds in time; like dance, it develops a dynamic sequence of movements, pulsating in rhythm. It is an art that radiates such physical presence and sensuous power that it virtually defies photographic reproduction — at times even, its execution can verge on an athletic performance; yet its abstract and erudite character also has special appeal for intellectuals and scholars who adopted it as their favourite pursuit.

After reading this essay, I’d challenge you to not immediately go seeking for more information and examples online.

That humane passion shows itself in a variety of essays, on a variety of topics, and through a variety of emotions. One of the most striking essays for me was “The Cambodian Genocide,” which begins with a discussion on the shame it is to be human in the twentieth century. Leys continues this essay by describing the horrors of the Kmer Rouge, and concludes with a section that begins:

One mistake must be avoided. Descriptions of the Cambodian genocide strike our imaginations and shock our feelings — the horror is unbearable, and precisely because it is unbearable, we instinctively attempt to dismiss it from consciousness by supposing that these events, in their exotic remoteness, are so foreign to us that they might as well belong to another planet.

In fact, they concern us directly. 

Leys becomes outraged, and that’s how the piece ends.

Leys’ interests and opinions and emotions are not limited to China and events in Asia. Besides the large section on China, this collection has five other sections: Quixotism, Literature, The Sea, University, and Marginalia.

Quixotism, besides an essay on why it’s not a bad thing to be quixotic, there is a good sample of what must, for Leys, often feel like a lonely fight. When it was published, Leys took issue Christopher Hitchens The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice, which had received a positive review in The New York Review of Books, a periodical to which Leys has often contributed. After a few letters to and from Hitchens, Leys finally wrote his own review. Leys begins:

Eighteenth-century literature developed the new literary genre of the epistolary novel; I wonder if it would not be legitimate for me to propose now a new form of book review, the epistolary criticism, in which arguments are developed through an exchange of letters between the reviewer and the author of the book under examination. Or perhaps I should not try to disguise the fact: what follows is not much of a book review. But then, what is being reviewed is not much of a book either.

We get to read at least the essence of the letters between Leys and Hitchens, all of which, while strongly worded, seemed to keep the topic on point, never diving into attacks on the man, only on the views. It was a great read, whether you end up being convinced by Leys or not. He has worked hard to wrestle with the issues and to clearly record his response.

And that’s how I felt toward the entire book. Whether I had prior knowledge of a topic or not, whether in the end I was convinced by Leys or not, I was always drawn in, always happy to hear whatever he had to say. On anything (indeed, when finishing the long section on Chine, I was still fully engaged by the three short remaining sections, The Sea, University, and Marginalia). By sharing his thoughts with us, we not only get those thoughts but we also get a fine example of how to engage with the world, respectfully, intelligently, compassionately, all through clear, controlled writing.

Thankfully, this is a comprehensive book, at just over 500 pages of prose. Sadly, it’s such a pleasure to read, it still ends a too soon. Is it obvious that I highly recommend this book?

6 thoughts on “Simon Leys: The Hall of Uselessness

  1. ABB says:

    Good evening! You may also enjoy Simon Leys’ novel “The Death of Napoleon”, published in English in 1991. It has the flavour of a parable as Leys examines identity and the power of personality. The premise is simple. After his imprisonment on St Helena in 1815, Napoleon manages to escape, having left an imposter, a close double, in his place. He dreams of a triumphant return to power and dominance, envisioning an uprising as his faithful supporters rally round him and flight for him again. The reality of his experience after arriving back in France turns out to be very different from his expectations. This is a short book, but beautifully written and powerful. Leys highlights issues around the cult of personality that are equally as relevant today as when it was written in the mid-1980s. What would happen if a Great Leader cried “Follow me!” and everyone just ignored him? What indeed!

  2. Trevor says:

    Great news, ABB: NYRB Classics is going to release a new edition of Leys’ The Death of Napoleon, and your enthusiasm makes me all the more anxious to get to it.

  3. Paul says:

    Thanks for the heads-up on The Death of Napoleon. I was thinking of buying a second-hand copy but will wait now for the NYRB Classics edition. Do you know when it will be released?

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