Thursday, 29 September 2011

Book Review - The hall of uselessness by Simon Leys

The hall of uselessness by Simon Leys

Collingwood Vic. : Black Inc, 2011                 ISBN 9781863955324

Towards the end of this book of essays, Simon Leys quotes the following, from a forgotten source -"Past a certain age, we read nothing perchance." I must be of a certain age, for I picked up this book just at a time when I was falling into despair at the ignorance and stupidity that prevails in our time. Simon Leys is one writer who is possessed of intelligence, wide learning, facility for the written word, and a clear minded logic that cuts through to the core of the matter.

This book is a collection of essays and speeches that Leys (the pen-name of Pierre Ryckmans, a well regarded Sinologist) has written and given over the last thirty years or so. They are divided into six sections - Quixotism, Literature, China, The Sea, University and Marginalia.

The one thing that holds this varied collection together is the author's commitment to the highest levels of criticism, and the eschewal of anything that strikes of relativism or current fads in social mores. The following quote from the book is in a small coda to his essay which effectively eviscerates Christopher Hitchens demolition of Mother Teresa - I think it sums up Leys' attitude to life and literature, and is a good indication of the quality of this work -

"Philistines are not people who are incapable of recognising beauty; they recognise it all too well; they detect its presence anywhere, immediately, and with a flair as infallible as that of the most sensitive aesthete - but for them, it is in order to be able better to pounce upon it at once and to destroy it before it can gain a foothold in their universal empire of ugliness. Ignorance is not simply the absence of knowledge, obscurantism does not result from a dearth of light, bad taste is not merely a lack of good taste, stupidity is not a simple want of intelligence: all these are fiercely active forces, that angrily assert themselves on every occasion; they tolerate no challenge to their omnipresent rule. In every department of human endeavour, inspired talent is an intolerable insult to mediocrity. If this is true in the realm of aesthetics, it is even more true in the world of ethics. More than artistic beauty, moral beauty seems to exasperate our sorry species. The need to ring down to our own wretched level, to deface, to deride and debunk any splendour that is towering above us, is probably the saddest urge of human nature."

In first piece in the collection, an essay about Don Quixote, Leys begins his project in the first paragraph by stating he doesn't worry about what he should read - he reads for pleasure. This seemingly obvious statement (in fact it is obvious), expands into a rumination on the status of classic works of literature - of which all were initially written for people to enjoy, not to endlessly pick apart and theorise over. Leys makes the point by showing that Cervantes initially intended his book to be a polemic against the literature of chivalry, which is almost completely meaningless to readers of today. In fact he goes on to point out that any message that might be in a piece of creative literature, as in the case of Don Quixote, becomes redundant or is crowded out by the messages drawn from it by successive generations of readers. Therefore true works of art (ones that survive through time), will have meanings that their writers may never have intended or realised.

The section on literature covers authors from Orwell to Chesterton, but the weight of pieces refer to the masters of French Literature of the past century or so - Balzac, Hugo, Gide, Simenon, and Malraux. I have not read much French Literature (off the top of my head I can think of Barbusse, Camus, Proust Vol.1), and all of that in translation, but Leys' essays steer me in the direction of reading Gide and Simenon, and giving Malraux a miss. Given Leys' facility in at least three languages (English, French and Chinese), one would expect some insights into the pitfalls of translation, and he does deliver - pointing out that some authors can be translated easily (Greene, Simenon) and others not so, and why this is the case. He discusses poetry, in particular Chinese verse, in some detail, explaining the difficulty in trying to express verse in languages other than that of the original versifier's. In this spirit he comes to the defence of Ezra Pound's attempts to translate Chinese poetry - Ezra famously knew no Chinese, and his translations have been scorned by many - by pointing out that Pound mostly captures the structure and rhythm of the poems, if not their exact language.

The section on China was very illuminating for me, with quite deep discussion of Chinese poetry, art and calligraphy, along with Chinese attitudes to the past, and the use and mis-use of Confucius (Leys has published a translation of the Analects). The second half of the China section consists of essays on the Chinese leadership from the revolution, and the work of various "China experts" from the west. With his clear-headedness and knowledge, Leys was always one step ahead of many of these "experts" in his understanding of the horrors of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, and in the knowledge that to understand China one must take account of what is not said or written just as much as what is. One essay is entitled The art of interpreting non-existent inscriptions written in invisible ink on a blank page, which is an apt description of trying to negotiate the realities of Communist China.

The Marginalia at the end of this book are mostly a series of vignettes that Leys either hasn't or couldn't work up into bigger pieces. All of them have insights into human nature - a few about the pleasures of smoking, one on the great importance of doing nothing (a subject on which I am in total agreement with Leys), an interesting couple of pages on provincialism, in particular the paradox that "cosmopolitanism is more easily achieved in a provincial setting, whereas life in a metropolis can insidiously result in a form of provincialism", which is something to think on.

The last piece in the book is entitled Memento Mori, and is a short meditation on the passing of time. I hope that this piece is not an indication that Leys (who is 76), is laying down his pen. We need more writers such as him.

I have in my mind a list of "civilization books", books that, if all other books were unavailable for some reason, you could recall most of the glories of our civilization by reading this one book. The list is short - but it has now increased by one.

Unlike most Australian publishers these days, this book is well published in hardback, with a useful index of names.

The hall of uselessness is available from Amazon, your local bookshop, or you could try your local library.

Cheers for now, from
A View Over the Bell

*This is my second review of this book - my first, which was altogether clearer, more insightful and better written, was lost in the netherworld of the interface between iPad and internet - our new Person from Porlock....


  1. I glanced through the essay on Malraux. Leys' comments betray out-of-date, superficial scholarship and the kind of absurd, unreasoning hostility one sometimes finds in those who have found Malraux too difficult for them. Leys quotes Georges Duthuit as an authority, for example. Duthuit's book on Malraux - written many decades ago and now largely forgotten - gives an extremely unreliable account of Malraux's theory of art and is noteworthy mainly for the relentless invective it heaps on Malraux.

    One can only hope the other essays in Leys' book are better than this one. I for one probably won't bother reading them.

  2. Thanks for the comment DA - you've led me back to the Malraux essay - I note the Duthuit book is mentioned by Leys in a footnote, but he includes in the body of the essay disparaging comments about Malraux's writing from Nabokov and Sartre, among others.

    The six pages of the essay include quite a few comments about Malraux's mythmaking and Leys opinion that his writings are "stilted, pompous, hollow, confused, verbose, obscure." However, Leys also writes "The simple fact is: Malraux was obviously a genius. What exactly he was a genius at, however, is not quite clear."

    He also notes that many men and women who deserve our respect revered Malraux - As Leys writes "he was never mediocre."

    It looks like I'll have to read some Malraux to make up my own mind.

    Cheers for now, from
    A View Over the Bell

  3. Have a look at my website on Malraux, if you feel in the mood. It also has one or two useful links. There have been lots of useful, informed books and articles written about Malraux over the years and the numbers seem to be increasing. Somewhere, Leys calls him a "phoney" (predictably with almost zero argument). Such a comment would be laughed out of court by those who have studied Malraux's writings with care. Heaven knows where Leys's animosity comes from. Some art historians (Gombrich and Duthuit for example) seem to have been miffed by the fact that Malraux knew so much about art but wasn't one of them. Perhaps that's part of Leys's problem too.

    My site is at