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The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (New York Review Books Classics)

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An NYRB Classics Original Simon Leys is a Renaissance man for the era of globalization. A distinguished scholar of classical Chinese art and literature and one of the first Westerners to recognize the appalling toll of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Leys also writes with unfailing intelligence, seriousness, and bite about European art, literature, history, and politics and is a An NYRB Classics Original Simon Leys is a Renaissance man for the era of globalization. A distinguished scholar of classical Chinese art and literature and one of the first Westerners to recognize the appalling toll of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Leys also writes with unfailing intelligence, seriousness, and bite about European art, literature, history, and politics and is an unflinching observer of the way we live now. The Hall of Uselessness is the most extensive collection of Leys’s essays to be published to date. In it, he addresses subjects ranging from the Chinese attitude to the past to the mysteries of Belgium and Belgitude; offers portraits of André Gide and Zhou Enlai; takes on Roland Barthes and Christopher Hitchens; broods on the Cambodian genocide; reflects on the spell of the sea; and writes with keen appreciation about writers as different as Victor Hugo, Evelyn Waugh, and Georges Simenon. Throughout, The Hall of Uselessness is marked with the deep knowledge, skeptical intelligence, and passionate conviction that have made Simon Leys one of the most powerful essayists of our time.


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An NYRB Classics Original Simon Leys is a Renaissance man for the era of globalization. A distinguished scholar of classical Chinese art and literature and one of the first Westerners to recognize the appalling toll of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Leys also writes with unfailing intelligence, seriousness, and bite about European art, literature, history, and politics and is a An NYRB Classics Original Simon Leys is a Renaissance man for the era of globalization. A distinguished scholar of classical Chinese art and literature and one of the first Westerners to recognize the appalling toll of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, Leys also writes with unfailing intelligence, seriousness, and bite about European art, literature, history, and politics and is an unflinching observer of the way we live now. The Hall of Uselessness is the most extensive collection of Leys’s essays to be published to date. In it, he addresses subjects ranging from the Chinese attitude to the past to the mysteries of Belgium and Belgitude; offers portraits of André Gide and Zhou Enlai; takes on Roland Barthes and Christopher Hitchens; broods on the Cambodian genocide; reflects on the spell of the sea; and writes with keen appreciation about writers as different as Victor Hugo, Evelyn Waugh, and Georges Simenon. Throughout, The Hall of Uselessness is marked with the deep knowledge, skeptical intelligence, and passionate conviction that have made Simon Leys one of the most powerful essayists of our time.

30 review for The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays (New York Review Books Classics)

  1. 4 out of 5

    BlackOxford

    Critical Reality Two approximate descriptions of the indescribable Simon Leys: Harold Bloom without the arrogance or the Shakespearean idolatry; or Terry Eagleton with an understanding of Asian as well as continental culture. With the wit, erudition and style of both. The unique can't be categorised. And Leys is certainly that: a unique literary and social critic. Fiction, in fact all writing, for Leys is depiction of reality as opposed to the expression of truth, which is an entirely different ma Critical Reality Two approximate descriptions of the indescribable Simon Leys: Harold Bloom without the arrogance or the Shakespearean idolatry; or Terry Eagleton with an understanding of Asian as well as continental culture. With the wit, erudition and style of both. The unique can't be categorised. And Leys is certainly that: a unique literary and social critic. Fiction, in fact all writing, for Leys is depiction of reality as opposed to the expression of truth, which is an entirely different matter (science is after all fiction of a particular genre). Poetry as the apotheosis of fiction is the grasping of reality, the naming of what actually is. Literary criticism is the poetic uncovering of a reality that even the author of the work criticised may be unaware of. Since reality provides an infinite scope for story-telling, neither fiction nor its criticism has any obvious boundary and therefore leads to social commentary. This view on the world produces lots of profoundly engaging judgements on European literature and the society that produces it: Balzac displays the aesthetic sense of a prosperous Caribbean pimp. Victor Hugo is a Trumpian (but endearing) figure of French literature. Malraux is essentially phony [sic]. The orientalist Edward Said is a Palestinian scholar with a huge chip on his shoulder. Roland Bathes bestows a new dignity upon the age-old activity of saying nothing at great length. Leys's judgements of are perhaps even more interesting for Europeans who are novices in Chinese literature: the persistence in Chinese culture of spirituality within a landscape largely devoid of material ancient monuments, the self-expressiveness of writing per se as an artistic and quasi-sacred frame for literary content, the modernity of Confucian thought in its openness and adaptability, China itself as a sort of recipe for cosmic order with the main ingredient as a virtue ethics that could come from Thomas Aquinas, the lethally seductive charm of Zhou Enlai, Mao's complete lack of personal charisma, Communist literature as rhinoceros sausage. Simon Leys died just short of two years ago. His legacy is profoundly rich.

  2. 5 out of 5

    Justin Evans

    I read this last year, and wrote a short essay about it that I then failed to have published anywhere. I'd forgotten about it. Well, here are my thoughts about Leys and 'World Literature,' and a few other things. I haven't edited it. ** When I was a teaching assistant for a class on world literature, we had our students define the subject in a short paper. One freshman argued, more or less, that “world literature was invented by Goethe to exclude literature from outside Western Europe.” Precocio I read this last year, and wrote a short essay about it that I then failed to have published anywhere. I'd forgotten about it. Well, here are my thoughts about Leys and 'World Literature,' and a few other things. I haven't edited it. ** When I was a teaching assistant for a class on world literature, we had our students define the subject in a short paper. One freshman argued, more or less, that “world literature was invented by Goethe to exclude literature from outside Western Europe.” Precocious, but this really happened. “World literature makes it impossible for Eastern European, African, and Asian writers to gain the audience they deserve. The concept must be destroyed.” Pierre Ryckmans, the sinologist, novelist and essayist who publishes as Simon Leys, would have been aghast. Leys was born in Belgium and settled in Australia in 1970. His pen name comes from Victor Segalen’s novel René Leys, whose narrator, Victor Segalen, is a sinophile living in Pei-king under the final Qing emperor. René Leys fools Segalen, telling him that he’s had a child with the Empress and is head of the secret police in the Forbidden City. Leys dies, and Segalen realizes he’s been duped, but he chooses to idealize his friend rather than remember him as a liar. Just as Segalen kept his faith in René, Simon Leys still believes in literature’s power and importance. Of course, he’s not alone. This quarter’s n + 1, for instance, includes a history of world literature: despite Goethe’s efforts, literature ended up becoming less international, and less political, in the 19th century. Today’s world literature is an apolitical sop to the middle class; politics turns up only in historical fiction, because “past horrors, unlike contemporary ones… tend to be events liberal readers agree about”—and liberal readers buy world literature. The market demands that contemporary world literature ignore contemporary injustices. Just as my freshman did, n + 1 argues, not without cause, that this depoliticized ‘Global Lit’ needs to be destroyed and replaced with an “internationalist literature of the revolutionary left” that will oppose power, tell the truth, and create a taste for revolutionary politics. Most importantly, it will not treat “literature as a self-evident autonomous good.” Leys would disagree, obstinately, but sensitively. Many of the best essays in The Hall of Uselessness are about writers who were particularly open to the languages and literatures of other peoples, and Leys shares their openness. The Hall includes formal academic essays, literary criticism, public lectures, reviews, polemic, parables and forewords about, among other things, European and East Asian literature, history, and politics. Leys knows that, because of this breadth, specialists might suspect him of frivolity or irresponsibility; his essay on Chinese aesthetics suggests a response. It describes the sinologist’s conundrum: “specialisation is necessary” because no individual can hope to understand all of Chinese culture; but “specialisation is impossible” because “if he is not guided by a global intuition, the specialist remains forever condemned to the fate of the blind men in the well-known Buddhist parable,” who each grope one part of an elephant, and then argue about what they’re touching: a snake? A pillar? A broom? This is also the conundrum of world literature. If we want to read, we need to specialize to some degree. We can’t read everything. But we also can’t just read at random; we need to be guided by a global intuition. For Leys, we should be guided by the apolitical idea that the literary tradition is an autonomous, useless, and self-evident good. We should read and write literature for its own sake. That’s not to say that politics has no place in Leys’s essays. Many of them are political, though many of the political essays are, unfortunately, among his least likable. Leys writes well about the tyrants of Asia; his essay on Mao is as balanced as anyone could expect. But that only makes his splenetic attacks on the intellectuals who covered up the famines and genocides of China and Cambodia more bizarre. It often seems that Leys is more offended by the fools—e.g., Alain Badiou telling us not to allow “reactionary critics to neutralize and negate” Stalin, Mao, Tito and Hoxha—than he is by the executives of genocide. To his credit, Leys tries to understand why people like Badiou say what they do; his best answer is that they suffer a “failure of the imagination.” Even when they know all about atrocities, some intellectuals don’t really grasp what they know. Here Leys follows Orwell, who said that people without expertise (e.g., according to himself, Orwell) can still have “the power to grasp what kind of world we are living in.” Even if you don’t know how many people the Khmer Rouge murdered, you can still grasp that the Khmer Rouge was a brutal, horrible regime. This is the imaginative grasp that people like Badiou don’t have. Literature can help us remedy that lack by stimulating our imagination. Leys uses Don Quixote as an example. Cervantes wrote Don Quixote in order to make money and mock knights and damsels stories. Such profiteering and parody aren’t usually conducive to greatness, but we still read Don Quixote, because Quixote transcends Cervantes’s aims. Cervantes began with the thought that Quixote is a madman, and a fool; we follow him when we use ‘quixotic’ to mean “hopelessly naïve and idealistic.” But “hopelessly naïve and idealistic” can also be a complimentary description of literature, set against the world, insisting that we should be more just, more beautiful, and more loving than we are. Cynics dismiss Quixote as naïve and idealistic, but for most readers his naivety and idealism are as inspiring as they are amusing. And Quixote’s imagined world looks much more charming than the one we have to live in. So, ultimately, politics and literature come together in Leys’s essays, because he thinks that the imaginative power we develop through reading helps us better understand social and political events. It also gives us ideals by which to judge them. The Chinese writer (and political prisoner) Liu Xiaobo, for instance, had an epiphany when he was teaching in New York. He realized both that his own learning was nothing compared to “the fabulous riches of the diverse civilizations of the past,” and that the “Western answers to mankind’s modern predicament” were no better than China’s. So he vowed to “use Western civilization as a tool to critique China”, and to use his “own creativity as a tool to critique the West”—the ideals of the West and those of China can be used to criticize the societies of each. I don’t know if Liu will be able to hold on to those ideals while he suffers in prison; I doubt I could. But his imprisonment does show that a broad engagement with world literature gave him a great capacity for critical thought. If, like Liu, we can understand the ideals and flaws in the thought and art of different peoples, we’ll give ourselves the best chance we have to criticize injustice. So where revolutionaries demand a new world literature, Leys points to what we already have: a tradition that started long before writing, and will continue long after everybody’s bêtes noires, Naipaul and Rushdie. And, rather than demand democratization, Leys argues that the products and subjects of world literature—truth, intelligence, beauty and love—are elitist. They are the goals of an education, “ruthlessly aristocratic and high-brow”, in which “a chance is given to men to become what they truly are.” All this can sound like a humanistic platitude. But Leys’s elitist, formalist understanding of world literature actually has far-reaching, radical political content: literature helps us to understand and hold onto an ideal of human happiness, in which as many people as possible are at leisure to be liberal, but ‘liberal’ in the ancient sense—to be free from poverty and oppression, and so able to act in one’s own interests. In recent years this ideal has been threatened by one of the paradoxes of capitalism: “the wretched lumpenproletariat is cursed with the enforced leisure of demoralizing and permanent unemployment, whereas the educated elite, whose liberal professions have been turned into senseless money-making machines, are condemning themselves to the slavery of endless working hours.” Those who have the time to be happy have no money; those who can afford to be happy have no time for it. Today’s radicals tend to ignore the paradox and reject the ideal, but at least one old revolutionary understood the problem and sought a solution for the former, rather than the destruction of the latter. At the end of Capital’s third volume, Marx wrote of his hope that, one day, we’d be able to enter “the true realm of freedom,” and accept “the development of human powers as an end in itself.” Bad press to the contrary, he wasn’t talking about our ability to produce ever more rubber widgets. The ‘human powers’ are the artistic and moral abilities that Marx, among many others, thought were exemplified in the traditions of world literature. When we find an old conservative like Leys defending the same ideals as an arch-revolutionary like Marx we should probably conclude that there’s something to them. Note: Leys isn’t immune to failures of imagination. In one essay here, published in 2000, he suggests that clergy should remain celibate, because married clergy would be “too cruel and unfair to their children.” Aside from ignoring the experiences of protestant churches and Maronite Catholics, Leys must have known about the child abuse taking place in too many Catholic dioceses in Australia: the group Broken Rites has been publicizing cases since 1993. His homophobia is another case of this failure.

  3. 4 out of 5

    Marc

    Simon Leys is a carefully kept secret by anyone who loves contradictory people, people who are averse to fashionable or politically correct thinking, just go their own way and are not ashamed to row against the tide. This Belgian writer, - with his real name Pierre Ryckmans (1935-2014) -, was an eminent sinologist, one of the best connoisseurs of China in the 20th century. He was among the first to uncover and denounce the cruel excesses of Mao's ideological campaigns, but he was not taken serio Simon Leys is a carefully kept secret by anyone who loves contradictory people, people who are averse to fashionable or politically correct thinking, just go their own way and are not ashamed to row against the tide. This Belgian writer, - with his real name Pierre Ryckmans (1935-2014) -, was an eminent sinologist, one of the best connoisseurs of China in the 20th century. He was among the first to uncover and denounce the cruel excesses of Mao's ideological campaigns, but he was not taken seriously by the predominant, especially Sartre-controlled omertà of the sixties and seventies. That he was a professing Catholic probably didn't help either. His analyses of China and Chinese culture were not appreciated until the 1980s, but his influence always stayed limited, partly due to a form of charming unworldliness. This bundle of essays naturally includes several excellent articles on China and Chinese culture, but the main emphasis is nevertheless on his literary criticism. Because it appears that Leys was enormously well-read, and also expressed opinions about the "monstres sacrés" of Western literature that regularly went against prevailing opinions. It is no coincidence that this book opens with an ode to Don Quixote, who is not a "loser" at all for Leys, but someone who in all simplicity has set a goal and consistently adheres to it. It’s odd, but when I look at images of Leys at a later age, I can see a certain physical similarity between him and the classic representations that have been made of the Spanish anachronistic knight. Or is that my imagination? If I have to ascertain 2 attractive qualities in Leys, then these are his authenticity and his humanism. To a large degree both are old-fashioned these days. This is foremost a characteristic of his literary criticism: writers such as Chesterton, Orwell and Simenon are lauded for their astute authenticity, others such as André Malraux and Roland Barthes are ruthlessly cracked for their mythomania and ideological conformity. Reading these essays, one is impressed by Leys’ erudition and lucidity. But I have the impression that in the course of time he has started to somewhat cultivate his own obstinacy. He regularly – in an ironic way of course – refers to his lack of knowledge and insight, which he invariably blames on laziness, but he uses this weapon to deal mercilessly with people of another opinion. And apparently, he knows all too well how his blatant Catholicism deviated from the spirit of the times: just look at his sharp, provocative polemic with Christopher Hitchens about the latter’s critical book on Mother Teresa. Oh, well, perhaps these are just the petty traits of a brilliant genius. I am pleased that thanks to this collection of essays I have been able to become acquainted with the valuable, be it somewhat old-fashioned universe of Simon Leys.

  4. 5 out of 5

    nostalgebraist

    I bought this book on a whim, knowing nothing about Simon Leys (not knowing, for instance, that "Simon Leys" was the pen name of a man actually named Pierre Ryckmans). Now I feel like I know Leys very well -- for several weeks he has been a constant, endearing companion in my life. This collection covers a wide range of topics, but is unified by Leys' own voice and personality, which are highly distinctive, if not exactly unique. Indeed, Leys belongs to a very particular type -- although if the t I bought this book on a whim, knowing nothing about Simon Leys (not knowing, for instance, that "Simon Leys" was the pen name of a man actually named Pierre Ryckmans). Now I feel like I know Leys very well -- for several weeks he has been a constant, endearing companion in my life. This collection covers a wide range of topics, but is unified by Leys' own voice and personality, which are highly distinctive, if not exactly unique. Indeed, Leys belongs to a very particular type -- although if the type has a name, I'm not sure what it is. He's the kind of man who values anecdotes, paradox, humor, and the incidental over broad and general ideas. The kind of man who, though aware of how bleak the human world can be, seems animated by a kind of faith -- bordering sometimes on complacency -- in the basic goodness and wonder of day-to-day life, the boundless surprises that live in the details. Outspoken and sometimes brutally witty, he is nonetheless the exact opposite of a radical -- he is not at home with systems and general descriptions, and suspects that any hope without blemishes is a lie. He loves G. K. Chesterton and George Orwell; he excoriates Christopher Hitchens and Roland Barthes. As it happens, Leys is famous for having pointed out the dark side of the People's Republic of China at a time when doing so was controversial among Western intellectuals. Although he has many interests besides the flaws of Chinese communism, it seems fitting that this is his claim to fame, because he fits the role so well -- he is the very image of the genial sort of anti-communist, not right-wing or reactionary but simply possessed by a sense that all that is valuable in life lives at too fine a scale to be captured in Marxist theory or reported in rosy, utopian accounts from European and American visitors. I imagine some people find this "type" inherently obnoxious and would thus not enjoy this book; to anyone without that kind of opposition, it is likely to be very enjoyable indeed. Leys is brilliant at being himself. Committed as he is to the importance of fine detail, he packs his essays -- many of which are little more than series of anecdotes -- with endless riches of hilarious and fascinating minutiae. The best, in my mind, are Leys' essays about individual authors, each of which paints its subject as a fascinatingly unique and colorful character. Almost every such essay -- and there are a lot of them in the book -- made me want to read the author he described. (I have never had any particular interest in Balzac, but Leys' essay convinced me that I must read him -- the only problem was that before I could get my hands on anything by Balzac, I happen to read on to the next essay and discover that I also had to make time for Victor Hugo!) The most dazzling stretch of the book is "Portrait of Proteus," a 52-page essay on Andre Gide, structured as a "dictionary" in which significant concepts and people in Gide's life are listed in alphabetical order and "defined" by corresponding mini-essays. (If that sounds tedious, trust me, it isn't. There is nothing that Leys cannot make fun.) The major flaw of this book is that while Leys is very good at being himself, he does not seem to be good at being anything else. 490 pages is a lot when you're reading someone this distinctive, and -- especially since the best parts are mostly in the first half of the collection -- the unchanging quality of Leys' voice can become grating. There is something overly untroubled about him, something smug about his ability to live with paradox, to casually visualize hidden strings of similarity connecting people across different cultures and across millennia, to dispatch with a witty quip anyone who disturbs his splendid, harmonious universe. His mind makes its way across topic after topic -- the representation of the sea in French literature, the aesthetic standards of traditional Chinese painting, the nature of Belgian identity, the mendacious self-mythologizing of Andre Malreux, the voyage of Magellan, the decision to publish The Original of Laura -- and at no moment seems truly perturbed by what it sees. Leys' mind can accept, and in a way has already accepted, everything except that which is dogmatic or uninteresting. In his descriptions of writers, who he treasures for their glittering eccentricities as though they were Faberge eggs, he is oddly forgiving of qualities like racism or (in Gide's case) pedophilia. He praises hesitation, but he does not himself hesitate; he praises imperfection, but his own vision of the world feels a little too perfect. This is most apparent when Leys ventures into the realm of abstract ideas -- his natural enemy. One of the collection's lowest moments is a transcript of an inane speech Leys gave of the purpose of universities, in which he trots out all the usual pieties about how universities should not see themselves as commercial enterprises, exist to educate students and not merely please them, should be devoted to pure thought independent of all considerations of usefulness, etc. It is easy to see that, at least without some added subtlety, this view of the university is nonsensical -- after all, if we try to remove all considerations of practical use from our conception of pure thought, we lose the ability to say why one kind of thought is better than another, and are unable to explain why universities should not pay people to (say) compute very long but mathematically trivial sums, or to develop useless taxonomies like Borges' "Celestial Emporium of Benevolent Knowledge." In general Leys could use a little more subtlety, a little less piety, a bit more disquiet to disfigure the perfection of his pacific and unified universe. That said, he is and funny and charming, brilliantly vicious when he needs to be and otherwise warm and inviting, and in possession of all kinds of fascinating facts and stories. I recommend you get to know him -- I'm glad I did.

  5. 4 out of 5

    Jim Coughenour

    Way back in 1978 I got entangled in an argument with a hysterical seminary student. I'd made some withering remark about the current chic fascination with Chairman Mao, and my fellow student exploded that I had no right to judge, to refer to freedom and civilization when people were starving. I replied that even if this were true, in China millions had starved, precisely as a result of Mao's "Great Leap Forward." I was dismissed. I recalled this incident when I picked up Simon Leys' new book of e Way back in 1978 I got entangled in an argument with a hysterical seminary student. I'd made some withering remark about the current chic fascination with Chairman Mao, and my fellow student exploded that I had no right to judge, to refer to freedom and civilization when people were starving. I replied that even if this were true, in China millions had starved, precisely as a result of Mao's "Great Leap Forward." I was dismissed. I recalled this incident when I picked up Simon Leys' new book of essays, because my Comments of 1978 had been inspired by Leys' Chinese Shadows (which I'd discovered through a review by Jonathan Spence in the NYRB).* Leys had pointed out the dark side of Mao, which in the mid-70s even many sinologists were reluctant to acknowledge. His philippic carried the charge it did because Leys passionately valued Chinese civilization and admired the character of the Chinese people – a passion that reappears repeatedly in these essays. The Hall of Uselessness is a collection written over the past thirty-odd years. It's an uneven assortment. A few pieces, which expose Leys at his most curmudgeonly, I would have been happy not to have read. A few others, most notably the first five essays on China, are superb. I'll cite only one extended passage:For a layman, at first sight, Chinese painting may appear rather limited and monotonous; landscapes, for instance, are invariably built on a combination of mountains and rivers, organised on the basis of a few set recipes. These stereotyped forumlas are themselves filled with conventional elements – trees, rocks, clouds, buildings, figures – whose treatment is standardised in painting handbooks that are straightforward catalogues of forms. The range of poetry is equally narrow: it uses a rigidly codified symbolic language, a set of ready-made images (the song of the cuckoo that makes the traveller feel homesick; the wild geese that fail to bring news from the absent lover; the east wind with its springtime connotations; the west wind and the funereal feelings of autumn; mandarin ducks suggesting shared love; ruins of ancient monuments witnessing the impermanence of human endeavours; willow twigs exchanged by friends as a farewell present; moon and wine; falling flowers; the melancholy of the abandoned woman leaning on her balcony). In a sense, one could say that Chinese poetry is made of a narrow series of clichés embroidered upon a limited number of conventional canvases. And yet such a definition, although it would be literally accurate, would nevertheless miss the point: a deaf man could as well describe a Bach sonata for cello as a sequence of rubbings and scratching effected upon four gut strings stretched over an empty box. (302) These essays echo decades of scholarly insight: "Any work of art – poem, painting, piece of music – plays the part of a 'fisherman's song': beyond the words, forms and sounds that it borrows, it is a direct, intuitive experience that no discursive approach can embody." For someone like me, who sees both Du Fu's poetry and Bach's Cello Suites as works of art which constitutively alter the sense of life, this is an enticing summary. On the other hand, some of the other essays on China are a bit tetchy. Even if Leys has earned the right to crow at his detractors, it isn't edifying – a risk he recognizes but cannot entirely forgo. And do we really need another snide evisceration of Said's already-snide Orientalism? Leys' editor did him no favors here. Similarly, the essays on politics and literature are sometimes rich and provocative, and sometimes ill-tempered. Throughout Leys' judgments are informed by his Catholicism, which depending on your taste is either or a good or a bad thing. In this respect he reminds me of another writer I greatly admire – John Lukacs. Leys values Catholic writers G K Chesterton, Simone Weil, Paul Claudel, even Evelyn Waugh far more than I. He's given to remarks such as "For our true motherland is eternity; we are the mere passing guests of time." This warmth leaves me cold. I only mention this because he, like Lukacs, is so deeply skeptical of political illusions in the perspicuous manner of Albert Camus, Raymond Aron, George Orwell. Leys offers an excellent aphorism from Orwell: "The real division is not between conservatives and revolutionaries, but between authoritarians and libertarians." For me Catholicism falls on the authoritarian side of this divide. But this is merely an irritation in an original, curious collection by a thoroughly intelligent writer. _____________________________ * Fittingly, NYRB is scheduled to publish this book next June in its Classic Original series. When I spotted this notice , I hunted down the Australian edition I read – so it's only just to promote the NYRB edition.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Roger

    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 colle 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. Check out my other reviews at http://aviewoverthebell.blogspot.com.au/

  7. 4 out of 5

    Alper Çuğun

    I read Leys’s collection of essays which though among the whole are well above average, still turned into a drag before segueing into the promised segment about China. Leys the person seems to be intellectually clear headed but at the same time very much unapologetic and somewhat cantankerous. This is a man who is an unabashed Catholic, Belgian, smoker, relativist and elitist. Those are the kind of sharp edges that used to be rare and these days are nearly impossible to find in a public person. T I read Leys’s collection of essays which though among the whole are well above average, still turned into a drag before segueing into the promised segment about China. Leys the person seems to be intellectually clear headed but at the same time very much unapologetic and somewhat cantankerous. This is a man who is an unabashed Catholic, Belgian, smoker, relativist and elitist. Those are the kind of sharp edges that used to be rare and these days are nearly impossible to find in a public person. The shift in perspective they offer makes this collection of essays worth reading. Still, because of the timespan we are covering, every essay isn’t going to be equally relevant. One that sticks out is his defense of Mother Theresa where he picks a beef with Hitchens’s demolition of the old lady. In that essay Leys strikes a contra-contrarian perspective, is relevant to an issue that some of us might have discussed (or at least vaguely remember) and reaches lyrical heights providing access to something that not all of us have: the meaning of being Catholic. (Talking about beefs, Leys also has some choice hate for Edward Said which is a notable aside.) The first part on Quixotism and indeed Don Quixote himself is very strong. The second part on Literature including the shorter biography reviews on French literature are a nice introduction though probably better if you have already read a bunch of Hugo and Balzac. I could have done without the reams on the notorious French pederast André Gide. One long essay about an unknown Belgian writer I outright skipped. Reminders of the enduring value of Chesterton, Waugh and Orwell are still very welcome. The odds and ends on literature are nicely found though hardly interesting. What sets Leys apart and amplifies his value to international intellectual life is his linguistic bridging. It is rare enough to find somebody fluent in both French and English, deeply knowledgeable about French and English literature and publishing in both languages. Rarer still that that person would be a translator of Chinese. The third part on China is in fact the motherlode of this collection. For us it is hard to realize what a big deal being an anti-Maoist in those times was. Having eyes open to the truth and such a lack of fucks to be able to tell the French avant-garde to shove it, were not given to everybody. Those politics are now outdated and the charlatanesque China connoisseurs have been superseded (though not at all eradicated!). Much more interesting are Leys’s essays on China’s history and the Chinese perspective on aesthetics. There too he provides us with immensely valuable access to a thing that is alien for most of us. We are treated to the greats of Chinese philosophy and arts most of whom are totally unknown to most of us. The final parts are comprised of a bunch of odds and ends. The summary of the book on Magellan’s expedition (“Voyage de Magellan (1519-1522)”) is as gripping as its conclusion is disappointing, that however detailed the descriptions, because of the distance of time ‘Magellan and his companions appear to us utterly unknowable.’ We are left with both a huge richness of intellectual life captured in this collection of essays and with massive gaping holes which I would have liked seen filled with Leys’s perspective (if only he were still alive). In particular I’d like to read his essays on Julien Benda, the Netherlands, colonialism, situationism and child sexual abuse in the Catholic Church.

  8. 5 out of 5

    L.S. Fauber

    I am of the opinion that Simon Leys was the greatest essayist of the second half of the twentieth-century. I have had this book for two years, and still open it up when I need a respite from the drudgery and obscurity of the world. I believe I have read every essay by now, some surely more than twenty times. Simon Leys is especially famous for being the first scholar to recognize the terrors of Maoism; this recognition of the truth required, he writes, "a great foolishness." But Simon Leys is no I am of the opinion that Simon Leys was the greatest essayist of the second half of the twentieth-century. I have had this book for two years, and still open it up when I need a respite from the drudgery and obscurity of the world. I believe I have read every essay by now, some surely more than twenty times. Simon Leys is especially famous for being the first scholar to recognize the terrors of Maoism; this recognition of the truth required, he writes, "a great foolishness." But Simon Leys is no fool; he merely understands what he does not know. That said, the depth of Mr. Leys's knowledge is very satisfying; the breadth is astonishing. He was extraordinarily well-versed in English, Chinese, and French language and culture, and writes on all of them extremely persuasively and humbly. Mr. Leys's style is a delight. Every single sentence he offers, without exception, is a knife, be it butcher's, bread, or butter: always cutting through the nonsense. Yet he does so almost entirely using others' words; his powers of quotation were without equal. Here are some examples. On the atrocities of the USSR: "Robert Conquest, one of the very few Sovietologists who was clear-sighted from the start, experienced acute frustration in his attempts to share and communicate this knowledge. After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, his publisher proposed to reissue a collection of his earlier essays and asked him what title he would suggest. Conquest thought for one second and said, 'How about I Told You So, You Fucking Fools?'" Leys has some opinions, like praise of Conquest, a hatred of the modern university, and a deep, abiding Catholicism, which suggest he is somewhat conservative in his outlook. But (thankfully for me) his approach to the world transcends this label. What he is after is the truth. One essay, attacking the many occidental scholars of China who ignored the terrors of Maoism, begins: "Paris taxi drivers are notoriously sophisticated in their use of invective. 'Hé, va donc, structuraliste!' is one of their recent apostrophes - which makes one wonder when they will start calling their victims 'China Experts'!" If these two quotes make Mr. Leys sound jaundiced, he surely is. "Some people seem to know everything and understand nothing," he writes. But his love for literature, life, and good company countermands this studied bitterness with an almost fatherly warmth. Leys, on his greatest literary love: "G.K. Chesterton, whose formidable mind drew inspiration from a vast culture - literary, political, poetical, historical and philosophical - once received the naive praise of a lady: 'Oh! Mr. Chesterton, you know so many things!' He suavely replied: 'Madam, I know nothing: I am a journalist.'" In this situation, it is clear that Mr. Leys is Chesterton, and I, dear readers, am the naive lady. To read Simon Leys is to spend time with the best sort of literary lover: one who carries all his friends, and even his enemies, around in his heart, and shares them with everyone willing to listen. Simon Leys is only one man; this is technically true. But the feeling Leys gives me, which has remained untarnished for several years, is that of sitting down to dinner with a great big royal family.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Linda

    Brilliant - an excellent introduction to the thinking and writings of this rare polymath and genuine renaissance man. It may seem a contentious thing to say in this day and age, but you don't need to agree with all of Simon Leys' political or religious positions to appreciate and celebrate the brilliance of his mind and contribution to intellectual life. Brilliant - an excellent introduction to the thinking and writings of this rare polymath and genuine renaissance man. It may seem a contentious thing to say in this day and age, but you don't need to agree with all of Simon Leys' political or religious positions to appreciate and celebrate the brilliance of his mind and contribution to intellectual life.

  10. 4 out of 5

    Booze Hound

    With the witty and humble title of the book "The Hall of Uselessness"; fun, intelligence, great writing, and entertainment are sure to ensue. However, you wouldn't think that after reading the second part of the title, "collected essays" (jesus, "collected essays" sounds more boring than "textbook" at first glance); this of course stirs up feelings of academic complacency. With this conflicting dilemma of being boring and good at the same time, one is reminded of the old cliche "you can't judge With the witty and humble title of the book "The Hall of Uselessness"; fun, intelligence, great writing, and entertainment are sure to ensue. However, you wouldn't think that after reading the second part of the title, "collected essays" (jesus, "collected essays" sounds more boring than "textbook" at first glance); this of course stirs up feelings of academic complacency. With this conflicting dilemma of being boring and good at the same time, one is reminded of the old cliche "you can't judge a book by its cover". This is very true in the instance of this book by the late Simon Ley's. The book is as good as reading a well written fiction and non-fiction at the same time, it is a talent rarely found and executed so intellectually elegantly. The book can be very insightful into what happened under Mao's China (and depressing) and the Khmer Rouge is touched on, which is equally depressing but profound and exemplary in Ley's writing. Sprinkled with Conrad, Balzac, Chesterton, Kafka and Orwell references (among other great writers) from time to time, this book has an excellent combination of art, culture, politics, history (specifically asia), and literature. Great source for recommendations so far. Fascinating book so far (already can tell from reading to page 29)...so far...I am pleasantly surprised...This guy was very witty and intelligent(RIP), it is sad he is not well-known. If you don't believe he's a good writer, checkout some quotes below: "When we first enter upon the stage of life, it is as if we were only given masks that correspond to our respective roles. If we act our part well enough, the mask eventually turns into our true face." "'Man is a creature who makes pictures of himself, and then comes to resemble the picture'" "The successful man adapts himself to the world. The loser persists in trying to adapt to the world to himself. Therefore all progress depends on the loser." "Beware, beware good can choke up a soul as much as evil." "But if someone does not do it, how will good be done?" "live so that by the sanctity of thy life all good will be performed involuntarily." "...true Philistines are not people who are incapable of recognizing beauty; they recognize 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 bring 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." .......whoa....deep shit... "It is far better to have a good imagination than a good memory." Emerson said that 'books are nothing but to inspire'. "Sperm was for him (Balzac) an emission of pure cerebral substance- once, having spent the night with an enchanting creature, he turned up at the house of a friend, crying: 'I just lost a book!'"...ha "life is a prison, and only imagination can open its windows." "'I feel that my parents were satisfied with mediocrity, and for that I shall never forgive them.'" "'Let us not flatter ourselves by thinking that we can assimilate customs, races, nations, others; on the contrary, let us rejoice in our never being able to do so, and thus guarantee the enduring pleasure of experiencing Diversity'" "None of the activities that really matter can be pursued in a merely professional capacity; for instance, the emergence of the professional politician marks the decline of democracy, since in a true democracy politics should be the privilege and duty of every citizen. When love becomes professional, it is prostitution. You need to provide evidence of professional training even to obtain the modest position of street-sweeper or dog-catcher, but no one questions your competence when you wish to become a husband or a wife, a father or a mother- and yet these are full-time occupations of supreme importance, which actually require talents bordering on genius." "To impress the fools, you must be obscure." "Evening Here dies another day During which I have had eyes, ears, hands And the great world round me; And with tomorrow begins another. Why am I allowed two?" "'What I need is constant change, I dislike all habits'" "'What bothers me is to have to outline my opinion, to formulate it; I hate to have anything cast in concrete; and, in the end, there is hardly any subject on which I have not changed my mind.'" "'I have two different ways of being: it is the best protection against error.'" "I often feel as if I were a horrible hypocrite; I have such an acute need for sympathy, I virtually melt into the other party. With complete sincerity, I adopt other people's opinions and thus give them a misleading impression of agreement. I would inevitably disappoint my own side- if I had one." "Orwell's revulsion towards all "the smelly little orthodoxies that compete for our souls" explains also his distrust of and contempt for intellectuals". "What sickens me about left-wing people, especially intellectuals, is their utter ignorance of the way things actually happen. I was always struck by this when I was in Burma and used to read anti-imperialist stuff." "...I (George Orwell) don't mix much in literary circles, because I know from experience that once I have met and spoken to anyone, I shall never again be able to show any intellectual brutality towards him, even when I feel that I ought to..." Orwell: "If a man cannot enjoy the return of spring, why should he be happy in a labour-saving Utopia?" "if the poem is really good, displace one word and the entire piece collapses." "The greater a work's originality and perfection, the greater its vulnerability to the risk of later ill treatment at the hands its creator. An inspired work is one which has by its very definition escaped its author; this creates the danger that the author will want to recapture it and strive maladroitly to regain control over it." "In this distressing circumstance, he was interviewed by an American journalist, who asked him a very American question: 'Are you receiving any therapy or counseling? (Hugh) Grant replied, "No. In England, we read novels." "The finished work is to the spiritual experience of the artist as the graph recorded by the seismograph is to an earthquake. What matters is the experience; the work itself is a mere accidental consequence, a secondary result, a visible (or audible) leftover..." "As Erica Jong has observed: 'There is nothing fiercer than a failed artist. The energy remains, but having no outlet, it impplodes in a great black fart of rage which smokes up all the inner windows of the soul." And sometimes it drives a man into politics. "This phenomenon of the failed artist as a statesman, of political leadership as self-expression, out some day to be properly analysed; in the course of such a study, Mao could provide one of the most exemplary cases." - p. 385 "What people believe is essentially what they wish to believe. They cultivate illusions out of idealism- and also out of cynicism. They follow their own visions because doing so satisfies their religious cravings, and also because it is expedient. They seek beliefs that can exalt their souls, and that can fill their bellies. They believe out of generosity, and also because it serves their interests. They believe because they are stupid, and also because they are clever. Simply, they believe in order to survive. And because they need to survive, sometimes they could gladly kill whoever has the insensitivity, cruelty and inhumanity to deny them their life-supporting lies." "Better than the assent of the crowd: The dissent of one brave man!" "As Pascal said, 'Trust witnesses willing to sacrifice their lives" "Joseph Conrad remarked that the love of literature does not make a writer, any more than the love of the sea makes a sailor." "The cultivated public always follows the directives of a few propaganda commissars: there is much more conformity among intellectuals than among plumbers or car mechanics." "Sartre had an unquestionable genius...Borges was perhaps better equipped: he had a sense of humor- which is also the other side of a genuine humility." "In one respect, smokers do enjoy a spiritual superiority over non-smokers- or, at least, they possess one significant advantage: they are more immediately aware of our common mortality." "When a bird is about to die, his song is sad; when a man is about to die, his words are true."

  11. 4 out of 5

    Graychin

    I don’t understand how it happened that the name Simon Leys never meant anything to me until about the time the man himself died this past August. I missed out, I think. But then perhaps I didn’t, because the New York Review of Books’ 570-page collection of his essays, The Hall of Uselessness, makes the best imaginable introduction. How often do you pick up a book of essays and find yourself unable to set it down again until you’ve finished reading the whole thing? Not often, I’ll bet. But this I don’t understand how it happened that the name Simon Leys never meant anything to me until about the time the man himself died this past August. I missed out, I think. But then perhaps I didn’t, because the New York Review of Books’ 570-page collection of his essays, The Hall of Uselessness, makes the best imaginable introduction. How often do you pick up a book of essays and find yourself unable to set it down again until you’ve finished reading the whole thing? Not often, I’ll bet. But this is what happened to me when I entered the Hall. From the very first piece in this well-curated collection, “The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote,” I was captured. Leys himself was an interesting figure. His real name was Pierre Ryckmans. He was a Belgian who spent much of his adult life in Australia. He was a scholar of Chinese culture and history but solidly rooted in the western intellectual tradition. He was conservative and a Catholic but of such an open and curious mind that any charges of mere dogmatism are impossible. Though English wasn’t his first language, he wrote it beautifully. And he read good books, and thought carefully before saying anything on paper. What he did say was worth hearing. There are a least a dozen essays in The Hall of Uselessness that I look forward to revisiting soon.

  12. 5 out of 5

    Inna

    Collection of erudite, witty and deeply human essays. Leys is a brilliant reader - insightful, irreverent, and deeply in love with the art of writing. His essays on various writers and their work are a pleasure to read. So are the essays about China, about seamen (whether literary or real) and about the state of higher education. His protests against the oppression in China and in Cambodia come from a deeply humanist impulse. His defense of Catholicism comes from the same impulse and thus is dee Collection of erudite, witty and deeply human essays. Leys is a brilliant reader - insightful, irreverent, and deeply in love with the art of writing. His essays on various writers and their work are a pleasure to read. So are the essays about China, about seamen (whether literary or real) and about the state of higher education. His protests against the oppression in China and in Cambodia come from a deeply humanist impulse. His defense of Catholicism comes from the same impulse and thus is deeply sympathetic. I could argue about his protest against the ban of smoking in public places. But then, I could argue about some other things as well. The thing about Leys is that he starts a conversation with his readers and, no matter what it is about, the conversation is fascinating. Which is the best thing I could say about any essay writer.

  13. 4 out of 5

    Gwern

    Moved to gwern.net. Moved to gwern.net.

  14. 5 out of 5

    Douglas

    Leys gives an interesting collection of essays. One of the first essays in this volume has to do with Don Quixote and is classified under the heading of quixotism. In it he managed to rekindle my desire to re-read Cervantes famous novel. He also introduced me to Miguel de Unamuno’s “Our Lord Don Quixote”, which I managed, after a long time, to obtain at a reasonable price. (The English translation of this work appears to be out of print and extant copies are usually very expensive.) According to Leys gives an interesting collection of essays. One of the first essays in this volume has to do with Don Quixote and is classified under the heading of quixotism. In it he managed to rekindle my desire to re-read Cervantes famous novel. He also introduced me to Miguel de Unamuno’s “Our Lord Don Quixote”, which I managed, after a long time, to obtain at a reasonable price. (The English translation of this work appears to be out of print and extant copies are usually very expensive.) According to Leys, Unamuno was one of many critics who succumbed to the “urge to save the tale from the artist who created it.” Our Lord Don Quixote being almost a re-writing of Cervantes magnum opus. Another who was vexed by the tale as originally told was Nabokov. Another essay—in this collection also categorized as quixotism—is a cogent rebuttal to Christopher Hitchens’ hatchet job on the late Mother Theresa. The title Hitchens gave to his essay was “The Missionary Position: Mother Theresa in Theory and Practice”—embodying an obscene double entendre worthy of a naughty undergraduate, writing for the college newspaper. In his reply to Leys, Hitchens claims to be incredulous that anyone could see his title as obscene. The penetration of Ley’s insight is, I think nicely summarized in his reply to Hitchens, “regarding your insistence that the title of your book—when applied to an 86-year-old nun who serves the poor and made a vow of chastity nearly 70 years ago—cannot be read as an obscenity: if a schoolboy draws on the blackboard a cartoon of his teacher copulating with a goat, one may feel irritated by this immature prank, but at the same time, one must grudgingly acknowledge his spirited irreverence. If, however, this same schoolboy eventually insists tearfully that he did not do anything, that he did not mean to be cheeky, that he merely meant to draw an honest and plain zoology assignment, he simply cancels the only merit one could ever have credited him with. Forgive my frankness: in a way, your original offensiveness was more respectable than your present glosses and disclaimers.” Yes!, the last sentence being something one could level against the “literary excesses” of the Left generally. If one did not already come to the conclusion from what I have just written, let me point out that Leys was also a Christian. In spite of the pointed barbs they hurled at each other, Hitchens and Leys correspondence seems to have been basically friendly like that of Chesterton and Shaw; which shows that the current tendency to “flame” those with whom one disagrees—a sad hallmark of youthful disputants—is wholly unnecessary. For American readers like myself, Leys provides some interesting discussions of foreign writers—especially French writers—not often encountered. One better known writer—Andre Gide—is discussed at length. Today Gide is something of a homosexual saint; though his own attitude about both designations probably would have tended towards sour disapproval. As regards homosexuality, Gide had a “theory” about it and his own actions within it that contrast sharply with the modern “gay movement”. As for saints, he also was deeply conflicted about the role and meaning of religious belief—or so I surmise. In any event, his “stardom” as a famous and august man of French letters who also engaged in homosexual relations today places him in a category that must be above critical examination. Leys, without rancor or vituperation, attempts to set the record straight on Gide. For one who still subscribes to the traditional sexual mores—and there must be very few these days—Leys shows how Gide gradually descended from his lofty views of homosexual love to a degenerate lust for “boys” which also affected the quality and significance of his writings. Leys (who died the same day as Robin Williams) was also a noted sinologist who had a genuine feel for Chinese culture. Some of his essays on this subject contain interesting discussions of Chinese writing (mistakenly called calligraphy by Westerners) and poetry; also the unique Chinese view of history in contrast with the Western view. This view explains, according ot Leys, why fewer architectural antiquities are to be found in China than in the West. One the political front, Leys takes an unstinting look at Chinese Communism and its godhead, Mao Tse Tung (Wade-Giles spelling). His view is so honest that he had to write under the pseudonym, Simon Leys. (A trip to Wikipedia will tell you his real name!) Ley’s analysis is a good antidote for potential Mao worshipers as well as those young folks in the west who don Che Guevara t-shirts and other communist apparel without any sense of history or, for that matter, shame that would naturally attach itself were they caught wearing Nazi symbology. The last essays are a series of miscellany. One I particularly like was entitled “A Way of Living” containing a provocative subsection entitled, “In Praise of Laziness.” It is surprising that, in spite of his achievements, which must have consumed most of his leisure time, Ley’s pays such a tribute. In doing so he quotes Chesterton, "There are some who complain of a man doing nothing; there are some, still more mysterious and amazing, who complain of having nothing to do. When actually presented with some beautiful blank hours or days, they grumble at their blankness. When given the gift of loneliness, which is the gift of liberty, they will cast it away; they will destroy it deliberately with some dreadful game with cards, or a little ball…I cannot repress a shudder when I see them throwing their hard-won holidays by doing something. For my own part, I can never get enough Nothing to do.” He also quotes Reverdy (whom I have not read), “I need so much time to do nothing that I have none left for work.” Clearly, Leys was not a professional as most Americans perceive the modern academic, but rather a contemplative—perhaps one of the last of the breed which, for me, is a sad fact; because we can see by the breadth and depth of his essays that doing apparently “nothing” is very comprehensive.

  15. 5 out of 5

    Victoria

    Probably a review brought Simon Leys, the Belgian writer long resident in Australia, born Pierre Ryckmans, to my attention, though I long ago had heard of his Chinese Shadows and thought of him as, in his words, a Sinologist. But he is much much more, as this engaging collection of essays, enigmatically but enticingly and eventually humorously titled The Hall of Uselessness , reveals. Having spent a decade or so in Asia, I realized the essays on China might be less interesting to those without th Probably a review brought Simon Leys, the Belgian writer long resident in Australia, born Pierre Ryckmans, to my attention, though I long ago had heard of his Chinese Shadows and thought of him as, in his words, a Sinologist. But he is much much more, as this engaging collection of essays, enigmatically but enticingly and eventually humorously titled The Hall of Uselessness , reveals. Having spent a decade or so in Asia, I realized the essays on China might be less interesting to those without that experience of proximity both physical and cultural. But they are nevertheless well worth reading, not least for revisiting the Mao worship that so blinded the left in the west. When it was not popular to do so, Leys described what was actually happening during the "Cultural Revolution" and similar euphemistically named phenomena. But even if readers skip those essays, or read very selectively (for example, about Barthes in China and a few others of wider interest), we have the literary and miscellaneous essays. These consistently afford the deep pleasure arising from intelligent, articulate, and attractive description of new people and works, and of those already somewhat known. "Portrait of Proteus: A Little ABC of Gide" is a longer entry, as compelling as fiction in the story it tells, yet with many duly documented facts and details, in the text and in extensive notes. "I Prefer Reading" is perfect for this reader, and many others, I suspect. It's somehow nice to know that, given the author's multilingual background and education, we can think what originally appeared in a language other than English was, if not translated by Leys himself, checked by him. At first I was unhappy with the notes, most of which are very substantive and might have become part of the narrative itself, being at the back of the book, but I came to realize that location allows for a smoother development of main ideas, with additional information available in the notes to those who want it. The NY Review of Books has done its usual excellent job of presentation, with an attractive and relevant cover, strikingly colored endpapers, and good-quality paper well bound into this rather thick volume. Highly recommended – read slowly, it provides the companionship of a lively mind over several weeks, or longer...and selectively re-reading is rewarding.

  16. 5 out of 5

    Josh Friedlander

    RIP Simon Leys 1935-2014 An erudite, spirited collection of essays on Western literature (with an emphasis on Belgian writers such as Simenon and Henri Michaux), China and the value of universities and the humanities. Leys is unabashedly conservative, standing against new academic trends (Edward Said and Roland Barthes come in for particularly harsh treatment) and the dominance of pluralism over elitism, as well as standing up for his somewhat old-fashioned religious principles (an exchange of le RIP Simon Leys 1935-2014 An erudite, spirited collection of essays on Western literature (with an emphasis on Belgian writers such as Simenon and Henri Michaux), China and the value of universities and the humanities. Leys is unabashedly conservative, standing against new academic trends (Edward Said and Roland Barthes come in for particularly harsh treatment) and the dominance of pluralism over elitism, as well as standing up for his somewhat old-fashioned religious principles (an exchange of letters criticising Christopher Hitchens for his words against Mother Theresa hasn't aged well). Leys (a pen-name for Pierre Ryckmans) examines Chinese poetics and aesthetics in what was for me the book's most interesting part. He examines a connection perceived by the Chinese between the moral value of an artist to the quality of his art, and strongly endorses it. I skimmed some of the essays, but there are enough "a-ha" moments to make this worthwhile.

  17. 4 out of 5

    J.W.D. Nicolello

    I would and shall go so far as to say that the comparative description of an elderly Edmund Wilson's journal entries on love-making sessions with his wife reading as, "...in the same way a zoologist would describe the laborious coition of elephants" is itself worth the price of admission. I mean, I haven't been caught off guard while drinking Lapsang Souchong with such a burst of laughter since I started reading Svejk just the other week. I have laughed more in the last two weeks than I had in t I would and shall go so far as to say that the comparative description of an elderly Edmund Wilson's journal entries on love-making sessions with his wife reading as, "...in the same way a zoologist would describe the laborious coition of elephants" is itself worth the price of admission. I mean, I haven't been caught off guard while drinking Lapsang Souchong with such a burst of laughter since I started reading Svejk just the other week. I have laughed more in the last two weeks than I had in two years. I have been wearing shorts for days in February on East Coast Armorica. Birds are singing. Sing, O birds!

  18. 5 out of 5

    A.S. Patric

    Besides the exceptionally lucid prose, the most compelling quality Simon Leys has is that he's a genius reader. He brings such depth of literature to every essay in this brilliant collection. Leys has the most ferocious literary faith you're likely to find, and yet he delights as often with humour as with profundity. Next time you're in a bookstore check out The Hall of Uselessness. Besides the exceptionally lucid prose, the most compelling quality Simon Leys has is that he's a genius reader. He brings such depth of literature to every essay in this brilliant collection. Leys has the most ferocious literary faith you're likely to find, and yet he delights as often with humour as with profundity. Next time you're in a bookstore check out The Hall of Uselessness.

  19. 5 out of 5

    Daniel Polansky

    A wide ranging collection of essays, something of a mixed bag. I wasn’t blown away by the literary criticism (although anyone who shit-talks Christopher Hitchens can’t be all bad) but the writing on China and Mao were excellent, informative and thoughtful.

  20. 4 out of 5

    dusty.rhodes

    Simon Leys is an interesting writer. Very wide-rangingly well-read, very playful and quite... moral. He holds strongly to a deep sense of right and wrong which, while I don't always agree with it or the conclusions he draws from it, is refreshing to read this perspective from such an intelligent and caring author. Far too often I read pieces of heartless uninformed diatribe from uneducated pens. This is not the province of Leys. He takes informed stands when appropriate and wanders to and fro wh Simon Leys is an interesting writer. Very wide-rangingly well-read, very playful and quite... moral. He holds strongly to a deep sense of right and wrong which, while I don't always agree with it or the conclusions he draws from it, is refreshing to read this perspective from such an intelligent and caring author. Far too often I read pieces of heartless uninformed diatribe from uneducated pens. This is not the province of Leys. He takes informed stands when appropriate and wanders to and fro when possible. That said, he can be a bit overly caustic and biting for my taste, but then again... that he will take the stand and the criticism that comes with it without shying or sticking his head in the stand is refreshing. This collection of essays is ostensibly ordered by topic (Quixotism, Literature, China, The Sea, University and Marginalia), but not every essay sticks directly to topic, or even to title. Though some do. Each, instead, tends to follow thought-lines to seemingly unrelated topics and writers and quotes. The best of his essays collected here leave the most interesting thoughts written in the blanks between overtly expressed thoughts and tangents. The fantastic quotes&anecdotes Leys digs up and uses in near-every essay are near-always gems. Just fantastic references throughout. These are matched with his own highly-quotable phrases, sentences and whole paragraphs. While the book runs 500-some pages and not every essay is equal, the book is worth it even if you were just to read the following: The Imitation of our Lord Don Quixote Lies that Tell the Truth Chesterton: The Poet that Dances with a Hundred Legs The Intimate Orwell The Truth of Simenon The Experience of Literary Translation On Readers' Rewards and Writers' Awards Writers and Money Overtures The Chinese Attitude Toward the Past An Introduction to Confucius Poetry and Painting: Aspects of Classical Chinese Aesthetics Orientalism and Sinology Anatomy of a "Post-Totalitarian" Dictatorship: The Essays of Liu Xiaobo on China Today And above those still: The Art of Interpreting Non-Existent Inscriptions Written in Invisible Ink on a Blank Page The Idea of the University A Way of Living Two sections to quote at length: From "The Idea of the University": "In the university where I last taught, in a written communication to all staff, the vice-chancellor once instructed us to consider out students not as students, but as customers. On that day, I knew that it was time for me to go." [...] "Two points are particularly under attack. First, the elitist character of the ivory tower (which results from its very nature) is denounced int he name of equality and democracy. The demand for equality is noble and must be fully supported, but only within its own sphere, which is that of social justice. It has no place anywhere else. Democracy is the only acceptable political system; yet it pertains to politics exclusively, and has no application to any other domain. When applied anywhere else, it is death--for truth is not democratic, intelligence and talent are no democratic, nor is beauty, nor love--nor God's grace. A truly democratic education is an education that equips people intellectually to defend and promote democracy within the political world; but in its own field, education must be ruthlessly aristocratic and high-brow, shameless geared toward excellence. The second aspect of the ivory tower that is constantly under attack is its non-utilitarian character. The heart of the problem is expressed in the paradox of Zhuang Zi, a Daoist philosopher of the third century BC and one of the most profound minds of all time: "People all know the usefulness of what is useful, but they do not know the usefulness of the useless." The superior utility of the university--what enables it to perform its function--rests entirely upon what the world deems to be its uselessness. Vocational schools and technical colleges are very useful--people all understand that. As they cannot see the usefulness of the useless universities, they have decided to turn the universities unto bad imitations of technical colleges. Thus the fundamental distinction between liberal education and vocational training has become blurred, and the very survival of the university is in question. The university is now under increasing pressure to justify its existence in utilitarian and quantitative terms. Such pressure is deeply corrupting. [...] When a university yields to utilitarian temptation, it betrays its vocation and sells its soul. Five centuries ago, the great Renaissance scholar Erasmus defined with one phrase the essence of the humanist endeavour: Homo Fit, non nascitur--One is not born a man, one becomes it. A university is not a factory producing graduates, as a sausage factory produces sausages. It is a place where a chance is given to men to become what they truly are." From "A Way of Living": "Now the ironical paradox of our age, of course, is that the wretched lumpenproletariat is cursed with the enforced leisure of demoralising and permanent unemployment, whereas the educated elite, whose liberal professions have been turned into senseless money-making machines, are condemning themselves to the slavery of endless working hours--till they collapse like overloaded beasts of burden." I'll look to read more of Leys. He is a challenging, thought-provoking and well-equipped critic and essayist.

  21. 5 out of 5

    FSP

    “A corrupted tribunal does exist and spreads its infection to all its surroundings is a cause of shame. Despite an invisible conspiracy of mediocrity surrounding with a wall of silence, his source of joy and grace never ran dry.” Prince de Ligne pg55 I usually don’t take stupidity too seriously but what an unfortunate and ignoble choice of webdesign for a supposed above average magazine on such an important subject as ethics. “A corrupted tribunal does exist and spreads its infection to all its sur “A corrupted tribunal does exist and spreads its infection to all its surroundings is a cause of shame. Despite an invisible conspiracy of mediocrity surrounding with a wall of silence, his source of joy and grace never ran dry.” Prince de Ligne pg55 I usually don’t take stupidity too seriously but what an unfortunate and ignoble choice of webdesign for a supposed above average magazine on such an important subject as ethics. “A corrupted tribunal does exist and spreads its infection to all its surroundings is a cause of shame.”(Primo Levi on Kafka’s The Trial) Loneliness, the gift of liberty. It is a mark of fundamental human decency to fell ashamed of living in this century. (Elias Canetti ) we are guests of time Vita contemplativa 'What is life, after all, but a long dialogue with imbeciles?” (Malraux) As an aristocrat he remained aware of the demanding ethics required and defined nobility as the obligation of doing nothing ignoble. At bottom, there is only one art that matters and that is the art of life. A career brilliantly initiated only to be prematurely wrecked by a conspiracy of mediocrity - there was in him a deep source of joy and grace that never ran dry. His overdeveloped sensitivity tended easily to be concealed behind the mask of a buffoon. Pg303 When two great civilizations, utterly foreign to each other, come into direct contact, it seems that, at first, they cannot exchange anything but blows and trinkets. Mutual access to the core of their respective culture necessities a lengthy and complex process. It demands patients and humility, for outsiders are normally not allowed beyond a certain point: they will not be admitted to the inner chambers of the spirit, unless they are willing to shed some of their original baggage. Cultural initiation entails metamorphosis, and we cannot learn any foreign values if we do not accept the risk of being transformed by what we learn. Never take stupidity too seriously. Jacques Maritain A corrupted tribunal does exist and spreads its infection to all its surroundings is a cause of shame (Primo Levi on Kafka’s The Trial) Do truly great peoples ever need a great leader? The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. It’s far better to have a good imagination than a good memory. Biographies by pen-pushers who, knowing everything and understanding nothing, pile up mountains of ponderous and insignificant data to bury up some happiless poet, some fine artist or some other victim of their choosing. Enthusiasm is finest of the faults. He combined utter fluidity with absolute resilience. As pequenas e fétidas ortodoxia que competem por nossas almas. The invisible conspiracy that surrounded Revel with a wall of silence. Empire of ugliness His own little piece of solid waste is called “a book.” The missionary position: witty double entendre Finally, for my entertainment, Spirited irreverence. VH Arbiters of literary elegance. “For my own part, so long as we have no proof of the reality of this maritime chapter. I shall continue to think that it belongs to the sphere of the imagination. Which is not by any means to call Michaux a liar. He is a poet. And I take the word of the first two meanings assigned it in Samuel Johnson’s great dictionary: “Poet: an inventor; an author of fiction.” I am afraid - afraid that, once dead, I shall have in some sense to live even longer. -Henri Michaux, Note sur le suicide One travels against. To rid oneself from the native land, his attachments of every kind and everything that clings to oneself, despite oneself. Voyages of expatriation. To travel in a sense to purge oneself: Not to acquire anything. To impoverish yourself. That is what one needs.” -Henri Michaux, Ecuador: A Travel Journal The Major Ordeals of the Mind; The point is. The issue that should be of primary concern for us is not what naked bipeds can accomplish in their original state, but how human beings, clad with culture, are more likely to achieve the fulness of their humanity. They retained the dangerous belief that whatever was not expressed in French could hardly matter. The French feel that when Americans are playing a leading role in the political-cultural world they are usurping what is by birth right a French prerogative. For simple souls and solemn mediocrities are impressed only by what is couched in opaque jargon. The historian does not merely record; he edits, he omits, he judges, he interprets, he recognizes, he composes. His mission is nothing less than “to render the highest kind of justice to the visible universe, by bringing to light the truth, manifold and one, underlying its every aspect.” Joseph Conrad What determines the quality of a historian is the quality of his judgement. Glory is like the bed of Louis XIV in Versailles; it is magnificent and there are bugs in it. Giants breed giants. He stood in front of the ocean and wrote. The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there. “The mob reads confessions and notes, etc., so avidly because in their baseness they rejoice at the humiliations of the high and the weakness of the mighty. Upon discovering any kind of flaw they are delighted. He is little like us! You lie, scoundrels: he may be little and vile, but differently, not like you.” The benefited from what only the warm affection of a united family can supply, a happy childhood, which arms one to face life and, once adult, to eliminate the risk of losing time in some fatuous and vain quest for happiness.” “The sexual act is indifferent to me , it takes too long, and then those women who truly please me I would rather have as friends than as mistresses.” (Victor Segalen) “The feeling of ‘diversity’, which is the source of all the savour of life, is threatened by habit, proximity, satiation, homogenization, and the nightmare of ultimate entropy, as prefigured by the universal degradation of anthropological diversity. According to Segalenm, “exoticism is thus not adaptation, not within oneself, but rather the acute and immediate perception of an eternal incompreensibilidade. Let us start from such acknowledgement of impenetrability. Let us not flatter ourselves by thinking that we can assimilate customs, races, nations, others; on the contrary, let us rejoice in our never being able to do so, and thus garante the enduring pleasure of experiencing Diversity.” (Segalen) Naquele momento a compreensão me atingiu - e nunca me deixou desde então: verdadeiros filisteus não são pessoas incapazes de reconhecer beleza, eles reconhecem isso muito bem; eles detectam sua presença em qualquer lugar, imediatamente, de forma infalível como qualquer esteta - mas para eles, esta capacidade serve para destruir antes que ganhe acesso a seu império universal de aberracoes. Ignorância não é apenas a ausência de conhecimento, obscurantismo não resulta da redução de luz, mal gosto não é meramente a falta de bom gosto, estupidez não é simplesmente uma falha de inteligência: tudo isso são forcas ativas que não toleram disputas a sua regra onipresente. Talento inspirado é um insulto intolerante a mediocridade. Se isso é verdadeiro no âmbito dos estetas, é ainda mais verdadeiro na área da ética. A necessidade de trazer abaixo a seu próprio desolado nível, desfigurar, ridicularizar e invalidar qualquer valor maior/esplendor que tenha majestade superior é provavelmente a mais triste necessidade da natureza humana. Simon Leys “In everything that matters, the inside is much larger than the outside.” (Chesterton) “The mark of a thoughtful writer is his apparent diversity.” (‘’) “For public men all seem to become hazier as they mount higher... I think I could say with some truth that politicians have no politics.” (“) “The enemy arises not from among the people, but from the educated and well-off, those who unite intellectualism and ignorance, and who are helped on their way by a weak worship of force. More specifically it is certain that the scientific and artistic worlds are silently bound in a crusade against the family and the State.” (“) “To isolate and emphasize only one side of the truth. This is always an easy recipe for achieving popularity and for gathering crowds of disciples; but to secure this sort of demagogic success one must mutilate a complex reality.” (“) “Humility is not a virtue propitious to the artist. It is often pride, emulation, avarice, malice - all the odious qualities which drive a man to complete, elaborate, refine, destroy, renew his work, until he has made something that gratifies his pride, and envy and greed. And in doing so, he enriches the world more than the generous and the good, though he may lose his soul in the process. That is the paradox of artistic achievement.” (Evelyn Waugh) “You are the Pope: you do not write in order to be read - you write in order to state the truth.” (Louis Massignon and Pope Pius XII) He never managed to accumulate an immense culture - literary, historical and philosophical - solely through his extensive reading. (Again, the approach of the amateur.) “He was a journalist because he was a democrat. Newspapers were what the ordinary people (the man in the bus!) like to read. There could therefore be no higher privilege than to write for the newspapers - whatever he might think of their proprietors.” “To impress the fools, you must be obscure.” He does not confront himself, she succeeds herself. “What matters here is the protection of that spirit that is ‘the salt of the earth’ and which can still save the world... the struggle of culture against barbarism.” “She does not care for a man, however talented, if she cannot extract from him something that may be of use to her own intelectual development.” The point is: the issue that should be of primary concern for us is not what naked bipeds can accomplish in their original state of nature but how human beings, clad with culture, are more likely to achieve the fullness of their humanity.” (Gide) “My son, do nothing silly, unless it amuses you.” “To submit life to such patient, deliberate and sophisticated transmutation into art.” (Gide) “Aesthetics is but a superior form of justice.” (Flaubert) “People have such a love for truth that when they happen to love something else, they want it to be the truth: and because they do not wish to be proven wrong, they refuse to be shown their mistake. And so, they end up hating the truth for the sake of the object which they have come to love instead of the truth.” (Saint Augustine) “When he asked an old priest what he had learned about human nature after having spent a lifetime hearing people’s confessions, the man replied: ‘Fundamentally, there are no grown-ups.’” What is life, after all, but a long dialogue with imbeciles?” (Malraux) Que eles estivessem em busca da luz do entendimento, do esclarecimento. The successful man adapts himself to the world. The looser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore all the progress depends on the looser. Bernard Shaw

  22. 5 out of 5

    Leticia Supple

    This book by Simon Leys - not his real name - has a beautiful title. The Hall of Uselessness is a title of which, in the reading, you will come to understand as being references to high education and the necessity of time in which to Do Nothing. It has been a long time since I had read a real volume of essays. At approximately 451 pages (which includes the index), this is not a slouch of a read. It is also hardly a tome; indeed, it says more about how much I read these days, than it does about th This book by Simon Leys - not his real name - has a beautiful title. The Hall of Uselessness is a title of which, in the reading, you will come to understand as being references to high education and the necessity of time in which to Do Nothing. It has been a long time since I had read a real volume of essays. At approximately 451 pages (which includes the index), this is not a slouch of a read. It is also hardly a tome; indeed, it says more about how much I read these days, than it does about the extent of the book. It had been a long time between volumes of essays, because for a long time I have resisted being honest with myself about the fact that I am an essayist and not a novelist or a short story writer. In resigning myself to being honest with myself, I bought this collection on a whim. A total whim. I did not read reviews, I did not read blurbs. I saw the title and actively thought to myself, I must have that book. Or rather, the universe told me to buy this book. Reading The Hall of Uselessness was an experience akin to coming home. I settled into the pages of these collected essays with comfort and intellectual joy. I wrote copious notes in a notebook I had been given as a gift just before buying this volume. I shamelessly marked up the text of the book itself with my own notes, in a fine-flowing black ink. I was extremely surprised - and not a little bit joyful - to find an essayist of this calibre living in my country, and available in a major bookstore. Stephen Leys spoke to me of all the things that I philosophise about, consider, ponder, and think about from day to day. Multi-lingual, schooled in Chinese history, philosophy, and politics, and with a clear and open mind, Leys's work spoke to me like an old friend. I learned a lot about about Chinese politics and perspectives. I appreciated commentary on great authors I love and admire, like Chesterton, and Chekhov. I wanted to learn French to understand much more of Leys's undying admiration for so many writers who wrote and published in French. I want to go back and re-read Confucius, having now gained another perspective on his work; one that reinforced and added to my own understandings. Perhaps more importantly, I started to write again, through the sheer, soular energy with which this book provided me. I sat for afternoons on end, reading pages, and pondering pages, my journal alongside me for company. Some afternoons I read until dark. Some evenings I battled against tiredness to get through two pages before I slept. Through it all, I have nurtured an absurd desire to write to this author in thanks. I would not let myself do so until I had finished the book. Thus, my desire to spend time with this work was intensified during every minute that I was unable to read it. And now that it is over, I... uh. Don't really know what to read next. I might go buy another volume of essays with which to quench my intellectual thirst. On that note, I must go. I have a letter to write.

  23. 4 out of 5

    Dylan Suher

    As someone who seems to know every relevant piece of information and can assemble it into loose constellations that give light through their very conjunction, to be seen by the perspicacious reader, Ryckmans stands in the grand tradition of the literate Chinese essay. Criticism this elegantly written is a good reminder in the days of internet publishing of what criticism is meant to be. He's exceptional on China, and even when I disagree with his judgments---which is often---he is never disagree As someone who seems to know every relevant piece of information and can assemble it into loose constellations that give light through their very conjunction, to be seen by the perspicacious reader, Ryckmans stands in the grand tradition of the literate Chinese essay. Criticism this elegantly written is a good reminder in the days of internet publishing of what criticism is meant to be. He's exceptional on China, and even when I disagree with his judgments---which is often---he is never disagreeable. "true Philistines are not people who are incapable of recognizing beauty; they recognize it all too well; they detect its presence anywhere, immediately, and with a flair as infallible as that of the more 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." "Whenever people wonder 'What is the truth?' usually it is because the truth is just under their noses---but it would be very inconvenient to acknowledge it." "When [Malraux] asked an old priest what he had learned about human nature after having spent a lifetime hearing people's confessions, the man replied: 'fundamentally, there are no grown-ups.'" "Translation can mimic creation as much as it liked, but it can never claim the same status; 'creative translation' could only ever be a pejorative term, rather as it is said of a corrupt accountant that he practices 'creative accounting.'" "Chinese everlastingness does not inhabit monuments, but people. Permanence does not negate change, it informs change. Continuity is not ensured by the immobility of inanimate objects, it is achieved through the fluidity of the successive generations." "The aesthetic principles and expressive techniques of poetry have a pictorial character. The aesthetic principles and expressive techniques of painting have a poetical character." "Yet sometimes---as we have just witnessed in Peking---truth breaks free. Like a river that ruptures its dams, it overwhelms all our defenses, violently erupts into our lives, floods our cozy homes, and leaves high and dry in the middle of the street, for all to see, the fish that used to dwell in the deep." "We never cease to be astonished in the passing of time: 'Look at him! Only yesterday, it seems, he was still a tiny kid, and now he is bald, with a big moustache; a married man and a father!' This shows clearly that time is not our natural element: would a fish ever be surprised by the wetness of water? For our true motherland is eternity; we are the mere passing guests of time."

  24. 4 out of 5

    Theresa

    I like the leisurely, conversational tone of essays, and I like the Simon Leys who emerges from this collection of his essays. My favorite in this collection is "The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote", because it speaks about the reality of fiction--that it's value is that it conveys , not a message, but life. "The closer a book comes to being a genuine work of art, a true creation with a life of its own, the less likely it is that the author had full control over and a clear understanding of wh I like the leisurely, conversational tone of essays, and I like the Simon Leys who emerges from this collection of his essays. My favorite in this collection is "The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote", because it speaks about the reality of fiction--that it's value is that it conveys , not a message, but life. "The closer a book comes to being a genuine work of art, a true creation with a life of its own, the less likely it is that the author had full control over and a clear understanding of what he wrote." In fact, Cervantes wrote "Don Quixote" as a pot-boiler when he was a 'hopeless old hack, at the end of his tether'. Reviewing the criticism of the book by Nabokov, Montherlant, Flaubert, Unamuno, Van Doren, all of whom love its hero, Leys concludes that a strange thing happens to its readers. They do not read the same book. "There were never so many theories about anything...as there are about 'Don Quixote". Yet, it survives them all, as a masterpiece must do, if it would live, he says. "In Unamuno's philosophy, faith ultimately creates the thing it contemplates --- not as suggestive and fleeting auto-suggestion, but as an objective and everlasting reality that can be transmitted to others. And it is Sancho Panza who will vouch for this reality. The Sancho who followed Quixote for so long, with skepticism, with perplexity, with fear, also followed him with fidelity. Sancho did not believe in what his master believed, but he believed in his master...he kept following him because he came to like the idea. When Quixote lay dying, sadly cured of his splendid illusion, Sancho found that he had inherited his master's faith; he had acquired it simply as one would catch a disease---through the contagion of fidelity and love. Because he converted Sancho, Quixote will never die." Van Doren says, Quixote is not under the delusion that he is a knight errant, no, he sets his mind on becoming one. And he adopts the profession of knight after due reflection: it is the result of a deliberate choice. And, we are still talking of him because we suspect that in the end, he did become a knight. And Leys concludes by paraphrasing Bernard Shaw: The successful man adapts himself to the world. The loser persists in trying to adapt the world to himself. Therefore, all progress depends on the loser. Like Leys, I like paradox. .

  25. 4 out of 5

    Josef

    Simon Leys' collection of essays is a brilliant survey of so many unique minds, voices, ideas, movements, observations, and personalities; some more well known than others throughout history. The wonderful thing I found in his biographical sketches of people like Malraux, Andre Gide, and Chesterton, is his way of somehow allowing the subjects themselves to shine through, breaking through the confines of the biographic outline form to actually live and move for a bit as one reads. His journey with Simon Leys' collection of essays is a brilliant survey of so many unique minds, voices, ideas, movements, observations, and personalities; some more well known than others throughout history. The wonderful thing I found in his biographical sketches of people like Malraux, Andre Gide, and Chesterton, is his way of somehow allowing the subjects themselves to shine through, breaking through the confines of the biographic outline form to actually live and move for a bit as one reads. His journey with Gide is so full of well, Gide, that by the end of it, I was almost exhausted emotionally from spending the time I did with the man. Ley's pulls no punches with the romantic ideological affair that so many intellectuals in the west had with socialism and communism, only to find years later, the actual realities of what happens to a people when the ideologies were put into actual practice in the world, affecting the lives of not "the people", but rather...actual people. A sobering and timely reminder informed by firsthand experience, for the current version of the mostly Western, bourgeois, educated, generations of comfy couch world citizens, who are buying into recycled, stale utopian, socialist/collectivism, especially through the ironically (and ominously) termed, "social media" channels. I imagine Simon would have very little patience for the no-sacrifice, lip-service, sentimentality posing as critical thinking and actual involvement that seems to be all the rage today, facilitated as it is by the bully-pulpit-in-every-pot, medium of the internet. Another thing I appreciate is just when you think due to his well read prose, that you'll be plunged into full fledged snobbery, Leys compliments his literary cache with some down to earth, irreducible common sense, reminding one of the perennial difference between education, intelligence, and wisdom. Well done. I'll be revisiting this book for years to come.

  26. 4 out of 5

    Benjamin

    Simon Leys is a charming writer, and can enliven almost any topic. I only wish I knew enough about ancient Chinese calligraphy (for example) to engage with his essays on the same level they are written. As it is, I often felt like I was reading a review of a book I hadn't read (in some cases, that's literally true), but I loved it all the same.returnreturnUnfortunately, on the one topic I did feel sufficiently knowledgeable about (university funding) I found Leys position to be marked by lazy-th Simon Leys is a charming writer, and can enliven almost any topic. I only wish I knew enough about ancient Chinese calligraphy (for example) to engage with his essays on the same level they are written. As it is, I often felt like I was reading a review of a book I hadn't read (in some cases, that's literally true), but I loved it all the same.returnreturnUnfortunately, on the one topic I did feel sufficiently knowledgeable about (university funding) I found Leys position to be marked by lazy-thinking and blinkered self-interest. He writes about the "decline of the university" without balance, without addressing the social and economic causes behind the changes, nor proposing a single alternative. The whole essay could be summarised by the words 'in my day ...", and a wistful look. The concluding 'Fable from Academe' is woefully shallow, unfunny and unsubtle. It slightly marred by enjoyment of this otherwise wonderful book.

  27. 4 out of 5

    Tim

    It has taken me awhile to get through the close to five hundred pages of these wonderful essays. Leys (a pen name that did not save him from getting kicked out of China), Belgian-born Sinologist living in Australia, ranges over modern French literature from Balzac to Simenon and Chinese topics from calligraphy and Confucius to Mao (where his criticism came early) and Liu Xiaobo. His Catholicism informs his interactions with Chesterton, Waugh, and Christopher Hitchens and his skepticism informs h It has taken me awhile to get through the close to five hundred pages of these wonderful essays. Leys (a pen name that did not save him from getting kicked out of China), Belgian-born Sinologist living in Australia, ranges over modern French literature from Balzac to Simenon and Chinese topics from calligraphy and Confucius to Mao (where his criticism came early) and Liu Xiaobo. His Catholicism informs his interactions with Chesterton, Waugh, and Christopher Hitchens and his skepticism informs his defense of the university from utilitarianism. His clear prose style, wide-ranging interests, and strong, thoughtful opinions, make the essays a sharp delight.

  28. 5 out of 5

    William Baker

    A collection of great essays, book introductions, reviews, addresses, with a wide range of topics from Don Quixote through George Orwell to Georges Simenon, from Chinese calligraphy to the Khmer Rouge and on and on. I excerpted this book with a frenzy. An erudite work which is very easy to read! Here is a nice passage: "When two great civilisations, utterly foreign to each other, come into direct contact, it seems that, at first, they cannot exchange anything but trinkets and blows. ... Cultural i A collection of great essays, book introductions, reviews, addresses, with a wide range of topics from Don Quixote through George Orwell to Georges Simenon, from Chinese calligraphy to the Khmer Rouge and on and on. I excerpted this book with a frenzy. An erudite work which is very easy to read! Here is a nice passage: "When two great civilisations, utterly foreign to each other, come into direct contact, it seems that, at first, they cannot exchange anything but trinkets and blows. ... Cultural initiation entails metamorphosis, and we cannot learn any foreign values if we do not accept the risk of being transformed by what we learn" (One More Art - Chinese Calligraphy).

  29. 4 out of 5

    Eitan

    A friend who owns a local bookstore urged me to read this. Three times I passed on it. Yesterday I picked it up again, noticed Leys' interest in Chinese literature, and bought it. It is very hard to put this book down. Leys is an original thinker and a fantastic writer. I find myself jotting down sentences, sending choice quotations to friends, and in general, hoping the book won't end (at least not too quickly). A friend who owns a local bookstore urged me to read this. Three times I passed on it. Yesterday I picked it up again, noticed Leys' interest in Chinese literature, and bought it. It is very hard to put this book down. Leys is an original thinker and a fantastic writer. I find myself jotting down sentences, sending choice quotations to friends, and in general, hoping the book won't end (at least not too quickly).

  30. 5 out of 5

    Gyoza

    Great collection of essays from an author whom I think is one of the best essayists ever! The topics in this collection are wide ranging, from literature to China to history to the sea. My favorites were the ones on Chinese art and history (a subject I know little about, so I learned a lot reading them), the ones on Cervantes, Victor Hugo, and Magellan.

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