By Simon LeysNon-fiction Black Inc. Books
The Hall of Uselessness
Simon Leys is a truly global citizen. (Born in Belgium, an expert on China, long-time resident in Australia.) He is also one of our most accomplished critics; his wide-ranging interests and expertise are considerable assets in his writer’s toolbox.
This collection brings together some of his best cultural and political essays, written over many decades. They range from appreciations of Evelyn Waugh and George Orwell to eviscerations of Christopher Hitchens (particularly, his book on Mother Teresa) and Edward Said’s theory of Orientalism. And of course, there are the pieces on China, including a piece written on Mao’s death in 1976, and reflections on communism and Chinese culture.
Reviewing the book in the Australian, Geordie Williamson says that Leys praises more than he censures – with his passions often proving infectious. ‘What we are really doing in these literary essays is reading along with a great reader.’
All of these essays – literary and political alike – are journeys through the mind of a great thinker, one with the courage of his convictions, a distinctive point of view and a devastatingly elegant, incisive way of drawing the reader into his arguments.
This substantial collection of essays displays the breadth of the author’s interests. We learn more of the wider world through his participation and observations on Chinese politics and sensibility, great European writers, the sea, art and aesthetics and morality. Leys brings a discerning intellect and a sometimes combative spirit to these diverse essays and challenges the reader to think with him as well as argue against him. The publication of Leys’ collected essays is a fitting honour for an important figure in Australian intellectual life.
To get you thinking and talking about the 21 titles in the running for these awards, we’ve commissioned some of Australia’s favourite literary bloggers to tell us what they think. Reviewers' opinions are entirely their own, subjective and do not reflect the views of the judges.
There are some writers whose significant contribution to culture is immediately recognisable, and whose work one can appreciate for its literary merit, while simultaneously finding it difficult (if not impossible) to agree with the author on any single point. My experience of Simon Leys’ The Hall of Uselessness was not quite as bad as this introduction might suggest, but it came close enough that I found writing this review a source of some anxiety.
Simon Leys is the pen name of Pierre Ryckmans, novelist and essayist, Sinologist and literary scholar, whose writing career has spanned over four decades and whose work has graced the pages of everything from the New York Review of Books to Quadrant. The Hall of Uselessness puts on display everything you would expect from someone with Leys’ résumé. His prose is rich and lofty. He engages critically and in detail with the subject of his work, whether that is the life and ideas of G. K. Chesterton or the denigration of the ‘China Experts’, Leys’ peers (although perhaps he would baulk at the word) whose expertise, he claims, is less in China than it is in the art of being an Expert. He is a master of erudite snark and is not afraid of taking on a challenge – his repartée with Christopher Hitchens on the subject of Mother Teresa is testament to that.
In some ways it feels like writing from a different time, and it’s Leys’ approach to literature itself that garners the most sympathy from me, despite the fact that half the book is devoted to discussing an exclusively male canon. Here is a writer who relishes the intimate details of a subject, who understands the importance of research and takes great pleasure in the evaluation, assessment and analysis of text and context. Furthermore, he wears his Catholicism without shame or caveat, and its influence on his work is always present but never overwhelming. Rarer still, here is a writer who believes in and argues for literature in and of itself, not because of its place in the economy or because of some contrived stereotype of national identity (his essay on ‘Writers and Money’ goes so far as to suggest that the relationship between literature and the market is entirely arbitrary) but because of how literature enriches intellectual life, the possibilities it presents for the world and the importance of the imagination in all aspects of human endeavour. The best parts of this collection are those in which he elaborates on such points, and his discussion of the relationship between what is considered ‘useless’ and what is ‘priceless’ is one of the most intriguing ideas in the book.
Nevertheless, politics is never far away, and the crunch point for me came with his essay on Edward Said. In it, the Sinologist further defends his field with a self-confessed ‘selective, arbitrary, incoherent and flippant’ essay on Orientalism. Indeed, at three and a half pages, it is one of the shortest and least meticulous essays in the collection. (Compare this, for example, to his 61-page ABC on French author and 1947 winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, André Gide). It is a disappointment both in terms of the writing (all snark, no substance) and because so much of the rest of what’s on display, sometimes almost in spite of its sharpness, shows an understanding of scholarship and a capacity for nuance that goes far beyond this. With only the briefest blink-and-you’ll-miss-it acknowledgement that there may actually be something at stake in engaging with a critique such as Said’s, this dismissal couldn’t help but cast much of the book in a different light for me.
It’s an accomplished collection of essays from the accomplished career of a man of wide scholarship and diverse interests, but I think we have some barriers between us, Leys and I. And for my own part, I found them just a little bit too high to jump.
Stephanie Honor Convery was an official blogger for the Melbourne Writers Festival in 2011 and 2012. She is a blogger for Overland and also has her own blog, Ginger and Honey.
Stephanie’s work has been featured in Overland, Meanjin and on ABC’s The Drum. She has just completed her first novel.
The Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards shortlist