Simon Leys is likely a name that is unknown to an American audience. He was for me. Not having heard of him forced me to approach The Hall of Uselessness as though it were a debut, even though Leys has been publishing essays and fiction for over forty years. He is based in Australia, where he settled thirty-five years after being born in Brussels as Pierre Ryckmans. Almost half of the essays in The Hall were originally published in either The New York Review of Books or The Monthly (the latter being a magazine in Australia that publishes work on a wide range of topics). And though many of the essays in The Hall are literary-centric, the book manages to cover very diverse terrain, including the quest for truth, the practice and history of Chinese calligraphy, the circumnavigation of the globe, and the university prior to its descent into monetization and skills-building.
The Hall is truly a sort of gift—the gift of an idealist. Fittingly, its first section (of six) is called “Quixotism.” It includes three essays, only the first of which deals directly with Cervantes’s masterpiece. Rather than the idealistic Spaniard, they all center around an aspect of Leys’s personality that we find throughout the collection: his own idealism, his lack of regard for practicality.
That first essay opens with Leys puzzling over the negative connotation that the word quixotic has taken on since we began using it a couple hundred of years after the publication of Cervantes’s novel. Leys says he can’t “think of a greater compliment” than calling someone quixotic and wonders if people who use the word have even read the novel. Here Leys reveals his approach to literature and the overarching argument he is making in the rest of the literary essays in the book. Shortly after arguing that we couldn’t possibly find a reliable statistic of those who have read the Quixote—seeing as how it’s positioned as one of those “books one should have read”—Leys informs us that he finds the idea of should-ing yourself to read something completely preposterous: “I disagree with such an attitude; I confess I read only for pleasure.”
This is snobbery that goes beyond traditional elitism, it becomes a sort of transcendental elitism, a doubling-back. Leys follows this by writing about the “problem with much contemporary criticism, and especially with a certain type of academic literary criticism.” The problem is that,
One has the feeling that these critics do not really like literature—they do not enjoy reading. Worse even, if they were actually to enjoy a book, they would suspect it to be frivolous. In their eyes, something that is amusing cannot be important or serious.
We find this enjoyment of Leys’s passions in all his essays, a refreshing approach, though not without its problems. When a critic focuses mainly on the things he or she enjoys, said critic begins a self-limiting practice of criticism. Leys is a Belgian-born, sea-loving sinologist who happens to be a devout Catholic that taught at university for many years. So it’s no coincidence that his essays mainly concern themselves with French-language literature, China’s history and politics, Catholic writers, the problematic nature of higher education these days, and the sea, as it is found in stories, poems, and novels. These are Leys’s strengths, the things he enjoys. And so, we can’t call Leys expansive in a general sense, but once he begins writing about French-language literature (with essays on Balzac, Hugo, Simenon, Michaux, Gide, and Malraux), we find he is able to create a literary landscape rich in history, value, and personality. When Leys writes on Catholic writers (with essays on Waugh and Chesterton), we almost get the feeling that these men were all close friends, each essay brimming with anecdotal information and a chumminess that has a warmth to it.
This is criticism that does not concern itself with “good” and “bad.” Its focus seems to be more on the problematic nature of the writer’s job. Even when Leys becomes critical of what he has deemed bad writing, he does it in an offhand way, as if to say, This is not the point, this is only a small part of the problem. When writing about Malraux’s life, he begins puzzling over a conclusion he reached while reading a new biography of the French novelist: that “Malraux was obviously a genius. What exactly he was a genius at, however, is not quite clear.” Leys mentions that Malraux “had little patience for dull minds,” but then follows that up with a very harsh criticism: this “might explain why he was such a bad novelist: what is life after all but a long dialogue with imbeciles?” The fact that Leys thinks Malraux is a bad novelist seems almost beside the point; he wants to consider the writer as a human being, as a creator. This trust that biographical information can be an important aspect to a writer’s works is refreshing.
In fact, Leys is not only interested in the problematic nature of the author’s job but also of the job given to those who come after and are forced to chronicle it: the biographers. When writing about George Orwell (the great anti-Catholic writer), Leys mentions an embarrassing story in a letter of Orwell’s, in which the great writer discusses a pass he made at a woman. Leys says that the story was
documented by the editor with embarrassing precision—at which point readers might remember Orwell’s hostility to the very concept of biography (“every life viewed from the inside would be a series of defeats too humiliating and disgraceful to contemplate”). Do biographers, however serious and scrupulous, really need or have the right to explore and disclose such intimate details? Yet we still read them. Is it right for us to do so?
And many readers, at first, will think Leys is being critical. But that doesn’t seem to be his interest. It’s when we get to the final line of this paragraph that we realize Leys is truly toiling with the works he has come across, that he is more interested in analyzing and discussing problems than anything else. He makes this clear by letting us know that “[t]hese questions are not rhetorical: I honestly do not know the answer.” There is something about this approach to literature that feels so personal and therefore so valuable that I, in turn, felt, as I mentioned before, that getting a chance to read and write about it was a gift.
I’ve focused on the literary essays in The Hall of Uselessness because it is the subject in Leys’s book that I know best. The truth is, China is not something I can write about with any authority. Leys can—and does—quite well. It’s a place he obviously loves dearly, granting him a very important perspective, much like the vantage from which he writes about literature. He explains this perspective a bit when, writing about calligraphy—an art that has “no parallel in any other of the great literate civilizations”—he reveals to us what separates his criticism of China from that written by more ostensibly political writers.
[the reason that] the very existence of [calligraphy] could not immediately register in the consciousness of early Western travelers . . . is that usually people do not see, they only recognize. And what they do not recognize remains invisible to them.
This is where Leys differs from many critics. He always approaches his essays always with a sense of how they fit in to the larger picture. This leads to an invaluable perspective: By saying I love the core, the essence, of what I’m discussing, he can approach each event, whether it be Mao’s Cultural Revolution or the publication of a new biography on Victor Hugo, with an eye toward how said event impacts the core idea. The reason this perspective is important is simple: it’s love. By Leys writing from a place of love for those topics, we are shown a humanness, a “soul,” busy at work.
In my favorite essay in the collection, “The Experience of Literary Translation,” Leys explores the problems that the art of translation presents to those willing to undertake the task. What’s wonderful about this piece is how willing Leys is to bring in the opinions of so many other writers and translators in order to explore all the ins and outs of the issue. This essay, which was originally written for Sylph Editions’s Cahiers series, was published for their ninth number, along with a series of diversions nestled in the final section of The Hall titled “Detours,” three poetry translations (one by Leys and two by Arthur Waley), and three of Leys’s wonderful illustrations. This raises a question: Is it worth owning both The Hall of Uselessness and the cahier Notes from the Hall of Uselessness? The answer is Yes. (Simply put, owning the entire Cahiers series that Sylph Editions has published so far is a must.) They bring to Leys’s cahier the same respect Leys brings to the task of essaying. Also, the margins in their printed version of The Experience of Literary Translation are much wider than what the New York Review Books edition offers. Personally, I prefer a wide margin, especially since Leys’s essays practically beg for one’s own commentary.
A month or so ago, we lost a great film critic when Stanley Kaufman passed away. I bring him up to close out this piece because, though they differ in many ways, there is something about Leys that reminds me of Kaufman. Both men are able to bring a clarity to very complex and intelligent ideas, and both do it with a humility and a humor that deserves respect. I also mention Kaufman because, when he died, The New Republic published a series of snippets of his reviews of note. In one of these snippets, Kaufman quotes Chesterton, one of Leys’s most favorite writers, and in that quote Kaufman seemingly reminds us of exactly what Leys is trying to get us to understand. The anecdote has a simple set up: Chesterton has just visited Times Square for the first time, and this leads to a profound and yet flippantly hilarious insight. When asked what he thought of all the bright lights and shiny things, Chesterton replied, “What a wonderful experience this must be for people who can’t read.” For those of us who love to read, Leys offers us important insight into the place from which what we read has come.
Alex Estes is a literary critic living in New York City. You can check out his website at deskofalex.com, or you could follow him on twitter @deskofalex, or you could do both.
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