Saturday, August 23, 2014

`He Was, in Fact, My Hero'

Seasoned readers develop secret crushes on writers who, if not exactly obscure or minor, and for whom appreciation will win you no place in the literary popularity contest, are little known and less admired. Think of Hubert Butler, Aleksander Wat and Aldo Buzzi. None was a genius. All make life more interesting. Such is Simon Leys, nĂ© Pierre Ryckmans, the Belgian sinologist and literary essayist who died Aug. 11 at age seventy-eight. Like many others I encountered him first in 1977 when Chinese Shadows was published in English translation. Many in the West were still denying or tacitly approving of Mao's Cultural Revolution. In nuanced prose rooted in a learned love of Chinese culture, Leys documented its systematic destruction. Other books developing the theme followed: The Chairman’s New Clothes: Mao and the Cultural Revolution, Broken Images: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics, The Burning Forest: Essays on Chinese Culture and Politics. I never studied Chinese history closely but made an exception for Leys’ books. 

Last year brought good news. New York Review Books published The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays and the plump paperback took its place on what L.E. Sissman called the Constant Rereader’s Bookshelf. He returns to China, of course, as Hazlitt inevitably returns to painting and Lamb to the prose masters of the seventeenth century, but also to literary matters – Waugh, Orwell, Chesterton, Balzac and Nabokov, among others. Leys’ prose is measured and pithy, with an aphorist’s pointed concision. Here he is on, of all people, his fellow Belgian Georges Simenon: “An artist can take full responsibility only for those of his works that are mediocre or aborted—in these, alas! he can recognize himself entirely—whereas his masterpieces ought always to cause him surprise.” 

Theodore Dalrymple, himself a crush growing into something more substantial for this reader, has written a fine tribute to Leys: “He combined in his person qualities that are rarely so closely associated or inextricably linked: vast erudition and scholarship, exquisite taste, complete intellectual honesty, coruscating wit and brilliant literary gifts. 

“I admired Simon Leys more than any other contemporary writer. He was, in fact, my hero, in so far as I have ever had one.”

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