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The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays

(Cahier Series #9)

4.26  ·  Rating details ·  270 ratings  ·  47 reviews
An essential collection of essays from an eminent critic.

Simon Leys’ cultural and political commentary has spanned four decades, with no corner of the arts escaping his sharp eye and acerbic wit. The Hall of Uselessness forms the most complete collection yet of Leys’ fascinating essays, from Quixotism to China, from the sea to literature.

Leys feuds with Christopher Hitchen
Hardcover, 464 pages
Published July 2011 by Black Inc.
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4.26  · 
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Jul 19, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: french-language
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
All men know the use of the useful, but nobody knows the use of the useless.
-Zhuang Zi

The Hall of Uselessness is a gathering of some decades worth of essays, reviews, and other jottings by the Belgian Sinologist Pierre Ryckmans, writing under the pen name of Simon Leys. As you would expect, over a dozen of these essays are about China, its history, politics, and culture. These are some of the most knowledgeable and dedicated pieces I've ever read about China. His treatments of calligraphy and po
Justin Evans
Aug 21, 2014 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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 ...more
Jim Coughenour
Jan 03, 2013 rated it really liked it
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
Mar 16, 2015 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 26, 2012 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: literature
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
Aug 18, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 24, 2015 rated it really liked it
(~180k words; 5 hours) Anthology of literature-focused essays, highly miscellaneous. Judged by wordcount and topic, it seems that Leys's focus is fairly narrow - I would compare him to a lesser Borges, but Borges delighted too much in philosophical & scientific ideas and speculation for the comparison to really work, while Leys is very much the consummate man of letters. I was interested primarily in his comments on China, and was surprised the extent to which he fixates on French literature ...more
Oct 30, 2014 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Oct 09, 2017 rated it it was amazing
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.
Alper Çuğun
Oct 13, 2018 rated it really liked it
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
Jay Faber
Mar 17, 2018 rated it it was amazing
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
Sep 29, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Me tardé más de un año en terminar este libro y, al final, creo que ésa es la mejor forma de leerlo: poco a poco. Estoy segura de que me habría gustado mucho menos si hubiese leído el libro sin pausar por semanas o meses porque muchos de los ensayos, además de tratar los temas que ya había leído en La felicidad de los pececillos, son repetitivos dentro de esta colección. Pero bueno, pues lo leí y así y tuve Simon Leys para muchas noches o días en los que sentía que quería leer algo pero no estab ...more
Oct 12, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Jun 23, 2016 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
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
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, " 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 ...more
A.S. Patric
Sep 18, 2013 rated it it was amazing
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.
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.
Nov 01, 2014 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Aug 20, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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 ...more
Mar 27, 2013 rated it really liked it
Shelves: essays
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
Dylan Suher
Jul 26, 2013 rated it really liked it
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 ...more
Apr 26, 2016 rated it it was amazing
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 ...more
Sep 18, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Apr 10, 2015 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: owned
Como un Montaigne moderno, SImon Leys tiene algo inteligente, asombroso, incluso divertido para decir sobre cosas tan aparentemente dispares como la vida familiar de André Gide, la falsedad de Malraux, la caligrafía china (un arte mayor que nos puede pasar desapercibido), la traducción (un arte menor que no nos debe pasar desapercibido), la mentalidad del intelectual seducido por el poder totalitario y diez o veinte temas más. La curiosidad de Leys es insaciable pero al mismo tiempo contenida, c ...more
Eli McLean
Feb 02, 2016 rated it it was amazing
Simon Leys (or Pierre Ryckmans) was a Belgian-Australian writer, professor of Chinese literature at University of Sydney, translator, sinologist and, frankly, an all round man of the arts. Over the two and a bit weeks I read this, I slowly felt myself becoming more enriched, more observant. It was almost as if the sheer genius, wit and erudition of the man was rubbing off on me (though I don't dare draw parallels between Leys and myself). This collection is a collection of all of Leys' finest es ...more
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 ...more
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NYRB Classics: The Hall of Uselessness: Collected Essays, by Simon Leys 1 5 Oct 23, 2013 12:57PM  

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Simon Leys is the pen-name of Pierre Ryckmans, who was born in Belgium and settled in Australia in 1970. He taught Chinese literature at the Australian National University and was Professor of Chinese Studies at the University of Sydney from 1987 to 1993. He died in Sydney in 2014.

Writing in three languages - French, Chinese and English - he played an important political role in revealing the true

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“Had Don Quixote been simply and plainly mad, or had he indulged in a protracted game of self-deception and play-acting, we should not be talking of him now, Van Doren observes—“We are talking of him because we suspect that, in the end, he did become a knight.” 0 likes
“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.” 0 likes
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