A Most Interesting Man

Simon Leys: Navigator between Worlds by Philippe Paquet (translated by Julie Rose), La Trobe University Press, September 18th, 2017

The name of Simon Leys has appeared a couple of times on this blog. The first quoting portions of his fascinating essay on Don Quixote and the second time in reviewing his translation of the Analects of Confucius last month. Since finishing his essay anthology titled The Halls of Uselessness, his only novel The Death of Napoleon and a number of other pieces of writing, I’ve only become more interested in the man behind the pen. His real name being Pierre Ryckmans, a Belgian sinologist and writer — though you could easily add many more titles than these initial two. 

I was first introduced to Leys before he died in 2014 by John Derbyshire, one of the few living writers on politics and society who I have followed for a long time (since mid-2008). Leys and Derbyshire share many similarities. They both spent some time in China including Hong Kong and Taiwan and both have Chinese spouses with whom they had children. They are (or were) both successful writers on eclectic topics. Leys writing on China, literature, art, language and the sea. Derbyshire a political commentator who has also written two novels as well as two non-fiction books on mathematics (both the latter, I have yet to read). Derbyshire was pleased to discover that Leys had enjoyed his novel Seeing Calvin Coolidge in a Dream about a Chinese family that had emigrated to the United States. The novel incorporates the protagonists painful experiences during Mao’s Cultural Revolution after encountering an old flame from the old country. Although I have high respect for both, I think Derbyshire would readily agree that Leys edges him out in personal accomplishments though the latter would be very reluctant to accept such praise.

This biography is translated from French and the draft was completed (and read) by Leys before his death — so it had his approval. The title very cleverly describes his life in a few words. His vast knowledge of both European and Chinese history as well as fluency in French, English and Chinese (modern and ancient) enabled him to bridge these two worlds. Though as he also had a great love of the sea and was an accomplished sailor — seeing him as a navigator between them is far more apt. I do not know French or Chinese so I can’t comment on his ability with these languages but his command of English is better than most natives and he was by all accounts an excellent writer in French and had beautiful penmanship particularly in the art of Chinese calligraphy.

What Leys is best known for was not what I know him for. In his early years in college in his native Belgium he had the opportunity to visit China which led to him returning to study and work in Taiwan and Hong Kong where he became fluent in the language. He also met his future wife Hangfang in Taiwan who he would later marry and have four children with. This time coincided with many of the upheavals in China after the Communists took power in 1949. He was able to witness both directly and indirectly how this affected the country and the region. From refugees risking drowning to escape to Hong Kong to the reports coming in from official and unofficial sources, he was uniquely placed and made great use of this knowledge. This resulted in two of his most notable books, The Emperor’s New Clothes and Chinese Shadows

At the time, many Western intellectuals (particularly in France it seems), were sympathetic if not in sycophantic awe of Mao and his regime and weren’t prepared to hear or read anything that would dispel their admiration for the new China. I’ve not read these books but at the time they caused a proverbial storm particularly among the French literati with Leys becoming an enemy who we now know with hindsight has been thoroughly vindicated. The title of the first book he wrote points to the fact he was one of the few saying what everyone now knows including many who changed their minds without so much as a mea culpa. His writing on the topic of the Cultural Revolution also led to the nom de plume he is better known for as he also entered the Belgian foreign ministry in mainland China around this time. This experience also gave him his material for his second book. 

During these experiences in China, he was offered a position in the Chinese Department of the Australian National University in Canberra in the early 70s where he was to spend most of the rest of his life — though only becoming an Australian citizen a few years before his death. It is interesting to pause here to add that when I first heard his name, he was still alive and living in my native land and after reading about him, I wish I had started reading his work earlier so that I would have at least had the opportunity to send a friendly email before he passed away. There is further synchronicity as Leys gave an address at the inaugural dinner for the Campion Foundation that funds Campion College in 2006. This college has connections with my professional and personal life including one of those involved in its founding being the very priest who baptised me.

The Catholic culture of this institution neatly fits into another important aspect of Leys character — his religious faith. Leys was and remained a devout Catholic his entire life and though his biographer makes frequent mention of this, it is not generally mentioned in many other places I’ve seen his name. His wife was also from a Catholic Chinese family and he was an admirer of men like Cardinal John Henry Newman and approved of his work in The Idea of a University. His own sentiments on this subject were included in the speech he made for Campion mentioned above.

The biography follows the general chronology of his life but chapters deal more with specific subjects or themes so there are portions where it jumps back and forwards in time though it is easy enough for the attentive reader to keep up. The immediate reminder it gave me was that great writers have seldom lived uninteresting lives. Leys had many great and varied experiences — including many difficulties and this along with his voracious personal reading and natural ability is what made him such a great writer. This is consistent with the advice I remember Mark Steyn giving where to paraphrase, he said simply that if you want to be a great writer; start by doing something. I believe as different a personality as Larry Correia has echoed similar sentiments. This partially explains why I haven’t been able to get enough of Simon Leys writing and have continued to search for the various books he’s had published. I even went to the trouble of transcribing a badly scanned copy of his excellent essay from Quadrant Magazine on George Orwell (whom he greatly admired), so I could enjoy it without struggle.

Here it is worth also putting in some political commentary. Leys anti-Maoism might lead one to assume he was some reactionary as no doubt his early critics did. That he published in the generally conservative Quadrant Magazine in Australia might support this assumption. But then, his writing also appeared in the The Monthly in Australia which could be reasonably described as the polar opposite. He was also published in Australia by Black Inc. which a brief perusal of their publications would suggest are hardly right-wing either. As with politics in general today, it would be better to dispense with “left and right” altogether with Leys. It seems both sides found something to like though I believe he died mercifully a few years before his personal beliefs would have inevitably come under more scrutiny.

As it is easy to forget, we are also reminded in a number of chapters that Leys was Belgian and from a famous Belgian family. Although he spent a great deal of his life away from his homeland, he never forgot his roots. Throughout the biography, the reader is reminded a number of times of his “Indestructible Belgianness” including his battle late in life over the nationality of one of his four children that ended up having bearing on the whole family. He also (as I was happy to learn), loved Tintin and other famous Belgian comics and was properly honoured and appreciated by his native land. As a respected transplant, Australians certainly took advantage of his reputation which was of mutual benefit —  he was the Chinese teacher of former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. I have indicated previously that I don’t think much of Rudd but Leys thought very well of him. I will allow that given Leys opinion, I would be open to re-thinking mine though I have no other reason to at the moment.

One last observation is that while Leys experienced a great deal during his life, this in many ways felt like reading the biography of an otherwise normal person. When not on the subject of China or his adventures on his beloved ocean, he lived a quiet, retiring life with his wife and children. One would naturally assume that someone who wrote two polemics on Mao for consumption in academic circles in the 1970s, would be some sort of literary curmudgeon. He was in reality, a modest man who preferred to avoid conflict. That said, he could still be a thorough savage with a pen and there are some hilariously biting quotes included most notably in his brief stoush with the famously antagonistic Christopher Hitchens when defending Mother Teresa from the latter’s calumnious barbs against her. This brief correspondence suggests that Hitchens would have found less success in his anti-God bothering if he’d been regularly forced into battle with genuine intellects.

If this is to be recommended, it is to anyone who has read and enjoyed any of Simon Leys work. To anyone not familiar, I suggest you start simply by reading what he wrote and probably the easiest is with his short but highly entertaining novel, The Death of Napoleon.

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