Category: Criticism

RIP Simon Leys

Simon Leys, the great essayist and sinologist, died in August. Ian Buruma’s piece on his essay collection The Hall of Uselessness is an indispensable introduction to the man and his work:

Simon Leys is actually the nom de plume for Pierre Ryckmans, a French-speaking Belgian with a Flemish name. He fell in love with Chinese culture when he visited China as part of a student delegation in 1955. After studying law at the Catholic university in Louvain, Leys became a scholar of Chinese, living for several years in Taiwan, Singapore, and in Hong Kong, where he made friends with a young Chinese calligrapher who, in a traditional flourish of stylish humility, named his own slum dwelling the Hall of Uselessness. Ryckmans spent two “intense and joyful years” there, “when learning and living were one and the same thing.” The name Leys is a homage to René Leys, the wonderful novel by Victor Segalen (1878–1919) about a seventeen-year-old Belgian who penetrated the mysteries of the Chinese imperial court just before the revolution of 1911.4

Ryckmans/Leys went on to become a highly distinguished professor of Chinese literature in Australia, where he still lives today, writing essays and sailing boats. Few, if any, contemporary scholars of Chinese write as well about the classical Chinese arts—calligraphy, poetry, and painting—let alone about European literature, ranging in this collection from Balzac to Nabokov. None, so far as I know, have written novels as good as his Death of Napoleon. Leys is perhaps unique in that his prose in English is no less sparkling than in French.

Unlike in the 1970s, few people now dispute that Leys was right about the horrors of Mao’s regime. Even the Chinese government admits that more than fifteen million people died of starvation as the direct result of Mao’s deranged experiments in the late 1950s. Recent scholarship shows that the real figure might be as high as forty-five million deaths between 1958 and 1962 (see Frank Dikötter’s Mao’s Great Famine, 2010). The Cultural Revolution, although Mao’s own leading role in it can still not be discussed openly, is commonly referred to as the “great disaster.” One of the questions raised by Leys is why most people got it so wrong when Maoism was at its most murderous. Was it a matter of excusable ignorance about what was then a very closed society?

On Alain & Catherine Robbe-Grillet

Great piece by Adam Shatz on the life and work of Alain Robbe-Grillet and his wife Catherine, also known as Jean de Berg, written on the occasion of the release of A Sentimental Novel by Dalkey Archive Press: 

The virile looks, however, were deceptive, as his wife Catherine discovered. She was the daughter of Armenians from Iran; they met in 1951 in the Gare de Lyon, as they were both boarding a train to Istanbul. He was instantly taken by her. Barely out of her teens, not quite five feet tall and only forty kilos, Catherine Rstakian ‘looked so young then that everyone thought she was still a child’. She inspired in him (as he later wrote) ‘desperate feelings of paternal love – incestuous, needless to say’. The relationship began immediately, but with one condition, imposed by Catherine: there could be no penetration, since she had undergone a painful clandestine abortion the year before and didn’t want to risk another. Six years later, on a boat from Zadar to Dubrovnik, she changed her mind, only to learn that her fiancé was impotent. He had other things in mind for his ‘petite fille’, as he called her. ‘His fantasies turned obsessively around sadistic domination of (very) young women, by default little girls,’ she wrote in her memoir of their life together, Alain. He gave her ‘drawings of little girls, bloodied’. (‘Reassure yourself, he never transgressed the limits of the law,’ she adds.) Shortly after they were married in 1957, they drew up a contract in five pages, outlining the ‘special rights of the husband over his young wife, during private séances’, where she would submit to torture, whipping and other humiliations. If she performed her duties with ‘kindness and effort’, she would be paid in cash, which she could use for ‘expensive holidays, private purchases, or lavish generosity on behalf of third parties’.

Catherine Robbe-Grillet never signed the contract, which ‘clashed with my erotic imagination’: ‘A Master imposed himself, he didn’t negotiate.’ Writing under the male pseudonym Jean de Berg, she had explored her erotic imagination in an S&M novel,L’Image, published in 1956 by Minuit. He respected her wishes, and never asked for an explanation. When they moved into the Château du Mesnil-au-Grain, a 17th-century mansion in Normandy, it was Catherine, not Alain, who became the house dominatrix – France’s most legendary practitioner – as if she were ‘substituting myself for Alain’. He was remarkably solicitous of her needs, and she of his. He welcomed her lover, Vincent, so long as Vincent agreed to be his disciple (there could only be one Master in the house). She also shared her mistresses with him, and dressed up as Lolita when they had dinner with Nabokov. She was ‘content, even proud’, when Alain fell for Catherine Jourdain, a stunning blonde who seduced him on the beach in Djerba, where he was directing her in his 1969 film L’Eden et après; she read every letter he wrote to Jourdain. The affair appears to have been the closest thing to a conventional heterosexual relationship he had, but he was overwhelmed by her ‘voraciousness’ in bed, and she failed to be ‘the docile slave he dreamed of’. When the affair ended, Robbe-Grillet lost interest in sex. He felt burdened when Catherine offered him a close friend of hers as a birthday gift in 1975; the next year he announced his retirement from ‘all erotic activity between two people or with several’. From then on, she says, he ‘isolated himself in an ivory tower populated with prepubescent fantasies, in the pursuit, in his “retirement”, of the waking dreams in his Roman sentimental – reveries of a solitary sadist.’

Lunch with Bob Silvers

The New York Review of Books turns 50 years old this year. Emily Stokes had lunch with Bob Silvers to talk about it:

As an editor working at a literary magazine, I find Silvers’ work ethic inspiring, if hard to mimic; he is in the office seven days a week, often until midnight, where he keeps a bed in a cupboard. He edits every piece in the NYRB himself. Contributors speak of his long polite memos revealing an encyclopedic knowledge of even the most obscure subjects, as well as a disregard for normal working hours; many have stories of receiving clippings and queries from “Bob” in the middle of the night or as they sit down to Christmas lunch.


Editing, Silvers advises me, is an instinct. You must choose writers carefully, having read all of their work, rather than being swayed by “reputations that are, shall we say, overpromoted”, and then anticipate their needs, sending them books and news articles. “You see something in a piece that you can’t understand, and you have to say, ‘Can it be clearer?’ Issues that are left out, you have to raise them. You see dead or tired metaphors, you have to get rid of them.” He pokes at the sprouts in his little bowl, explaining how various phrases are tired or misused – “compelling”, “key”, “massive”, “context” – before looking down. “On the table!” he cries. The metaphorical table, he says, is now terribly overburdened, “with ‘issues’, ‘phrases’, ‘treaties’, ‘wars’ … ” He dips a sprout into his soup, absent-mindedly.

On the History of Office Cubicles

From Martin Filler’s New York Review of Books‘ piece, ‘The Road to the Zombie Office’, on Nikil Saval’s Cubed, which by and large explains how we all got to spend so much time in offices:

Propst—a polymath with no specific background in office planning—was convinced that a more innovatively designed work space would increase both productivity and creativity. He devised an ensemble of interrelated furniture components to create a flexible “workstation” that (as its trade name Action Office suggests) contravened the essentially sedentary nature of tasks performed within it. This approach was indicated by the inclusion, along with a shelving unit and a conventional work table, of a stand-up desk.

Although advertising for the Action Office used blurred male figures to convey the go-go tempo of the early 1960s, the new product line was a commercial flop, which prompted Propst to come up with a more salable revised version, Action Office II (1968). The major difference between the two was that the second version introduced the freestanding partitions that have become the most detested aspect of the open office. As shown in newly depopulated ad schematics of Herman Miller for Action Office II, these movable walls were at first splayed at obtuse angles to convey a spacious, nonregimented feeling.

However, it took corporate customers no time at all to set them up in rigid right-angled formations, and for furniture companies less concerned with quality to flood the market with cheaper, flimsier knockoffs. The sharp recession of the early 1970s and the “stagflation” that plagued the American economy throughout the rest of that decade increased the acceptance of the open office for all the wrong reasons. Open-plan spaces that could be cheaply and easily reconfigured as the number of employees ebbed and flowed with layoffs and hirings became the new order of the day, and have remained so. Today an estimated 60 percent of American office workers are consigned to cubicles that are disliked, Saval tells us, by 93 percent of their occupants.

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