Simon Leys (1935–2014) was 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. Leys was a contributor to such publications as The New York Review of Books, Le Monde, and Le Figaro Littéraire, writing on literature and contemporary China. Among his books are Chinese Shadows, Other People’s Thoughts, and The Wreck of the Batavia & Prosper. In addition to The Death of Napoleon NYRB publishes The Hall of Uselessness, a collection of essays, and On the Abolition of All Political Parties, an essay by Simone Weil that Leys translated and edited. His many awards include the Prix Renaudot, the Prix Femina, the Prix Guizot, and the Christina Stead Prize for Fiction.

He Told the Truth About China’s Tyranny

The Nobel Prize–winning writer Liu Xiaobo before his arrest, photographed by his wife, Liu Xia; from the exhibition ‘The Silent Strength of Liu Xia,’ which opened last fall at the Boulogne Museum outside Paris and will be on view at the Italian Academy for Advanced Studies at Columbia University February 9–March 1. Liu Xia’s photographs, which were smuggled out of China, show what she calls her ‘ugly babies’: mute dolls that, according to the curator Guy Sorman, represent ‘the Chinese people, and sometimes Liu Xia and her husband.’
All thinking people wish now to obtain at least some basic understanding of the deeper dynamics that underlie this sudden and stupendous metamorphosis: What are its true nature and significance? To what extent is it viable and real? Where is it heading? Bookshops are now submerged by a tidal wave of new publications attempting to provide information about China, and yet there is (it seems to me) one new book whose reading should be of urgent and essential importance, both for the specialist and for the general reader alike—the new collection of essays by Liu Xiaobo, judiciously selected, translated, and presented by very competent scholars, whose work greatly benefited from their personal acquaintance with the author.

The Intimate Orwell

George Orwell on Southwold Beach, Suffolk, early 1930s
Orwell once defined himself half in jest—but only half—as a “Tory Anarchist.” Indeed, after his first youthful experience in the colonial police in Burma, he only knew that he hated imperialism and all forms of political oppression; all authority appeared suspect to him, even “mere success seemed to me a form of bullying.” Then after his inquiry into workers’ conditions in northern industrial England during the Depression he developed a broad nonpartisan commitment to “socialism”: “socialism does mean justice and liberty when the nonsense is stripped off it.” The decisive turning point in his political evolution took place in Spain, where he volunteered to fight fascism.

‘Ravished by Oranges’

How can we be informed? Chesterton famously observed that when we read in today’s newspapers that one window-cleaner fell to his death, our general understanding of window-cleaning is distorted; the information that 35,000 window-cleaners actually did not fall to their deaths would have provided a more balanced view of the …

Giant

“Glory is like the bed of Louis XIV in Versailles. It is magnificent and there are bugs in it.” —Victor Hugo[^1] Early in his career, Henry James lived for some time in Paris. Since he needed money, he worked for a while as a correspondent for The New …

The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote

In debates, the word “quixotic” is nearly always meant as an insult—which puzzles me, since I can hardly think of a greater compliment. The way most people refer to Don Quixote makes you wonder if they have actually read the book. In fact, it would be interesting to find out …

The Archaeological Me

How could a writer write about this world, if it was the only world he knew?—V.S. Naipaul, A Way in the World The greatest African poet in the French language, Léopold Sédar Senghor, coined half a century ago the concept of négritude. This neologism (built on nègre—“nigger”) deftly …

Mythmaker

This story is somewhat stale, I am afraid, but it still has a point. In a crowded church, the preacher ascends the pulpit and pronounces a moving sermon. Everybody is crying. One man, however, remains dry-eyed. Being asked the reason for his strange insensitivity, he explains: “I am not from …

One More Art

The discovery of a new major art should have more momentous implications for mankind than the exploration of an unknown continent or the sighting of a new planet.[^1] Since the dawn of its civilization, China has cultivated a particular branch of the visual arts that has no equivalent anywhere else …

Balzac’s Genius & Other Paradoxes

Arthur Waley said that he preferred to read Dickens in Chinese translation (Dickens’s first Chinese translator was indeed an exquisite writer). I wonder if Balzac does not also belong to the category of writers who actually benefit from being translated: I suspect that his visionary imagination would remain unaffected by …

Lawrence of Australia

“This is a subject on which I know absolutely nothing: I should write a book on it.” —Prince de Ligne “Poor Richard Lovat wearied himself to death struggling with the problem of himself, and calling it Australia.” —D.H. Lawrence, Kangaroo Often our imagination cannot fully absorb the truth …

After the Massacres

The massacres stunned the world—and yet they should not have surprised anyone. The butchers of Peking are entitled to feel genuine puzzlement in the face of the indignation expressed by international opinion. Why should foreigners suddenly change their attitude toward them?

Chinese Shadows

Note: Simon Leys is the pseudonym of a Belgian art historian and Sinologist who has lived and worked in China and other parts of the Far East for more than a decade. His book Chinese Shadows—from parts of which the following article is drawn—was the result of a six-months stay …