June 20, 2013

I am currently reading the latest of these books: The Hall of Uselessness, at present available on Kindle only but scheduled to be released in paperback on July 30. It is a collection of 39 of Ryckmans’s essays, only 12 of which deal directly with China. The rest range widely, but literature”€”mainly French and English”€”is the principal secondary topic.

On China, Ryckmans is still pitch-perfect. He writes of China’s peculiar absence of antique structures:

…the disconcerting barrenness of the Chinese monumental landscape cannot be read simply as a consequence of the chaotic years of the Maoist period. It is a feature much more permanent and deep”€”and it had already struck Western travellers in the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century.

(It struck me, too, a hundred years later.) This leads to a profound and fascinating discussion of China’s attitude toward her own past and the relation of that attitude to “€œthe Chinese art of stage-setting and make-believe”€ which puzzles, amuses, and often irritates us round-eyes.

Ryckmans really hits his stride in his erudite and opinionated essays on Chinese aesthetics:

To what extent is it necessary to be able to read Chinese in order fully to enjoy Chinese calligraphy? A preliminary (and crude) answer may be provided in the form of another question: To what extent is it necessary to be able to read music in order to enjoy a musical performance?

There, and at many other points, I found myself thinking: “€œHey, wait a minute….”€ But I like books that make me argue back like that. If you don”€™t, Ryckmans is not your man.

His opinions on literature are impressively bilingual: “€œI read Simenon in English and Greene in French.”€ He is generally charitable, even to writers he doesn”€™t like. After some scathing remarks on Malraux, he allows that “€œMalraux was obviously a genius. What exactly he was a genius at, however, is not quite clear.”€

Where his literary knowledge overlaps with mine, I agreed with him: Yes, Orwell was deeply strange, Waugh was dogged by “€œthe fear of incipient lunacy,”€ and Nikolai Gogol is the best thing Nabokov ever did. Ryckmans is handy with an aphorism, too: “€œWhat is life…but a long dialogue with imbeciles?”€

Chinese history and aesthetics, literature and the art of translation, Christianity and Confucianism…not everyone’s bowl of tea, I guess; but if you don”€™t mind argumentative prose and want to stretch your mind a little, try The Hall of Uselessness.



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