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With the leisure that a couple of weeks in New Zealand facing no commitments and an open beach provides, I found myself reading much more – and much more pleasurably – than I ever can at home. For this journey I'd saved two weighty tomes that everyday preoccupations would have only prevented me getting my teeth into: Christopher Hitchens' ultimate challenge, Arguably, and Simon Leys' latest blockbuster, The Hall of Uselessness.
Both authors are more alike than each would ever have wanted to admit, I suspect. Each is a master of the polemic – I refuse to say “was” even though Hitchens' avowed atheism militates against doing so: his prose, we can all agree, is immortal even if his body has taken his soul with it – and neither could write a sentence that was boring or less than craftsmanlike.
Take this, plucked fresh at this very moment and at random, from Leys' latest: “The literal meaning of qi is 'breath' or 'energy' (etymologivally, the written character designates the steam produced by rice being cooked).” (p. 298) Then this, also fresh and unpremeditated (on my part) from Hitchens':
“... the blocking of shipbuilding orders for the Confederate fleet, and other such actions, were to some degree orchestrated by the founders of the communist movement – not the sort of thing that is taught in school when Abraham Lincoln is the patriotic subject. Marx and Friedrich Engels hugely admired Lincoln and felt that just as Russia was the great arsenal of backwardness, reaction and superstition, the United States was the land of potential freedom and equality.” (p. 574)
What I admire most about Hitchens is the breadth of his interests, his polymathic approach to all subjects under the Sun. What I admire most about Leys are the precision of his mind and the depth of his knowledge, the classical formalism of his essays and his uncanny ability to deploy the belle phrase, even more than the bon mot.
To example the depth of knowledge which, as a Christian believer, is unsurprisingly at its most profound in matters theological, I give you an illuminating footnote (No. 3 on p. 284) in which the reader learns that the earliest images of the Cross were discovered among anti-Christian graffiti and that it was another thousand years before medieval artists dared to represent the dead Christ hanging from it.
This is not to say that Leys doesn't range far and wide as well. After reading these two gentlemen, and recalling from one of Hitchens's obituarists just last month the observation (which will not strike any of his dedicated readers as a revelation) that he had a prodigious and photographic memory, it is clear that the ability to recall an anecdote or odd fact at will is a gift they share.
Leys brings to light a wonderful publishing story of George Orwell, at the last possible moment, sending in a final correction that altered one of the critical accounts in Animal Farm. In the climactic scene where the farm's windmill is blown up, Orwell had written “all the animals including Napoleon flung themselves on their faces”. The scrupulously fair writer amended this to “all the animals except Napoleon ...” Why? In his own words, “I just thought the alteration would be fair to Stalin as he did stay in Moscow during the German advance.”
Hitchens' compendium is also bestrewn with such gems – sometimes consisting of nothing more than highwire artistry with words, such as his recitation of a Hugo Chavez rant against the credibility of US reports that Osama bin Laden had been behind the attacks of 9/11, which he couples with some other far-fetched claim by the Venezuelan supremo, building up to this statement, which made me laugh out loud in wonder: “Chavez, in other words, is very close to the climactic moment when he will announce that he is a poached egg and that he requires a very large piece of buttered toast so that he can lie down and take a soothing nap.”
Here it's worth interpolating that my facial muscles would have got the same workover if I hadn't been aware that when he wrote that he was in the early stages of the battle against oesophageal cancer that went on to kill him – but that his continuing to write, on such timely topics at the Arab Spring and US politics' ebb and flow, right up till the final months of his life only makes me esteem him all the more.
Then there are the factoids one would be unlikely to have gleaned elsewhere, such as that Stephen Hawking was born on the 300th anniversary of Galileo's death.
In literature's Elysian fields, Leys is also a successful fossicker of valuable nuggets. He discovers a wonderful quote by Andre Gide that amounts to an apologia for his own reputation as a yes man, one who appeared atavistically averse to argumentation. Gide confided to a friend: “Beware. I am made of rubber. I agree with everything as much as possible; and I would go to the very edge of insincerity – yet make no mistake: once alone, I revert to my original shape.”
Both writers are such fine stylists that the one time they famously clash – over Mother Teresa, of all people – they produce a high-tensile conversation as reverberative in its way as the opening chords of Beethoven's Fifth.
Leys' account, under the title An Empire of Ugliness, takes up 11 pages of his book; you can search Hitchens' book, and index, in vain for a mention of Leys or the nun he called a thief and a fraud. That is not to be held against him, mind you: Arguably is a book of essays, 107 of them – of which I think fully one-fifth are top-drawer stuff. His denunciation of Mother Teresa, like his much more convincing hatchet job on Henry Kissinger, was published in book form.
The Canberra academic and Belgian-born sinologist, indeed, indulges himself in scholarly glee, pace his indignation, in calling the book a “little piece of solid waste”, which is entirely in order for such a Turd World subject, I might add, and even manages – this is his genius, I think – to make a serious refutation against the gravest of charges with a light and sparkling pen.
To Hitchens' ridicule of a right-wing Christian from Nashville, Tennessee, who is reported as having found a likeness of Mother Teresa appearing in the cinnamon bun he had ordered for breakfast, Leys did not pretend to be shocked which would only have risked having himself labelled humourless. He points out – in a letter written to The Book Circle's rightly recommended New York Review of Books, in which a review of Hitchens' book had appeared – that people who share the nun's faith are not likely to find her face in cinnamon buns and, even if they did, would probably have a good laugh about it.
In making this point, Leys (the nom de plume of Pierre Ryckmans) shows a remarkable ability to distance himself from his own moral outrage and, far from weakening the impression of disgust he clearly felt for Hitchens' attack on the elderly nun, this polymorphous approach strengthened the appeal of the essay as a whole.
Since they both cannot be right on the question of Mother Teresa's goodness or badness, readers of the two accounts – and Leys is Orwellian in doing Hitchens the justice of citing his statements on the subject, as given in his book, The Missionary Position: Mother Teresa in Theory and Practice (which title Leys predictably finds offensive) – will find themselves siding with one or the other. (Unless they believe the question is one for God to decide, but it's perfectly understandable why Hitchens couldn't take that position!)
For me, the interplay between the two is a more important exercise by far. In the end, whatever subject these two titans take on – be it Mother Teresa or (let's go sampling again) art collecting, anti-Semitism and the survival mechanisms of Zhou Enlai (to pick three of Leys' subjects), or a defence of the Iraq invasion, a paean to Rebecca West or a most unexpected tribute to Iranian mosque architecture (to pick three of Hitchens') – I couldn't imagine a better way to pass those January days than with these two quarrelsome companions at my side.