Essays by Simon Leys

When it gets back to full-summertime swelter like today, the only reading I can turn to while I take a break from the keyboard is essays. Had a very good time in the sweatbox of Nova Scotia with The Enthusiasms of Robertson Davies, but didn’t write about it here when it was fresh enough in my mind. I often matched wavelengths with Davies and am much less in sync with my current essayist, the just-deceased Simon Leys, but sometimes, as music crazies know, dissonance is as fun as harmony.

I encountered Leys long ago when he launched into an attack on Christopher Hitchens for his attack on Mother Teresa, The Missionary Position. I had paid only glancing attention to Hitchens before — leftist, dissident, good writer often, friend of Martin Amis — but this Mother Teresa thing clanged with me. Not because I’m a Ma Teresa fan necessarily, but because it had the unmistakeable atmosphere of willful, reckless contrarianism which I think swallowed Hitchens alive for the final couple decades of his life. So Leys and he went back and forth in the New York Review of Books, both scoring points, and the discussion was left hanging. Mr. Leys’s final words are in his collection The Hall of Uselessness and I did conclude that he is a savage cultural snob, no bout a doubt it. And discovered I disagreed with the positions of both arguers. Hitchens was one of those tedious modern atheists who present the religious as credulous dolts, as though an antimatter counterattack will somehow quell the shrieks of true believers nowadays. But Leys is wrong, too. Hitchens didn’t slime Mother Teresa because he was a philistine, he did it because he was an anti-religion zealot, so committed to being contrary that he didn’t care if he appeared ignorant.

And hey, that was a plenty stimulating revisit. Followed up with Leys’s lead essay on Don Quixote, which further confirmed his commitment to Christianity in a way I can tolerate (I also find him a worthy V. Nabokov skeptic) and made me commit to revisiting a critic I enjoyed as a youth but had forgotten since, Mark Van Doren. Should get around to him when the next distant season of bake-days arrives.


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