We all, I suppose, live in a tiny world of our own construction, whose size and character depends upon what interests us. I realized the other day just how peculiar my own little world is, statistically speaking, when I saw on the front page of my newspaper that Robin Williams had died by his own hand. Never having heard of Robin Williams, and not recognizing him from the photograph either, I wondered why anyone should be interested in this event. It was only subsequently that I learned that Robin Williams was, in fact, world famous. Clearly I am out of step with the world.
The death of Simon Leys was reported in the same newspaper. Now here was someone with whose name I had been familiar for more than 30 years. He was the first sinologue to denounce the barbarism of the Great Cultural Revolution, and he did so in prose of the greatest brilliance, so witty that it made you laugh out loud although its subject matter was grim. This was not all there was to Simon Leys, however; besides being a scholar of immense erudition, he was also a great literary critic, essayist, and moralist. He wrote two very good novellas. I don’t think we should construct league tables of writers, but Leys was for me at the top of the first division. Yet he was much less well-known (except to me) than was Robin Williams.
In the edition of the newspaper that brought me news of the two deaths there was another article that interested me greatly: the establishment in Switzerland of a residence for those who want, or rather feel that they need, to be protected from the rays and chemicals with which modern life plies us continually. They claim to be sensitive or allergic to almost everything, and attribute to rays and chemicals their constant tiredness, inability to concentrate, continual twinges in their body (which they monitor just as continually), and general feelings of wretchedness. The establishment for their protection, though by no means cheap, sounds far from attractive, albeit removed from pylons, aerials, factories, chemical plants, electricity generators, and so forth, and is surrounded by pesticide- and fungicide-free gardens. The floors and ceilings are of raw concrete, specially selected for its freedom from harmful ingredients. Life for the residents has hitherto been a constant search for the things that make them ill and the means by which to avoid them. They have found their Nirvana and it costs a lot.