2017年8月19日 星期六

讀後感: 便利店人間(著者: 村田沙耶香)*

    在書店看到這本小書,立刻被書名中的「便利店」吸引。我以前做過兼職便利店員,感覺便利店是個高度程序化和標準化的環境。根據封底上的簡介,此書以便利店為「主舞台」表達「正常」與「異常」界線,我自然對此書感到好奇。與一位日本友人閒談,說起這本去年獲得「芥川賞」的小說,他在日本文學刊物的《文藝春秋》讀過,感覺值得一讀。順帶一提,此部中篇小說的日文原文,在《文藝春秋》刊出時只有大概一百頁,市面上的中譯本,因版面編排和大小的關係,佔了二百一十多頁。

  此小說的主角,古倉惠子,在大學一年級開始一直在微笑超商便利店打工,過了十八年。她聽著便利店的聲音,吃喝著便利店的食品和飲料,生活規律、打扮都根據便利店的需要而定,連說話和表情都模仿便利店的同事。為什麼她對便利店如此「忠誠」?因為它給她一個清晰劃一的指示,讓她扮演店員的角色,令她在這環境中變得「正常」。她自小就被身邊人被認為是不正常的孩子,她很奇怪為什麼人們要為死去的雀鳥而傷心,為什麼不可用剷子擊倒互相打架的男生。大家覺得她是必須改正、被治好的人。直至長大後,朋友陸續結婚生子或在職場略有所成。她卻不明白為什麼他們覺得那些是必須做的事,並覺得她不結婚或不做正職就是不正常。她對「人」這身份不知所措,唯有對自己懂得做一個「店員」,感到比較安心。簡單來說,這小說就是要表達社會規範如何主宰人的生活和人際關係,以及它驚人的限制性和排他性。

  在社會中生活,每人從小就會潛而默化地接受了大大小小的規範(norms) 和價值,用來理解和應對不同的事物。例如,人們會覺得死亡是值得傷心的事情,要表示同情;每個人長大後都有找伴侶的需要等。我們內化那些規範,以評價自己和別人,並在與人相處時,迫使他人接受那些規範,令世界的種種人和事收納至一個人可理解、接受、容納的範圍。小說透過一個不能內化社會規範的人的處境,重新檢視那些規範的真實性,令人明白它們其實只是與「店員」的規則分別不大,都是人創造出來罷了。

  以審視社會主流價值為題材的作品俯拾皆是,由《簡愛》對女性壓迫和限制的書寫,至現今社會對性小眾文學的關注,都是當時被社會規範邊沿的聲音。但是,《便利店人間》的獨特之處是主角完全不以個人的價值抗衡社會,而是積極地融入,不斷提出問題,思考如何令自己正常,為能做社會的齒輪而快樂。讀來非常有喜感和親切感,但同時頗為震撼,因為融入「正常世界」是大多數人會做的,但沒有反思的事。

  另外,小說非常巧妙地,對比古倉這種未能內化規範的人和社會上消極的失敗者(白),令人明白小說不是為所謂的「失敗者」發牢騷。所謂的「成敗」是真實或是虛構的價值,都是作者的提問。白羽雖然經常在控訴社會價值對他的「壓迫」,如要他工作、娶妻等,但他卻以那些價值來批判、排斥其他人。他只不過借批評那些價值,令自己好過一點。而古倉則觀察到了「正常社會」排斥異物這一現象。

  此作品短小簡潔、輕鬆易讀、節奏明快,且內容有深度,非常值得一讀。

*譯者: 王華懋 出版社: 悅知文化

2017年8月12日 星期六

Review: "The Professor" by Charlotte Brontë

  The Professor is Charlotte Brontë's first novel but it was published posthumously. The hero of the story, William Crimsworth, is an orphaned young man who has just graduated from Eton College and is trying to build a suitable career of his own. He first worked as a clerk for his brother, Edward Crimsworth, who is a rich mill-owner. After a few months, he starts to feel that trading is not the right job for him. He is very much bored by his work and is not respected or appreciated by his boss. Then, with an introduction letter by Mr. Hunsden, a gentleman he met at a party in Crimsworth Hall, he went to Brussels to work as a professor of English. The story mainly centers around his relationship with Pelet and Zoraider Reuter, the principals of the two schools he teaches in, and Frances Henri, a teacher-student in the girl's school. It is basically about how William overcomes his obstacles and frustrations, and lead to a fulfilling and happy life of his own.

  The story is not as elaborately developed and exciting as her later novels. Bronte intended to create a realistic character who can achieve moderate success by individual efforts, and a romance that is heartwarming but not extraordinary. It is a story that honors the individual spirit, hard work and honesty or sincerity. Charlotte Bronte understood why it was rejected by publishing agency: 'Men in business are usually thought to prefer the real; on trial, the idea will be often found fallacious: a passionate preference for the wild, wonderful and thrilling...- agitates diverse souls that show a calm and sober surface.' Charlotte Bronte did not just write to entertain the reader and to attract attention from publishers, but to try out her own ideas and to express herself through an art form. The novel is her first step to developing the originality of her writings.

  In fact, I was at some point bored by the novel as the plot is unexciting and predictable. But I kept reading because the protagonist is quite relatable and I was curious to see how those mundane characters make a meaningful story. I was a fresh graduate last year and I am also very much frustrated by 'the real world' and not sure about the next step I have to take. Crimsworth is also quite disappointed about his first job and he is trying to make a difference to his life. The story does give me some sort of encouragement that everything will turn out fine if I dare to take a step forward. Having read so many personal essays and novels recently, I was quite surprised by how my experience and emotions resemble many described scenarios. Yet, I somehow feel that my life is too ordinary and sometimes meaningless. If I can write about my experience and other people's stories like those writers do, I might feel like this life is as meaningful and interesting as those character's.

  In terms of the writing, it is much better than I thought it would be.The character's personalities and temperament are described vividly in the novel, especially through the way they speak. Mr. Hunsden, a supporting character, interests me quite a lot. He is outside of the story's central conflicts but does influence the actions of the protagonist and moves the plot forward. He appears as a mean and sarcastic person who is unagreeable and unlikable, but he does care about people and cherishes friendship. He is described as a 'man of originality' by Frances, and he holds on to his own beliefs and loves to challenge others. He is disinterested in many of the protagonist's concerns, and he seems to be providing some commentary to the situations and struggles of Crimsworth in a subtle way. For example, when Crimsworth starts to hate his job, Mr. Hunsden tells him how unsuitable it is for him and how his boss is a tyrant. While the main characters are attached to England more than Belgium. Hunsden tells them that he is a man of the world but not especially nationalistic about his home country. I wonder if this character is to create a more distant and critical point of view of the story.

   The thing I don't like about the novel is that the relationship between men and women are always described as potential love interests. The girl students are described as 'blooming young creatures' and the description of them seems to focus too much on appearances. The novel can explore different possible kinds of relationships between men and woman, such as teacher and students, and friends. I also feel a bit uncomfortable about the kind of prejudice against non-protestant Europeans in the novel. The introduction says it is due to the general mindset of Victorian England.

2017年7月28日 星期五

Review: "A Room of One's Own" by Virginia Woolf

  A Room of One's Own is an extended essay based on a series of lectures on woman and fiction in 1928. Woolf wonders what it means to talk about women and fiction, and explores what circumstances that affects writings by women, and what conditions that allow or not allow women to become a writer. She argues that 'a woman must have money and a room of her own in order to write fiction.' Yet throughout history, they generally did not have these two things.

  In the essay, the narrator, Mary Seton lives in 1860 and is also interested in questions about women and fiction. She wanders around Oxbridge and found herself unwelcome there because she is a woman. She wishes to learn poetry but she cannot enter the library without a letter of introduction. She wonders why women are so poor despite their hard work, why her mother has to spend her life raising thirteen children but not writing or earning her own fortune. In order to find out the answers, she goes to the British Museum to read writings about women. Most writings about women were written by men, who attempted to prove the inferiority of women. Most of these writings are filled with anger, and she thinks that it is because they suspect women would seize their superiority, just like the rich suspects the poor. Women are inferior in the patriarchal society, which denies them the opportunities and freedom they deserve. Mary believes poverty makes one lives in bitterness and fear and lose their freedom and confidence to write.

   Even if some women can write despite these unfavorable circumstances, they cannot help but express their personal grievances, which are their lack of opportunities to explore the world and to express themselves freely. If they are known as female writers, they writings will not be considered important. Men and women are viewed as opposing fractions because of their different status in the patriarchal society. Some focus too much on presenting their manliness or developing their womanhood but ignore the fact that one has both masculine and feminine features. If a writer is too conscious of one's own gender, their creativity might be hindered. When women are given more freedom to earn money or to write what they want in the 1920s, Woolf hopes that they would transform the women's lives in the past. The women who aspired to become a writer but failed because of the unfavorable conditions of the past would succeed in the present.

  This essay is very persuasive because it does not attempt to express any bitterness and grievances as a person of an oppressed sex. It is filled with wonders and a pure impulse to find out the truth by reading and careful thinking. Questions after questions are asked, and there are climaxes when some are resolves and some underlying meanings of the narrator's readings are discovered. Lots of parallelisms are used to emphasize her point. It is quite powerful when a chain of similar sentences and clauses is telling you how fatal something is and emphasizing that she is not exaggerating: "it is fatal to be a man or a woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly and man-womanly. It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death."

  Although it was written in the 1920s, A Room of One's Own still brings us some inspirations nowadays. Woolf emphasizes the importance for a writer to express his/her experience in 'perfect fullness' instead of censoring his/her writings according to gender code. Feminism is not just about fighting for women's rights and privileges but for justice and equality, to make men and women cease to be opposing fractions but to work together towards goals that improve human lives, such as to prevent war, to end poverty. Yet in the 21st century, we still need to repeat again and again that feminism is not about man-hating, which is something said nearly 90 years old.

  Moreover, the argument that we need sufficient material condition for artistic creation to thrive is quite relatable to the present. To claim to be a writer or an artist in Hong Kong often is to imply that you are poor. Many of them cannot get the pay they deserve or the space for creation. Nowadays, regardless of gender, to have a room of one's own and the money to idle and wonder seem to be more and more difficult. 

2017年7月17日 星期一

Review: 'Sharp Objects' by Gillian Flynn

  I am interested in Gillian Flynn because of her famous novel Gone Girl. I usually don't read thrillers, but I heard that her novel is very well-written, so I want to get a feel of it. Sharp Objects is her debut novel first published in 2006. The edition I borrowed is a later edition published by Broadway Books. The book cover is full of praises from the media and writers, which promise an addictive story and a book hangover. Chicago Tribune says, "(it) keeps you reading with the force of pure but nasty addiction." This may be a nasty addiction not only because the story is disturbing, but also you are here to find out who is the crazy psychopath who kills people. It is a bit hard for me to get used to viewing the characters of a story as suspects. This novel is really good for its genre but it does not make me like crime thrillers more.

  The novel is about a reporter Camille, who returns to her tiny hometown, Wind Gap,  to cover the murders of two girls. At first, it is a typical crime story, which involves talking to police officers and trying to get a clue of the incidents. Yet as the story unfolds, we understand more about her psychological struggles, her alienated relationship with her mother, and her haunting past in the family and the hometown. Her personal narrative intertwines with the crime story, and this makes the story more interesting and complex. It is a story within a story. 

  I think Flynn is very good at constructing the setting and writing the subtle details. The town's main industry is pig farming and slaughtering, which Camille utterly disgusts. This setting echoes with the abusive relationship among some of the characters in the novel. That her half-sister love eating ham and watching pig-farming reminds readers of her being a bully in school. 

  The novel also strikes me as how suitable it is for movie/TV adaptations. It has the actions, the atmosphere, a real setting, and a chronological storyline with some flashbacks. This is one thing I want to complain about. Although there isn't any cliche, this type of story makes a familiar thriller movie. It kept me thinking about the story for a couple of days, but I learned nothing new about this genre, and it didn't leave me questions to wonder. Yet I still quite enjoyed following the plot. 
 

2017年6月30日 星期五

Review: 'Northanger Abbey' by Jane Austen

It is the first Jane Austen's novel I have ever read. It is such a delight! It has sarcastic and witty prose written from the perspective of the writer. The dialogues artfully bring the characters to life. The plot contains interesting and unexpected twists. The writing is clear, simple and elegant. When I was reading, I was comparing to Austen's style to that of the Bronte sisters I have read recently. Anne Bronte's prose is like prayers which are filled with determination, faith, and sincerity, and very often has a moral message, and sometimes a bit winding. Emily Bronte's novel is way too dramatic and fills with Gothic elements that haunt the reader. Austen's story seems to be told by an 'actual' storyteller, who can see people's whims and emotions.

The heroine is a seventeen-year-old girl named Catherine Morland, who is one of the ten children of a vicar. At the beginning, 'no one would have supposed her born to be a heroine'. Neither her family's social status nor her character is extraordinary. She is just an innocent and ignorant girl. The first part of the narratives follows her six weeks visit to Bath, where she goes from parties to parties to meet people and make friends.  After the first week, she met the hero of the story, Henry Tilney, and falls in love. She overcomes some obstacles to become closer with Tilney's sister, Eleanor and is invited by the old Tilney to visit Northanger Abbey, the family's house. The latter half of the novel is about her stay there, where she fantasizes a Gothic story in that ancient abbey.

The novel satirizes marriage being the means to enhance social status and secure wealth. Isabella, a good friend of Catherine since she comes to Bath, is engaged to Catherine's brother, James. Yet, after learning that James' family will not give much allowance to them after their marriage, Isabella flirts with Frederick Tilney, who is from a much richer family, despite her disgusts with him. Another character, the old Tilney is especially amiable to Catherine only because he thinks she is an heiress. Their snobbishness forms a stack contrast with the heroine, who is artless and sincere. I think Austen does not only tries to satirize particular persons but the whole society that yields a kind of pretentiousness. The society requires people to form social circles and networks to be able to enjoy themselves and not to feel awkward. Yet, somehow, self-love exceeds our ability to understand and empathize other people. For example, it is quite ironic that Mrs. Allen, who longs to meet an acquaintance in Bath, only likes to talk vainly about her gown, when she finally met an old friend from school.

A thing I love very much about this book is its vivid portrayal of the characters. Although there is not much description of the appearance of Henry Tilney, we know how charming and intelligent he is through his dialogues with Catherine. A reader would not only regard him as the heroine's lover but an attractive person in general. When he first dance with Catherine, he says "I shall make a poor figure in your journal tomorrow." When Catherine denies, he creates an agreeable version of himself in her 'journal'. He wittily expresses his wish to be flattered by the heroine. The depiction of Catherine as a naive and simple girl is also very remarkable. It is quite amazing that she can be uplifted very easily after a grave disappointment.

Let's end this with a quote: 'To come with a well-informed mind is to come with an inability to administer the vanity of others, which a sensible person would always wish to avoid'

2017年6月22日 星期四

Review: 'Wuthering Heights' by Emily Brontë

I remember reading a translated classics for children's edition of Wuthering Heights when I was a child. I do not remember the plot but it produced a tumultuous storm in my head during the two or three hours reading it. It is extremely dramatic and quite fast-paced. I know it is probably not my kind of book because I usually like fictions that are richer in thoughts and emotions instead of dramas. As expected, I do not enjoy reading this book but it was not a waste of time. I am actually interested to know why this revenge story is written. I do not mean to find out the author's intention but the cultural meaning of the novel.

The story is about two related families, the Earnshaws and the Lintons in a remote area of Yorkshire, who reside in two big houses four miles apart, namely Wuthering Heights and Thrushcross Grange. It is set between the 1770s and 1802. It starts when Mr. Lockwood becomes the new tenant of the Grange and pays a couple of visits to his landlord Mr. Heathcliff, who lives in the Wuthering Heights. Lockwood becomes very curious of his neighbours and Nelly Dean, who served in the two houses, tells him an epic story happens between the two houses.

Nelly Dean's narrative starts when the old Mr. Earnshaw adopts an orphan from Liverpool and names him Heathcliff. Mr. Earnshaw's daughter, Mr. Earnshaw adores the orphan very much and Catherine develops a very close bond with him since childhood. Yet the elder son, Hindley disgusts him and tries to stop Catherine from being too close to him. Mr. Earnshaw died when the children are still in their teenage years. Hindley thus can abuse Heathcliff as he wants. Catherine, although declares her tremendous love for Heathcliff, later marries her cousin, Edgar Linton of the Grange. Heathcliff disappears on a stormy night when he overhears Catherine's declaration to Nelly. He reappears three years later and tries to revenge against the masters of the two households, Edgar Linton and Hindley, who 'separates' him and Catherine. When the two die, he shifts the target to their offspring, who is also the daughter and nephew of Catherine.

The story is mostly composed of one outburst of quarrel or temper after another but without enough description of emotions or relationships that yield those outbursts. From the narration of Nelly, we just know that Hindley, Catherine, and Heathcliff are naturally very tempered people since their childhood, who just shout and throw things when they cannot get what they want. There are always not many detailed descriptions on the bondage between the two lovers in childhood besides them being good playmates. The lack of psychological descriptions makes the characters development too shallow and the story too melodramatic. With the commentary of Nelly Dean, the revenge of Heathcliff seems like a melodrama of an evil monster destroying an innocent village and finally destroying himself. I think the novel will be much better if it adopts a third person narratives that provide more details of the internal worlds of characters.

However, the reason for Heathcliff's revenge interests me. I think that merely his love for Catherine is not enough to yield his motivation for revenge. He tries to seize the dignity and power of the masters of the two households, who humiliate and bully him when he is young. He then reproduces his suffering to the younger generation, Hareton, and young Catherine. The revenge story is a result of an outsider, an orphan from the city's streets, failing to be accepted in a relatively exclusive social circle of countryside middle class. It reflects how power and class differences are detrimental to human relationships.

When Heathcliff is adopted, he does not regard himself as lower than Earnshaw's children as he receives more adoration from Mr. Earnshaw. When he is hit by Hareton, Nelly thinks 'he would have gone just so to the master, and got full revenge by letting his condition plead for him, intimating who had caused it'. Yet, he is not regarded as equal as other Earnshaw's children. Even Catherine does not defend him. Nelly, in order to avoid Hindley being blamed, 'persuaded him (Heathcliff) easily lay the blame of his bruises on the horse.' When old Earnshaw dies, he is deprived of respect. He runs away when he hears that she says it would degrade her if she marries him. Although Heathcliff plots a revenge to seize the property and status of his former oppressors, he fails to gain their respect and dignity which are granted by blood but is regarded as a devil instead. This reflects how unbreakable social differences are and how detrimental they are to people.

Another interesting point to note is the way the characters subject to the power. Hareton is neglected and degraded and suffers very much because of Heathcliff's revenge. Yet he does not hate him but is very loyal to him or maybe even love him. Nelly just thinks it is due to his habits. Maybe Hareton cannot find his place beside obeying his oppressor. What will happen if it is a common response to oppressive power?

I recommend people to read some critical writings about the book after reading it. I was surprised to find out its many different interpretations, which maybe even more interesting than the novel itself!

Wuthering Heights is in the public domain- Project Gutenberg.

2017年6月16日 星期五

Further Notes on 'The Tenant of Wildfell Hall'

*spoiler

Yesterday, I posted a review on The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, which is mainly about its general themes and my feeling about the story. I think I should elaborate more on The Tenant as a feminist novel. Guilt is a central emotion that drives the actions of the characters. The novel reflects how the society uses the feeling of guilt to restrict women's behaviors and suggests how one might try to resist it.

Some of the negative reactions of Linden-car's residents upon the arrival of a solitary widower presupposes that women living independently of men are guilty. It is because women are not supposed to think for themselves. Mrs. Markham tells her daughter, "Rose, in all household matters, we have two things to consider, first, what's proper to be done, and secondly, what's agreeable to the gentlemen of the house-- anything will do for ladies." She also teaches Gilbert to choose a wife who does not attend to her own pleasure but the men's, 'it's your business to please yourself and hers to please you.' If a woman's business is to take care of the 'gentlemen' at home, a woman who has no gentlemen to attend to is a challenge to that inborn duty. She assumes that Mrs. Graham is not a good person simply because she lives on her own and talks about the rumors attempting to shame Mrs.Graham.

In many parts of the novel, the female characters are using this sense of guilt to sanction each others' or even her own behaviors. In addition to spreading rumors, parental authority teaches girls to feel a sense of guilt when they disobey. For instance, Millicent Hargrave reluctantly marries Mr. Hattersley because she is fear of disobeying her mother whose wish is to have a rich son-in-law. She believes that she should love her husband out of duty despite her disapproval of his behavior and she is guilty having said against him in a letter. Esther, Millicent's younger sister, is being pressured by the family as she rejects the arranged marriage by her mother. She is not sure if she should be the guilty one.

The heroine, Helen Huntingdon resists that sense of guilt when she finds out that the marriage is infelicitous. When Helen knows that Huntingdon and Lady Lowburough have an affair, she hesitates to go down for breakfast the next morning. But then she tells herself, 'let me remember it is not that I am guilty: I have no course to fear; and if they scorn me as the victim of their guilt, I can pity their folly and despise their scorn.' In earlier occasions, when Helen and Huntingdon have a quarrel, she refuses to be a submissive 'good girl' but detests the arrogance of her husband. She also helps her young friend Esther by relieving her feeling of guilt for not obeying her mother.

The book gives us a historical picture of women's situations in.the Victorian era. I think the lesson of this book is not to be ashamed of thinking for yourself and making yourself happy even if people judge you unfavorably.