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Hamilton book review, My thoughts after reading "the stranger next door"

SSYQ 2 / 4  
Dec 31, 2009   #1
the book review is also used as the SUP of Wheaton College (MA).
I translated my book review into English to meet the colleges' requirement.
Please mail or attach one example of expository prose that you have written for a school assignment. Attach a photocopy of the original, including a description of the assignment, complete with the teacher's comments and grade. You should submit an analytical essay, a book review or a research paper (short stories, poetry, plays or lab reports are not expository prose).Please tell me what do you think about my book review.

Thanks for reading!

Not until the time I held the book in my hand that I realized the author of the book "The Stranger Next Door" is Amélie Nothomb, a celebrated, successful and very marketable Belgian writer who is still unknown to most Chinese people.

The book garnered rave review in the press. Almost every person who read the novella said that Nothomb's words made him in stitches. Maybe my expectation for the book was too high; I didn't find it very humorous when I was reading it. But it is undeniable that the unique conception, grotesque story and its abstruse philosophy deserve care analysis.

A retired school teacher Emile Hazel (the narrator) and his wife Juliette buy a house in a remote place for the peace and solitude. Into its small idyll comes an odd neighbor Palamedes Bernardin who occurs at precisely four o'clock and imposes himself on the Hazels without saying a word for two hours every day. At first, the Hazels consider Bernardin's reappearance as courtesy visits and feel proud to have a Doctor to be their neighbor. Soon, they find his continuous visits as a nightmare because their ideal life has become an illusion. As they are educated people, they cannot stop the neighbor from disturbing them punctually every day. "If one knocks at your door, you should open it". So the Hazels try to find some way-chattering without stop or keeping silent in the two hours-in order to irritate Bernardin. Mr. Hazel tries everything in vain to dissuade Bernardin's neighborliness and realizes that "when one meets an imbecile, one finds one's rights so limited".

Bernardin is an unpleasant person. He doesn't like to eat, to drink, to take a walk in nature, to listen to others, to read or to appreciate the beauty. He doesn't like anything. The only reason for him to be alive is to torture others. Regrettably, he doesn't drive pleasure from this kind of destruction-"He even has no interest in disturbing me; he does that unavoidably, for it is his duty. He gets no pleasure by doing it. It seems that in his mind, disturbing me is also an awfully boring thing".

Actually, Bernardin is so world-weary that he decides to suicide. He takes great courage to do so but is finally saved by Emile Hazel. Emile says: "It was I who saved you." Bernardin says coldly: "I know." It is only then that Emile realizes he has done something wrong. At last, Emile has to kill Bernardin with his own hands to grant the wish of that odd neighbor.

The novella fills my mind with a myriad of thoughts and ideas. Just like Emile, I "no longer know myself". Civilized people become quite unable to do anything when they meet a creature like Bernardin which has no pleasure of life. It sounds ridiculous, but it does make sense.

The advent of Bernardin makes "us" get into a panic. "We" look discomfiture when "we" and Bernardin(civilization and barbarism) confront each other. "We" cannot be as rude as Bernardin and "we" cannot abandon "our" civilizations and courtesy, for the latter has become almost inherent like skin and breath. "We have been so polite that we have already forgotten that we are polite"- just like "we" won't be aware of "our" skin and breath all the time. "We" should be "as polite as possible" even if "we" are mocking someone.

However, the seemingly powerful civilization which binds people becomes fragile and ineffective before uncivilized people. "My" struggle within the limitation of civilization yardstick is defeated by the silence of Bernardin time after time. "I" begin to reflect on "my" life: "Students respect me and I believe I have a God-given authority, that's why I cherish the illusion that I am the strong. In fact, I am only a civilized person. Everything becomes easy when there is civilization, but when one meets an imbecile, one finds one's rights so limited".

"I" start to look squarely at an unnoticed corner in "my" heart. When "I" finally find a pretext to hurt others, "I" quickly slide toward "villainy"- the villainy relative to the civilization. Outside is the hot zone of the battle between "my civilization" and Bernardin's "barbarism"; inside "my" heart, something unknown by "me" is awakened at the same time.

"I" begin to show an ignoble side: "I" think that the cyst Bernadette, Bernardin's wife who is also a horrible creature, is his weak point. On one hand, "I" say: "It's true, I promise. She is-distinctive, it's alright. We like her very much."-"distinctive" seems especially vitriolic and malicious; "We like her very much" is used to conceal the real opinion "she makes us sick". "We" attack Bernadette with the hypocritical side of civilization: "I cannot help laughing when I call to mind that the devil (Bernadette) was regarded as Chinese porcelain".

However, "we" turn out to be hurt deeply by the hypocrisy of civilization.

The poignant harm, which is ostensibly caused by Bernardin, is actually done by Clair, a woman comes from civilized world who hurts "me" deeply in a civilized way. Clair cuts of the contact between she and her teacher just because she doesn't get an expectative welcome from him and just because she is under the misapprehension that he has become the same person as Bernardin- is it a typical civilized action?

"'You will come back, won't you? Clair, you will come back, right?'" I am almost entreating.
"'Yes, of course, Mr. Hazel.'"-The prevarication that comes from the civilized world.
"The car disappeared in the woods. I know I will never see my student again." Civilization shows its grisly countenance. "I", as a person who knows every detail of the game rules in the civilized world, have been harmed profoundly by the deceptive rules.

The brand "I" manages for the whole life in the civilized world- a venerable and wise professor- is so vulnerable that a reticent and rude person has already knocked it into pieces without punching at once. "I" utter a sigh: "My life is a failure. My life is a failure."

"I" deny my own value so easily.

"Mr. Bernardin's two-month oppression has already damaged something. I don't know what it is, but I painfully feel the damage." What actually are "my" sense of failure and the damage? "I" realize surprisingly that only by being ruder can one overpowers the rude behavior and only by being more uncourteous can one overpowers the uncourteous manner. The civilization "I" embrace throughout my life is actually very vulnerable. "I" lost something unfamiliar but also important.

After the encounter, "I" become crushed little by little. However, it is "my" fault. "No one is the victim of anyone except oneself". Fissures have already existed in "my" body. All Bernardin does is to knock "me" lightly and "I" begin to collapse: Scratch a Russian, and you find a tartar. Civilization just covers up those gruesome things.

"We" are ready to invade in the name of "civilization": "we" ruin Bernardin's plan to suicide and force him to be alive; "we" force an entry into Bernardin's house and take away his wife. "He looked at us, powerlessly and angrily. It seemed that to him, we were extremely aggressive neighbors -his thoughts went too far!" (Ironically, "nobody answered the door. I thundered at the door like a boor- just as same as the way Palamedes knocked at my door in winter".) At last, "we" force him to die. "We" impose "ourselves" to Bernadette two hours a day hereon...

So who is the invader? "We" or Bernardin? Or that intangible thing called civilization?

Nothomb discussed through Emile Hazel about the powerlessness, affectation and violence of civilization. The distortion that civilization impacted on humanity has prevented us from seeing what we were originally like. "I" am fully immerged in the atmosphere of civilization, but Bernardin is being invaded by civilization all the time: Life is life itself; however, people roughly force the life to face the trial by values.

The anguish of Bernardin springs from the values he accepts since his childhood. In the eye of his values, his nature is no doubt distorted. The numerous clocks in his house represent his fretful soul and his trial by himself. His visits to his neighbor express his desire for salvation.

Under the rule of the values people created, animality existence is a sin. The existence makes people suffocated, sick and restless. What's more, it profanes the civilization that people are proud of and the belief they have held for a very long time. So, when Bernardin gives up all the hope and stops to pay his clockwork visits, "I" am still determined to put him to death, for his existence destroys "my" value system completely. Besides, his existence, in "my" eyes, is a stigma.

So far, the story is all about "my" arrogance, "my" soliloquy and "my" allegations. Bernardin says nothing and explains nothing for his behavior, even for his suicidal behavior. Only "I", standing on the cornerstone of so-called civilization, draw a conclusion. However, when the cornerstone becomes unsteady, "I" lose "my" direction thoroughly. Or perhaps, in the abyss of "my" mind, begins a new round of struggle...

Who we are when we abandon the affectation of civilization?
What does the "other self" that is confined by civilization look like? Will we meet a Bernardin in our life to set the "other self" free?

Or, perhaps, we are but another Bernardin.

So, "When the snow melts, where has white gone?"
EF_Kevin 8 / 13,321 129  
Jan 1, 2010   #2
It was not until the time I held the book in my hand that I realized the author of the boo k The Stranger Next Door was Amélie Nothomb -- a celebrated, successful, and very marketable Belgian writer who is still unknown to most Chinese people.

Above, I added a dash and fixed your phrasing of the sentence.

"I" realize surprisingly that only by being ruder can one overpower the rude behavior of others, and only by being more discourteous can one overpower their discourteous manner.----- I wonder if I understood your meaning correctly here.

...ruin Bernardin's plan to commit suicide and force him to be alive; "we" force an entry into Bernardin's house and take away his wife.

So, "When the snow melts, where has white gone?"

I think you should suggest an answer to this question, and after you do, mention the name of the book or the author again as you give one fnal reflection. Extend this last paragraph to be 4 or 5 sentences, and add "something extra" ... an insight for the reader to take away and think about after finishing the essay.

:-) Kind regards!
OP SSYQ 2 / 4  
Jan 2, 2010   #3
Thank you Kevin! I'll work on that though I have already submitted the essay.

There is one thing that I am concern about.
Is there a possibility that one read it through but could make no sense of it?
Or one would think I am having trouble giving shape to my ideas in this essay...

For the person who has not read the book, would it be more difficult for them to understand what I am talking abt?
EF_Kevin 8 / 13,321 129  
Jan 8, 2010   #4
Yes, if the reader can't make sense of it, it is because you used only one sentence for your intro. If you walked onto stage and I said only one sentence to introduce you, the audience might not know what to make of you, either.


You do write very clearly in English, though.

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