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The Drunkard: A Novel by Liu Yichang — Introduction

2020/8/17 — 13:25

編按:香港中文大學出版社近月出版香港文學英譯作品(Hong Kong Literature Series)系列,全系列共六本,首批四本譯作已於 7月面世,包括:《The Drunkard: A Novel by Liu Yichang》(劉以鬯《酒徒》英譯)、《Dragons: Shorter Fiction of Leung Ping-kwan》(也斯/梁秉鈞短篇小說英譯)、《Lotus Leaves》(梁秉鈞詩歌英譯集)以及《The Teddy Bear Chronicles》(西西《縫熊志》英譯)。

本文為《The Drunkard: A Novel by Liu Yichang》的序言,由 編輯 Nick Hordern 撰寫,詳細介紹了此書的重要性。由香港中文大學出版社提供相關文檔。

【文:Nick Hordern】

Novels often do something else besides tell a story; for example, they mount an argument or depict a particular society. Yet rarely is this tendency as pronounced as it is in Liu Yichang’s 1963 The Drunkard—a book which lays fair claim to the title of the Hong Kong Novel.


The story is straightforward: the unnamed Narrator, a writer at odds with a philistine world, sinks to his nadir. In his plight he represents a whole intelligentsia, a whole culture, shoved aside by the brutal forces of history: the Second Sino-Japanese War and the rampant capitalism of postwar Hong Kong.

The other strand of The Drunkard is didactic and polemic: a series of critiques by the Narrator, illustrated by a torrent of refer- ences. Their topics include Chinese classical culture and literature and Western and Chinese popular culture in print and film, but the main focus is on the modernist movement in Western and Chinese literature.


The Narrator argues that twentieth-century Chinese writers have failed to match the achievement of their Western counterparts or to reach their potential, a symptom of what he more generally regards as ‘the malady of the age’. Chinese literature is moribund, a sorry state perpetuated by the hyper-materialistic society of Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, critical opinion is the preserve of a hireling establishment of ‘neo-traditionalists’, mediocrities mired in the classical tradition, while the publishing industry is in the hands of crass businessmen who pirate the work of authors.

While this didactic and polemic strand is enfolded in the narrative, it is not subordinate to it. So The Drunkard is several things at once: it is a highly idiosyncratic history of modern Chinese literature and a sordid tale of alcohol-fuelled self-destruction, set against a jaundiced depiction of Hong Kong at the very moment when its economy was beginning to soar.

The external events of the Narrator’s life mirror Liu Yichang’s own history, of which he gives a vivid impression in Chapters 4 and 9. Born in Shanghai, Liu was 18 when the Second Sino-Japanese War engulfed the city. Finding refuge in the city’s International Settlement, he continued his studies and graduated from St John’s University just months before the Japanese overran the foreign enclave in December 1941. Liu’s father, fearful that his son would be conscripted into the Collaborationist Chinese Army, instructed him to travel to Chungking, wartime capital of the Nationalist or Kuomintang (KMT) government, where Liu worked for newspapers. After the war he returned to Shanghai, where he continued his journalistic work and established a publishing house, but in 1948 moved to Hong Kong, where he supported himself as a columnist. In the 1950s he moved between Hong Kong, Singapore, and Malaya, but his creative writing was constrained by the frenetic demands of journalism. Back in Hong Kong, in 1963 he wrote The Drunkard: a classic statement of the plight of the artist con- demned to hackwork. But Liu himself triumphantly transcended the fate of the Narrator and when he died in 2018, just six months short of his centenary, he was revered as the founding father of Hong Kong literature, admired for having nurtured the talents of younger writers such as Leung Ping-kwan and Xi Xi.

There is something paradoxical about Liu’s writing of The Drunkard. It is a heartfelt and doubtless accurate condemnation of the philistinism of Hong Kong—and yet he wrote it in Hong Kong. This self-consciously literary novel is a product of the very society he excoriates as inimical to the writing of literary novels. Moreover, the stylistic daring and uninhibited content of The Drunkard meant that it would never have been published in the People’s Republic of China of the 1960s, a time when writers far more timid than Liu Yichang were being packed off to labour camps.



When the novel opens the Narrator is in his mid-forties, having worked in journalism and publishing for two decades. He has written short stories, has plans for an epic novel, and considers himself a literary author. But there’s no audience for literature in Hong Kong, so to make a living he has been reduced to writing vacuous kungfu stories, which are published serially in newspapers. The daily grind to produce his copy is profoundly depressing; his only solace is alcohol and the women he picks up in nightclubs. The resulting binge/hangover cycle cripples his ability to produce even pulp fiction.

One bright spot in this humiliating, marginal existence is his friendship with the idealistic young writer, Mak Ho-moon. In one way their relationship is a traditional one between teacher and pupil, as the Narrator shares with Mak the fruits of his vast literary experience. With Mak as attentive audience, the Narrator is transformed from a self-pitying wreck whose main concern is where the next drink is coming from, into a magisterial authority on what he and Mak agree is the most important thing in the world: Literature.

But in another way, tradition is inverted: it is Mak who is the exemplar. Mak displays the single-minded determination essential to artistic achievement. It is Mak who tells the Narrator to stop drinking, start writing and generally pull himself together. And it is Mak who gives the Narrator his best chance to escape from the alcoholic dead end into which he has drifted.

Mak’s idea is to start a new literary journal, with the Narrator as editor. They jointly christen the journal Avant-Garde Literature. His ambition is no less than the regeneration of Chinese literature, which the journal will assist by setting higher literary standards. And this is more than just an aesthetic goal: like the reformers of the New Culture movement of the 1920s, Mak believes literature can be a force for social improvement. He explicitly links the state of Chinese literature to the state of China overall, saying: ‘If there are no fools to try and stop Chinese literature from going backwards, then there’s no hope for China.’

The quixotic duo accept that the journal will be a financial failure; their aim is to continue publishing for as long as possible, to create a body of work which will serve as a beacon for a new generation of Chinese writers. It does indeed fail, but not as they anticipated it would, in the medium term, but almost right at the outset. It falls flat. In an echo from the heroic era of modern China, the fate of Avant-Garde Literature resembles that of New Life, the magazine launched in 1907 by the most celebrated Chinese author of the 20th century, Lu Xun. Like Avant-Garde Literature, New Life had a frankly missionary aim: to regenerate China through literature. Like Avant-Garde Literature, it proved a total failure.

However rapid the collapse of Avant-Garde Literature, it is actually preceded by another failure—that of the Narrator him- self. Having fuelled Mak’s sense of a literary vocation and having agreed to take on the editor’s role, the Narrator—with the charac-teristic irresolution of the drunk—suddenly quits, leaving Mak to carry the burden alone.

Mak is all youthful idealism: for him it will be enough if the journal makes a statement to be noted by readers of the future. But to the Narrator, ground down by decades of hackwork, the inescapable demise of the journal only reinforces his sense of futility and despair. He renounces the last shreds of literary am- bition and embarks on a career as a pornographer. His resulting estrangement from Mak is one of the sadder parts of this deeply melancholy book.

But before he deserts Mak, the Narrator does achieve one thing: he writes a foreword to the first issue of Avant-Garde Literature in which he diagnoses the woes of contemporary Chinese literature and prescribes a cure for them. The fact that he has the intellectual authority to mount this critique—the distillation of a life’s reading and reflection—for one moment lifts him (almost literally) out of the gutter and bestows on him the status of a worthy follower of Lu Xun.

The Narrator’s blueprint for a new Chinese literature is only one portion of the discussion of literature which runs throughout The Drunkard. Does this didactic and polemical element compromise its success as a novel? Certainly it requires readers to be con- stantly moving, as it were, from the cinema to the lecture hall andback again. They may feel that this obscures the narrative, which stands up very well on its own—so well that Freddie Wong’s 2010 film of The Drunkard succeeds wonderfully as drama while making only passing reference to the literary argument.

But the Narrator’s polemic, and the web of references which anchor it, do serve the The Drunkard’s purpose, in two ways. First, they describe the cultural malaise which has engulfed him and his peers in terms of literary history. And second, they inform the actual style of the novel. As a writer, Liu Yichang practices what the Narrator preaches.

Take the example of the artist-hero. In the polemic, James Joyce is praised for his artistic integrity, his sense of the writer’s calling which is so strong that he persists in developing a modernist idiom despite being impoverished and ignored—the fate of progressive writers in hyper-materialistic Hong Kong. The Narra- tor identifies strongly with Joyce; clearly the latter’s fondness for the bottle (a trait shared with Lu Xun and other artist-heroes like Cao Xueqin—author of the eighteenth-century classic The Story of the Stone, with Hemingway, Faulkner et al.) has got a lot to do with this. But Joyce doesn’t just inspire the Narrator’s polemic, the content of the novel. As Liu’s frequent use of the Joycean tech- niques of the interior monologue and the stream of consciousness shows, Joyce powerfully influenced the style of The Drunkard as well.

Modernism was a broad church, fostering the many avant-garde movements which are quoted in The Drunkard. And when it comes to tracing these and the other influences that shaped The Drunkard, Liu Yichang has studded the novel with a whole forest of signposts, not all of them equally informative. But one influence stands right out: The Story of the Stone. Liu Yichang’s radical, avant-garde novel is saturated with the influence of Cao Xueqin’s classic masterpiece.

This is not a paradox. As Liu Yichang pushes the boundaries of literary convention by employing European modernist tech- niques, he has the Narrator invoke Cao Xueqin’s own departure from tradition in justification. And as with Joyce, the influence of Cao Xueqin is both explicit in the didactic strand—for exam- ple, when the Narrator dives into the controversies of ‘Redology’ (as the study of Stone is known because of its alternative title The Dream of the Red Chamber)—and implicit in the narrative.

Almost right at the outset the Narrator invokes Lin Daiyu, the tragic, refined heroine of Stone. In a dream he sees her transposed to modern day Hong Kong, where (in a neat metaphor for the debasing effect of industrial society on Chinese tradition) she is a process worker in a factory making plastic flowers.

The Story of the Stone is the story of the sentimental education of its hero Jia Baoyu, whose emotions are engaged successively by a range of characters, among whom Lin Daiyu looms large. In The Drunkard the Narrator experiences a similar diversity of emotional responses to the gallery of six major female characters. This rich tableau includes the Narrator’s beloved Lily Cheung, a beauty who marries a rich businessman; Szema Lee, a passionate teenage girl who throws herself at him; Mrs Wong, the lonely landlady whose advances he also ultimately rejects; Yeung Lu, a sixteen-year-old bar-girl; an aging prostitute who tries to sell him her daughter; and Granny Lui, a delusional old lady who takes him for her long dead son.

Besides the classical tradition, The Drunkard bears the mark of the ‘neo-sensualist’ style, the hallmark of the Shanghai Modern- ist school of the 1930s—in which Liu Yichang served his literary apprenticeship. The ‘neo-sensualist’ style drew on the whole range of current Western avant-garde movements: Dadaism, Expres- sionism, and Futurism. But the -ism which has the most obvious impact on Liu’s book is Surrealism.

In his 1924 Surrealist Manifesto the French poet André Breton defines Surrealism as the expression of ‘le fonctionnement réel de la pensée. Dictée de la pensée, en l’absence de tout contrôle exercé par la raison, en dehors de toute préoccupation esthétique ou morale’—‘the real functioning of thought. [Direct] Dictation of thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.’

As the Narrator gets drunk and reason loses control, so too does his language. The style slides by degrees from conventional narrative, interior monologue, and more or less comprehensible stream of consciousness on to quite incomprehensible passages: mixtures of fantasy, fleeting impressions, nonsensical aphorisms, involuntary memories and delusions. Then there are also sections which, though more structured, have a strong ‘surreal’ flavour. These include Chapter 6, a pastiche of Chinese creation mythology; Chapter 10, which describes the Earth in the wake of a nuclear holocaust; or the ‘meta-fictional’ passages in Chapter 11, in which the Narrator’s favourite characters and authors, Chinese and Western, emerge from their books to mingle in his room.

The ‘incomprehensible’ passages of full-blown surrealism (only a small portion of the whole) pose a specific question for trans- lators. If the sense of the original is ‘beyond reason’, should the translator abstain from the exercise of interpretation which is, after all, part of the essence of their function? Should the resulting translation itself be ‘beyond reason’, devoid of any meaning, of any sig- nificance at all? Maybe not—because Liu Yichang himself licences the reader to give his own interpretation to the surrealist passages.

Chapter 19 contains the crux of Liu’s and the Narrator’s dis- cussion of contemporary literature. It describes a planning session for Avant-Garde Literature, a session in which the Narrator expounds to Mak his literary theory. When Mak asks whether the incomprehensibility of much of contemporary poetry is justified, the Narrator quotes from Breton’s definition of surrealism in his reply:

‘The inner world is a chaotic, messy place. When poets re- spond to the external world, their words reflect this inner chaos. Inevitably, as a result those words are often confusing, hard to comprehend, beyond the scope of reason.’

‘If something is beyond the scope of reason, how is the reader to respond? Can he be expected to take it in?’
‘If something is beyond the scope of reason that doesn’t mean it’s devoid of meaning. By “beyond reason”, I don’t mean incomprehensible. There’s a difference. Poets have freedom of choice. They can choose their own words. If those words don’t appeal to readers, or if readers interpret them in their own way, that’s fine. In fact, the basic principle of poetry is to allow every reader to have his own interpretation and appreciation.’

At the opposite end of the spectrum from these rarefied questions of literary aesthetics and innovation, The Drunkard also contains a whole crop of references to Western popular culture, particularly to the emerging pop music phenomenon—Elvis Presley is men- tioned more often than André Breton.

It has been argued that Liu Yichang included these in order to illustrate his belief that Chinese culture had been swept aside by the fell influence of Western cultural imperialism. But another reading is that the references to Western popular culture, just like the references to Western literature, are positive: they testify to the diversity and openness of Hong Kong culture. And they also serve a literary purpose: for example, the lyrics of the pop songs Liu Yichang quotes act as counterpoints to the narrative. And at a distance of half a century, they also establish The Drunkard as a snapshot of world culture at a key moment. The novel just happens to open right at the moment when the Beatles’ first hit was climbing the charts and in the shadow of the Cuban Missile Crisis.

It’s also worth noting that the Narrator is far more knowledgeable about European literature than most British or American univer- sity graduates would have been at the time. This is not a sign of blind admiration: as his attack on the superficiality of Western readings of Chinese culture shows, the Narrator is by no means in thrall to the West. But it does suggest that the eclecticism of The Drunkard, rather than being evidence of a perceived Chinese cultural vacuum, reflects the cultural openness and richness of the Shanghai of the 1930s which formed Liu Yichang’s outlook. And it is telling that, despite Liu’s unrelenting critique of Hong Kong society and culture, those early Shanghai influences finally bore fruit in Hong Kong, long after Liu had left the city where his outlook was formed.

The Drunkard is the product of a literary imagination moulded on the one hand by The Story of the Stone and on the other by Ulysses. And if The Drunkard can be considered as the Hong Kong Novel, then not just Cao Xueqin but Joyce also can take some of the credit. Take the description of Spring Garden Lane in Chapter 40, when the Narrator becomes like the roving cinematic eye in Ulysses, collecting random impressions of the streetscape and melding them into a vivid, evocative portrait of the city. And apart from the streetscape, there is Liu Yichang’s marvellous gallery of Hong Kong people: not just the fully drawn characters like Mak and Lily Cheung, but a whole series of vignettes, like the unnamed old classmate the Narrator runs into in the street, who proves to be the only person in the whole book who has the moral measure of the rapacious city.

Echoing a precept of the New Culture movement of the 1920s, the Narrator’s blueprint for Chinese literature concludes with this advice: ‘Acting on the principle that we have much to learn from others, we should take the best foreign literature has to offer and then create a new Chinese literature which is infused with the spirit of modernity but at the same time keeps the best of our own style and manner.’

Clearly, this was the spirit that guided Liu Yichang as he was writing The Drunkard. And it is this spirit which makes the novel a source of fascination to those interested in literature, Chinese and Western, and to those of us who, like the Narrator, just can’t stop themselves from picking up a book.

In October 1962, Liu concluded his own Preface to the pub- lished edition of The Drunkard, with these words: ‘If some readers find this novel disturbing, that is something I myself anticipated. Over the years I have written for the entertainment of others, in order to earn a living. This time I have written in order to en- tertain myself.’ The author of The Story of the Stone, writing two centuries earlier, reflected in like manner that he hoped his novel might serve both as a ‘source of harmless entertainment and as a warning to those who were in the same predicament as myself but who were still in need of awakening.’ 1

Nick Hordern

註1 :Series Editor’s note: The version of The Drunkard on which this translation is based is the revised edition published in Hong Kong by Holdery Publishing Enterprises in 2003.