A GREATER MUSIC
by Bae Suah
translated by Deborah Smith
Open Letter Press, 128 pages
reviewed by Justin Goodman
Bae Suah’s newest English-translated work, A Greater Music, describes the Austrian composer Franz Schubert as “a short, fat, shy myopic.” As brutal as this description is of a man who unhappily died before his 32nd year, it seems altogether different in tone when used to describe Bae’s novel itself. Filled with observatory indifference and an almost disembodied airiness, the novel comes across particularly as commentary, and as particularly rebellious. But what’s striking about A Greater Music is that it treats the work of Schubert above the man, treats the novel above the social, giving grandeur to otherwise short, fat, shy myopics. They are breathing things that were trapped in frames ill-suited for their sublimity—short in length, fat with substance, shy about their revelations, and myopic in their attentions, they are beings greater than their comportment can present. Something so heavy has rarely looked so light.
Superficially, A Greater Music comes across like a South Korean variation on Bret Easton Ellis. The story of a bored, well-to-do individual striving to communicate in a world foreign to her—in A Greater Music, the world is more linguistic than social—makes it come across as the work of a writer trying to shock and satirize a socially repressive culture. Indeed, as Gabriel Sylvian, writing in the introduction to an interview with Suah in the literary magazine Three Wise Monkeys, notes,“Korean literature in the 1990s was a kind of renaissance…after decades of Korean writers following the prescribed… ‘roles’ assigned them by society under the dictatorial regimes of the 60s, 70s, and 80s.” But Bae’s openly metaphysical inquiries are strikingly Modernist, in particular her striking response to Sylvian’s political historicization: “I was taken aback at criticisms saying that my literature was a resistance to the 80s literature. That’s because I didn’t know much about 80s writing.” A Greater Music might not make up for its stodginess with any degree of sentiment or humor, but it possesses a sincerity, an ideality, not present in the slow-boil rage of an Easton Ellis novel like American Psycho.
Yet, what one is left with after reading through A Greater Music is a feeling of being underwhelmed. Not because the simple plot—unnamed narrator considers her relationship to her German lovers and friends, the engineer Joachim and the Romantically mysterious language tutor, M—as Modernist literature teaches that the drama of the mind at odds with communicating itself is the greatest of human plots. “If I tried to go into detail,” the narrator says, “even the slightest grammatical error [would open] the door for uncertainty…the shabby rags of my words piling up in a dizzying uncertainty.” The work of translating a novel that itself struggles with possibility of effective translation is not lost in this case.
In this sense, the truest ancestor of Bae’s work is a writer she has translated into Korean: W.G. Sebald. From him she borrows the essayistic bent, introducing into her fiction an eye that meanders away from the outside world towards an interior thoughtscape. Her 2012 short story, Time in Gray (translated by Chang Chung-hwa and Andrew James Keast), begins, “Without any specific reason, some very trivial moment from out of the past may appear in one’s mind.” Bae’s works attempt to answer “how can an essay [can]…function…as an integral part of novelistic art,” writes literary critic Jung Eun-Kyoung’s in the Afterword to Time in Gray. Unlike Patrick Bateman’s lengthy, cultish reviews in American Psycho, Bae’s exloration serves the aim of exemplifying the mystery of what we take as quotidian. Including our own comprehension.
This makes Greater Music an interesting choice for Deborah Smith to translate after she earned the Man Booker International Prize for her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian, a less cerebral, but more melodramatic, novel. English author Tim Parks, known for his criticism of contemporary translation in an essay, “The Dull New Global Novel,” argues that interpreting a translation’s quality is a seemingly impossible task for the reader who isn’t familiar with the texture of the original language. Parks avers, in a New York Review of Books essay, that what’s left to do is to “consider the relationship between content and style in the English translation.” The best, and only, way to get any sense of quality then—the method Tim Parks uses in his review of The Vegetarian—is to make note of what consistency there is in the work itself. And, additionally, how the author tends to be translated.
Parks approach demands we reflect on another of Suah’s translated works, the 2015 Nowhere To Be Found. Translated by Sora Kim-Russell, Nowhere is a more prosaic approach to narrative, beginning with a memory. “In 1988 I was temping at a university in Gyeonggi Province.” Indeed, it turns out a very trivial moment appeared in the narrator’s mind. Of the three stories—Time in Gray, Nowhere To Be Found, and A Greater Music—this one is plain. It’s the perfect example of Bae applying conventional storytelling methods to her failed romances and intense introspection, even going as far as to unironically end the framed narrative with “that was everything that happened in 1988.” It is also unique in its approach to time, an element that Bae generally destructs through jagged tense changes, except in this instance where, she continues, “ wasn’t so different from 1978, and it wasn’t any more or less memorable in comparison to 1998.” A plain-faced translation to match a planar book.
With all this in mind Smith’s translation of A Greater Music can come across as struggling to convey the ostensible diversity of Bae’s style. It seems caught between the two ideological winds: the unaffected colloquialism of Sora Kim-Russell’s translation of Nowhere to Be Found and the flighty abstraction of Time in Gray. If Bae’s work centers around not just how the personal plays into narratives (represented by essayistic consciousness and acausal leaps in time), but equally the possibility of language to convey this, what is more than itself, it is even more important to understand what makes A Greater Music seem askew. Is it possible that neither Kim-Russell, Chung-hwa, Keast, nor Smith get at Bae Suah in a way appreciable by her new readers?
Just look at a single graceful moment A Greater Music:
We never say “greater death,” death being an absolute value that does not admit comparison. Like one’s hand, which can be flipped to show either the back or the palm, it’s something that can only exist as one of two possibilities. Music is absolute, just like death. Just as “greater death” or “lesser death” is a logical impossibility, so the same can be said of music, which is of the same order as the soul.
This is a full-throated inquiry expressed clearly and in ways that have fallen out of fashion. Then, though, a moment like this fades into passing metaphors like “the shabby rags of my words piling up in a dizzying uncertainty.” It’s hard to not notice just how shabby these rags are in comparison to the elegance of passage above, how devoid of rhythm and aim. The narrator seems too eloquent to use a word as inexact as “shabby,” too poetic to use a mundane phrase like “dizzying uncertainty.” The edges of contemporary style and poetic lyricism grind and screech throughout A Greater Music. As Parks says of The Vegetarian, “Sometimes this mix of the uptight and the colloquial creates an awkwardness at the limits of comprehensibility.”
Still, it is superficial to see A Greater Music, or anything by Bae Suah, as mere literary rebelliousness, as Sylvian had suggested in his interview with her. At the heart of Bae’s work is the question of living as an authentic self, as an individual, against the banality of social living. After seeing a film in theaters with her friend Sumi, the narrator considers how “the ordinary enjoyment of ordinary people, their means of entertainment, the minutia of their daily lives, had seemed like nothing so much as a terrible injustice.” Her response to this feeling is not hatred of people—symbolized in American Psycho by its relentless indifference to human life—as much as seeing it as “an unbearable celebration of the conventional, a sickening aesthetization of conventional values.” That is to say, what makes Bae’s work rebellious is not that it targets the mores of her society primarily. She targets the very foundations of collective human engagement, as patrons of a film “have a certain collective image instilled in them.” This is the overriding element of a novel ostensibly about a failed romance; it is not ordinary by any means.
The struggle of authenticity and ordinariness plays out in the translations of her works. Are any of the Baes the true Bae? Consider how some people say washrag and some people say washcloth to refer to the same square piece of fabric. It is easy to consider Deborah Smith’s translation too imbalanced and unself-conscious. But readers of translation (including the translators themselves) should permit some silence to seep into this “shabby rag of words.” As the narrator herself says, “Even after fully mastering a foreign language…your mother tongue still acts as a prison for your consciousness,” a fact exemplified viscerally by her ultimate failure to embrace either Joachim or M fully. Eventually, she leaves both behind to return to a South Korea abundant in crowds, she the only unique individual among them. “Even if you can’t understand,” M says during one of her German lessons, “you can still make me understand.” Who is to say how true this is? One doubts that the narrator, a listener of music in a world of movies, looking for transcendence in uniformity, thinks that this is true of ordinary people.
And so Bae’s goal to find transcendence in, and beyond, the trivial is ultimately going to be lost in translation. That Deborah Smith’s translation can seem confused in style could just as well be an intentional replication of Bae’s own fluctuations. I am not convinced by this, necessarily, but that it stands out to me in any way makes the novel a success in its own ostensible hermetic reasoning. The friend that took the narrator to the movie, Sumi, “could only ever get excited about a given cause if it came packaged with an air of tragedy or altruism.” A Greater Music does not pretend its story is tragic or altruistic. Much like the passage of time and the essay format in Bae’s fiction, her stories just are. An empty room the reader walks into, markings on the walls with no cipher, only to walk out again shortly after.
Schubert is seen nowadays as a pivotal figure between late classical and early romantic music. Neither spiritualist nor formalist. A Greater Music gives the same impression. More than any other novel of Bae’s works that has been translated, it gives the sense of something in media res. With its narrator caught between the German and South Korean social worlds, between the no-nonsense Joachim and philosophical M, and constant muddle of moods, the novel lives up to the doubt it perpetually expresses. By its very questioning, it stands opposed to the seeming permanence of the ordinary. As the narrator murmurs at the end of the novel, “as Peter Handke says, ‘only when I’m writing do I feel that I’ve become myself and am truly at home.’ Where it comes from and where it goes, on that its lips are sealed.” How, after all, can one translate silence?
A recent graduate from Purchase College, Justin Goodman is working to establish a career and develop knowledge of the literary scene. His writing has been published in Submissions Magazine and Italics Mine.