• Clarice Lispector Reborn in David Lynch’s Seoul: An Introduction to Outsider Novelist-Essayist Bae Suah

    Bae Suah has a dedicated readership in her native South Korea, owing to the unconventional nature of her fiction as well as her passage into literary fame. Over the past half-decade her work has begun to appear in English translation, and in that form it has met with bad reviews: not negative reviews but badly written ones, hazily abstract in their description and incontinent in their praise. “The amorphous logic of memory or dream, where things are both familiar and strange, connects physical and intangible worlds,” insists the Guardian‘s first consideration (under the Observer banner) of Bae’s Untold Night and Day (알려지지 않은 밤과 하루). Its second lauds the book as “a hallucinatory novel propelled by the logic of dreams: the story resists conventional categorization and coherence in favor of instability, a shamanistic borderland of feverish disintegration between the physical and the spiritual.”

    To critics in the English-language press, directly conveying the qualities of Bae’s writing has proven a challenge. Some of them have done better with the indirect method, name-checking such Western literary figures as W.G. Sebald, Peter Handke, Fernando Pessoa, and Clarice Lispector. All four are referenced in reviews by way of not just aesthetic comparison but professional introduction, since as a translator Bae has brought works by all four into the Korean language. Her ability to translate Sebald and Handke (as well as Robert Walser, Jenny Erpenbeck, and Franz Kafka) owes to years spent in Germany, a country in which she’s made annual sojourns since the early 2000s. Pessoa and Lispector she handles at a further remove, working from German translations: not an ideal arrangement, but a necessary one absent Korean Portuguese translators invested in Pessoa and Lispector’s remote niches of literature.

    The first edition of Lispector in Korean, a collection of short stories translated by Bae, was published just last year. This says something about the foreign fiction favored, or more to the point disfavored, in South Korea, and that Bae was the translator to finally take the project on says something about the kind of writer she is. Bae is known, as Lispector is remembered, as a woman encumbered by few of her country’s social or artistic conventions, and her prose style, like Lispector’s, is described by both her appreciators and detractors as sounding persistently alien even in the original. In Lispector’s writing this quality admits of a degree of biographical explanation: as an immigrant to Brazil from modern-day Ukraine, albeit one who relocated with her family in early childhood, she could have retained characteristics that marked her as an outsider in Brazilian society, literary and otherwise.

    Born and raised in Seoul, Bae makes for a stranger case, though Deborah Smith, her main translator and advocate in the English language, makes the linguistic comparison to Lispector explicit in an interview. It was during her PhD work at University of London’s School of Oriental and African Studies that Smith first saw Bae mentioned — or rather charged, by a “very fusty older male academic,” of “doing violence to the Korean language.” Having also recently become aware of Lispector, she noticed the ascription to both writers of what struck her as similarly compelling qualities: “being an autodidact, and deliberately using nonstandard grammar and spelling and that kind of thing.” Smith in due time produced a translation of the book charged with linguistic violence, published in English in 2016 as A Greater Music.

    Like most of Bae’s translated works, A Greater Music‘s English title bears no resemblance to that of the original, literally The Essayist’s Desk (에세이스트의 책상), which gives a clearer sense of what the book offers: reflective, essayistic fiction narrated in the first person, belonging to a broadly Sebaldian tradition (not an especially popular one in Korea, where the standard-bearer for German literature has long been Herman Hesse’s Demian, of which Bae has  made her own translation). Unlike most of Sebald’s novels, its setting is also German, an early 21st-century Berlin to which the unnamed Korean female narrator returns after a first sojourn three years before. She stays with a sometime boyfriend named Joachim, a metalworker and engineering student who revels in his own crassness: his collection of literature amounts to “the English-language versions of the Harry Potter series and American Psycho,” and his dialogue includes such entirely rhetorical questions as “How on earth could anything be more important than money?”

    Joachim takes the narrator to one of “these so-called ‘student parties'” he “was obsessed with showing me.” At such gatherings “they play Oasis and Nirvana rather than crazy techno or American-style ‘butt dance’ or hip-hop, and some of the students are Scandinavian, and they talk to each other in English.” Her lack of that language relegates her to attempting socialization with the Germans, but “after hearing a few words of my faltering German they immediately recognized what a miserable level my conversational skills were at, and would latch on to another, more exciting conversation as soon as the opportunity presented itself.” She seems to find fluency only in complaint, as when Joachim later takes her to task for her petulant attitude. “The people who come to these parties transcend nationality, age, class, race,” she responds. “They’re nothing but a bunch of uncultured idiots, damn it.”

    Between stints in Germany, the narrator suffers other idiocies back in South Korea. There she goes to see a movie and denounces it afterward as “an unbearable celebration of the conventional, a sickening aestheticization of conventional values.” She has been accompanied by Sumi, a young woman whose parents, “one Swiss and one Korean, had raised her with a deep understanding of each of their respective cultures.” When Sumi makes plausible excuses for the picture, a crowd-pleaser with no artistic ambitions in the first place, the narrator’s thoughts turn to an indictment of her friend’s very way of being: “She was always full of explanations and excuses, citing so-called ‘just causes’ and ‘humanist conscience,’ which couldn’t help but seem over the top, as though she was seeking to elevate her interest with the gloss of high seriousness.”

    Sound though they may as if composed in a teenager’s diary rather than at an essayist’s desk, these grievances aren’t entirely frivolous. Anyone with experience of the bland vacuity of either the pan-European student class or the past few decades’ worth of “globalized” Koreans will understand something of what bothers the narrator. She contrasts figures like Joachim and Sumi with M, the German-teacher-turned-lover who dominates the memory of her first stay in Germany. A pale, thin woman possessed of “eyes like a winter lake with an iceberg at its heart” and kept nearly housebound by allergies, M captivates the narrator with the unfamiliarity of both her mien and her worldview. As they bond over a shared appreciation for what might be called “serious” music and literature, the narrator feels herself instilled with “the blazing desire to set down sentences that were true, sincere, and not the stuff of children.”

    However strong these passions, blame for the narrator’s slow progress in German can be laid partly at the feet of M, who has her read haltingly aloud from long, abstract treatises in an attempt to teach not “the meaning of each individual word, but the absolute, universal concepts to which the words referred, those fundamental concepts which each of the many languages in this world calls by a different name.” (Joachim scoffs: “According to him, I couldn’t claim to be able to speak German properly without first having familiarized myself with street slang like ‘garbage,’ ‘sulky,’ or ‘floozy.'”) The romance constitutes an excuse to change to a more pedagogically traditional teacher, who tasks the narrator with writing short compositions in German. At this she — the “essayist” — excels: “If she keeps at it,” he says to M, “there’s no reason she couldn’t get published here, just like Yoko Tawada.”

    Born and raised in Japan but resident in Germany since the early 1980s, Tawada writes novels, stories, and poetry in German as well as Japanese, sometimes composing in both languages in parallel. Even within the group of northeast Asian writers engaged with the German language, not large to begin with, Bae and Tawada have obvious qualities in common, both being, for instance, women of the same generation. But in their relationship to official institutions the two are opposites. Tawada earned both a master’s degree and a doctorate in German literature during the first fifteen years of her writing career and has since won some of the most prestigious literary awards in both Japan and Germany. Bae, the recipient of few such honors, has spoken of the relief she felt upon receiving her bachelor’s degree in chemistry at never having to enter a classroom again.

    Bae’s ostensible shunning of both academia and prize systems — through which writers in both Korea and Japan typically make their “debut” in the literary hierarchy — sets her apart from her Korean colleagues. So does everything else about how she became what she is, a story told and retold in interviews. Her first attempt at fiction came out of a typing-class exercise: while the other students practiced with song lyrics or passages from favorite books, she typed out the stories that came unbidden into her head. Some time thereafter, in her late twenties, she bought an issue of a literary magazine for the first time, her eye having been caught by its pastel cover. Noticing that it accepted submissions, she wrote up a story called “A Dark Room in 1988” (1988년의 어두운 방) mailed it in, and soon became a published writer despite never before having entertained the idea of doing so.

    1988 is the year Bae graduated from college, as well as the year South Korea — its streets barely clear of the tear gas released during its protest-intensive transition from military dictatorship to Western-style democracy — debuted on the world stage with the Summer Olympic Games in Seoul. Bae returns to that time in the novella Nowhere to Be Found (철수), a both slight and heavy tale of a bleakly unpromising winter in the life of a 24-year-old woman translated in 2015 by Sora Kim-Russell, now one of the most prominent translators of popular Korean fiction. (I interviewed Bae about this book, her first published in English, on the Los Angeles Review of Books‘ podcast.) In it the coming Olympics figures not at all, not even among its scant cultural references: the narrator’s late-night habit of listening to K.D. Lang’s “Barefoot” on repeat “exactly thirteen times,” her likening a sister’s “androgynous charm” to that of Tyltyl in Maurice Maeterlinck’s The Blue Bird.

    The narrator (unnamed, as in A Greater Music) works to support this sister as well as her bitter, alcoholic mother. Her father, a former government bureaucrat, has been jailed for taking bribes, and the family’s taint of corruption goes some way to explaining the university-graduate narrator’s relegation to low-status work like serving at a restaurant and performing clerical tasks at a suburban university. Though in some sense white-collar, the latter “bore no resemblance at all to the type of job you could get only after having studied hard for years and years, turned in thousands upon thousands of pages of reports, written a tome of a thesis, earned a degree, and created a winning résumé composed entirely in English.” But it may well resemble the work that Bae, then a civil servant at an office of Korea’s Military Manpower Administration, was doing at the time of writing.

    Bae quit that day job in 2002 upon returning from her first trip to Germany, a nearly yearlong stay in Berlin during a leave of absence from the office. She has returned frequently ever since, spending, according to one profile, two months in Germany out of each year. With her increasing proficiency in German, a language she claims to have had no intention of learning but began studying out of boredom through literature, emerged a geographical separation of labor: translation in Korea, fiction-writing abroad. The settings of that fiction are usually European, often but not always identifiably German. “Mouson,” the most narratively conventional of the stories in her collection North Station (올빼미의 없음), opens in a taxi whose driver is inexplicably unable to find his way to Mouson tower, a 1920s soap-and-perfume factory which now functions as one of the most prominent cultural spaces in Frankfurt.

    That word “Frankfurt” never actually appears in “Mouson” is representative of Bae’s tendency to refer to seemingly real places and people either (as some readers will no doubt take it) too vaguely or two specifically. “I dashed off an email in an Arabic Internet cafe after arriving in Munich,” says the narrator of another of North Station‘s stories — in this case a named narrator, and named Bae Suah at that. The reply comes signed by one Martin Walser, by all indications the now-nonagenarian German writer whose Angstblüte was among the first novels the non-fictional Bae translated into Korean. The fictional Bae’s trip to Munich occurs in the wake of the death of a German friend, and Walser’s reply, included in extenso, consists of grandiloquent words of consolation: “Silent assent and acceptance is our lot,” “we are all of us — and always — orphans,” “if you dwell on suffering then my heart will suffer too.”

    Elsewhere in the story Bae the narrator addresses the dead friend directly, albeit with explanatory clauses for the reader: “Cafe Roma on Maximilianstrasse was where Werner and I first met, do you remember? It was at that cafe, which featured in Walser’s novel Angstblüte, that you introduced me to Werner Fritsch, the talented, extraordinary writer and independent film director.” Fritsch, too, is a real person, one who’s shared the stage with the real Bae at literary events in Seoul and in 2014 collaborated with her on a photo essay book about their travels through Southern California, Las Vegas, and the desert in between. That was unfamiliar territory for Bae, but not an unfamiliar genre: a decade earlier, she had included in A Greater Music a knowing digression on another pictorial American travelogue Forms of Human Coexistence (Formen menschlichen Zusammenlebens) by Jakob Hein, another of the writers she has translated.

    Bae’s narrator explains having chosen that book “because it was printed clearly in a large typeface, and had photographs which broke up the monotony of the prose (something that usually irritates me when I’m reading in Korean, but with German it was helpful to have a break now and again); it caught my attention because I’d recently become interested in works by young East German writers. The fact that it was about America was neither here nor there for me.” To her disappointment, the young, enthralled Hein (son of the celebrated writer-dissident Christoph Hein) considered being in America in general, and amid the brashness of 1980s New York in particular, both here and there. Bae’s characters, once widely described by critics as disaffected and rebellious, have followed their creator into an uprooted, globally mobile lifestyle; her (and thus their) avoidance of the Anglosphere constitutes its own kind of rebellion.

    Recitation (서울의 낮은 언덕들), Bae’s longest novel yet translated into English (by Smith, and published in 2017), has at its center her most internationally peripatetic character yet. Sidelined by a broken toe from her métier — the titular “recitation,” which seems to involve delivering monologue-like texts on stage — Kyung-hee decides to travel the world, exploring foreign countries as much as possible on foot. Eventually she falls advantageously in with Karakorum, a worldwide organization whose members keep guest rooms, spare beds, or patches of floor open at all times to one another. Bae sets some the book’s scenes in Korea but most of them abroad in unnamed European and Asian cities, their identifying details lost in verbal smears of foreignness. Describing one rainy, decrepit Southeast Asian capital, Bae makes a series of references to a tourist destination called “Monkey Mountain,” which at least narrows it down to Thailand or Vietnam.

    Kyung-hee does pass through a recognizable Berlin and Vienna, spending a period of time in the former with an older lover of unclear nationality referred to only as Mr. Nobody. “You’re all as vile as the Americans,” Mr. Nobody tells Kyung-hee in a moment of anger. “You imitate them, like monkeys.” Kyung-hee’s placid reply: “You saying that reminds me of the time when I first came to Europe, when someone asked me where I was from and then, when I answered from South Korea, said, ‘Ah, you mean Americanized Korea.'” If discomfort at this view of her homeland keeps her away from America itself, it doesn’t keep her away from a near-parodic byword for global Americanization: Starbucks Coffee, whose familiar green mermaid shows herself to a Kyung-hee at loose ends in Vienna.

    Feeling “a strange sense of relief,” Kyung-hee immediately hurries in “as though having discovered a place of refuge.” Inside she falls into conversation with an elderly fellow at the next table and mentions “something about it being a good thing this is a Starbucks, because Starbucks is somewhere that people from China, Europe, or wherever, can feel equally at home — somewhere that literally feels as familiar as their hometown.” Bae’s departures from established literary conventions have assured her a readership of at least mildly countercultural sensibilities. Such readers will be inclined to assume a certain irony in her references to an American corporate coffee-shop chain like Starbucks, and even to see an implicit ideological critique: of consumerism, perhaps, or global capitalism. But when Bae writes about Starbucks, someone who’s spent a good deal of time with her once told me, she does so out of genuine appreciation.

    Bae’s hometown of Seoul, incidentally, has more Starbucks locations per capita than any other city in the world, the result of unabated multiplication ever since the first one opened outside the gates of Ewha Womans University, her alma mater, in the late 1990s. It thus comes as a surprise never to see Starbucks mentioned in Untold Night and Day, set as it is almost entirely within the South Korean capital. There a 28-year-old actress named Kim Ayami is tasked with showing the city to a German detective novelist named Wolfi, who’s chosen Seoul as the place to write his next book. Soon after his arrival she takes him for a meal at an American chain much longer established in Korea. “Back home I eat sushi from a paper lunch box,” Wolfi grumbles. “Now I’ve come all the way to the Far East and end up with a Burger King.”

    Like most of Bae’s inadvertently bookish protagonists, Ayami possesses some knowledge of the German language, hard won through less than efficient learning methods. “Rather than having an actual conversation,” she and her teacher “preferred to sit and listen to each other read from a book. Perhaps this was why, despite taking lessons for almost two years, Ayami’s German showed scant signs of improvement.” These lessons commenced at the behest of Ayami’s boss, the director of a nearly unfrequented “audio theatre” for the blind who had known the German teacher at university. Untold Night and Day opens with Ayami preparing for the theatre’s final performance before closing down permanently, an adaptation of Sadegh Hedayat’s The Blind Owl — the same book, as it happens, that she and her German teacher are reading aloud to one another.

    First published in 1937, The Blind Owl now ranks among the most important works of 20th-century Persian literature. Ayami and her teacher naturally read from the German translation, which Bae herself used to produce a Korean translation published in 2013. Untold Night and Day, which came out in Korea that same year, invites a reading as the product of The Blind Owl‘s influence. The narrator of Hedayat’s novella, an unnamed painter addressing his hallucinatory confessions to an owl-shaped shadow on the wall, returns obsessively to variations on the same memories, images, and fearful pronouncements. In the London Review of Books James Meek once classed the The Blind Owl among the kind of literary “outliers” where “time and contingency have been disassembled,” a group to which Bae’s latest novel, were it not for the relatively clear chronology of its titular night and day, would come close to belonging.

    The Blind Owl‘s protagonist is an opium addict. His narration exhibits the qualities of a mind altered by that substance, its perception of linear time and causation obliterated and the thoughts that happen to drift through it haphazardly exaggerated and conflated. To an extent that the same could be said of Untold Night and Day, reviewers (as well as one back-cover endorser) have described the its reading experience, favorably, as a “fever dream.” That comparison also arises with some frequency in regard to the films of David Lynch, the adjectival form of whose name appears in several reviews of Bae’s new novel. Though the memories of a Korean upbringing and education with which Bae endows certain of her characters do tend to transmit a horror of depravity beneath conformity, Bae’s work is Lynchian less in its themes than in its refusal, in the final analysis, to make sense.

    To say Untold Night and Day doesn’t make sense is no harsher a criticism than to say the same about Lynch’s movies. (Not that I haven’t heard members of reading groups here in Seoul, dissatisfied to the point of resentment with Bae’s writing, say it harshly indeed.) Lynch makes his impact with not stories or characters but visceral images — Eraserhead‘s reptilian baby, Blue Velvet‘s severed ear — and stimulatingly dark atmospheres. Bae’s most Lynchian vignette plays out in a “blackout restaurant,” where customers eat multi-course meals in the total absence of light. There Ayami dines with the theatre’s director, who urges her to resume acting and avoid becoming a “pitiful person” like himself, who has “always failed in convincing others.” He’s interrupted by a genuine blackout, a power outage caused by all the air conditioners turned up in the Seoul summer, its “hot air heavier than a sodden quilt.”

    Later returning to this oddly specific topic of “invisible people” who “can’t be successful, who can’t convince others,” this character resembles many of Bae’s in his tendency to belabor the point. In earlier books they’re liable to do so for page-long paragraphs at a stretch (surely Bae’s greatest dissimilarity to Lynch, the blunt plainspokenness of whose characters shades into dazed naïveté), often in elaborately awkward language. This is not due to incompetent translation: native Korean readers report that Bae’s sentences, by turns blunt and convoluted, feel in the original like translations from the German. Thus Bae’s English translators, like Clarice Lispector’s, face the dilemma of what to do with the eccentricity of her prose: smooth it out into an idiomatic English, or come up with sentences sounding haphazard and stilted to the same degree (if not in the same way, English already being a Germanic language) as those in the original?

    Three times out of four, Smith has chosen the latter path. Examples appear on practically any given page of Bae’s earlier books in her translation, such as this one from the opening chapter of Recitation: “Kyung-hee enjoyed talking about the various houses she’d lived in. This one was in that city and that one was in this, some days the heart of a bygone city to which no name can now be put would irrupt into a present conversation with all the suddenness of a cloud of dust whisking up into the air, some unforeseeable instant.” The risk of filling a novel with passages such as this is that, for a reader unfamiliar with Bae and her manner of writing, suspicion falls first on the translator’s command of the English language. This would at least make a change for Smith’s detractors, who’ve spent more of their energy calling into question her Korean abilities.

    Still not far out of her twenties, Smith has attained higher-profile success than other translators of Korean literature and drawn proportionately persistent criticism. The backlash came not long after her translation of Han Kang’s The Vegetarian won the Man Booker International Prize in 2016. Comparison of Smith’s translation to Han’s original, some bilingual readers alleged, revealed liberties and embellishments. This in addition to instances of mistranslation ranging from dialogue attributed to the wrong character (a danger inherent languages like Korean, whose sentences often omit the subject) to an arm mistaken for a foot. But there was a deeper sense that the young Smith, a non-Korean working without a Korean co-translator, had somehow circumvented unspoken protocol, and in Korean literary translation circles The Vegetarian continues to be held up with tiresome frequency as an example of “faithfulness” supposedly sacrificed for appeal.

    Those who disapprove of Smith’s philosophy of translation (on which she herself has expounded in the LARB) would surely approve still less of Bae’s. In a recent interview Bae declared her fundamental disbelief in the practice itself, describing her translations of W.G. Sebald as “Sebald transposed into Bae Suah’s sentences.” (This brings to mind a similarly impious remark by Japanese-to-English literary translator Jay Rubin: “When you read Haruki Murakami, you’re reading me, at least ninety-five per cent of the time.”) Bae’s translation process appears to be as freewheeling as her writing process, which she has admitted involves no planning, no plotting, no philosophy, and no pain. A novel might begin with a “memorable and strange sentence” that came to her in a dream, and any inconsistent or nonsensical scenes that emerge as she improvises forward from it are only to be expected. So are the less-than-grammatical sentences, some of which she claims to have written that way intentionally.

    “Normally I couldn’t stand anything that ‘read easily,'” says the narrator of A Greater Music of the simple compositions praised by her German teacher, “and I’d only written it like that in order to avoid making too many errors and confusing the reader.” By the standard of that book, North Station, and Recitation, Untold Night and Day is in Smith’s translation syntactically unimpeachable. It confuses the reader instead with phrases and images that recur insistently throughout the text. These include the title of Paul Gauguin’s Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?; a cat in a birdcage; a radio turning on by itself; a corpse “hidden in the space between the ceiling and the roof”; and various women with “skinny calves corded with stringy muscle, pathetically small feet, and shoes that gleamed like new yet looked like cast-offs.”

    These women, and perhaps others (another Lynchian quality here being the characters’ tendency to change identities in midstream), also appear now and again in what’s described every time as “plain coarse-textured white cotton hanbok.” Literally “Korean clothing,” the word hanbok now refers to the attire worn by Koreans prior to the early 20th century, at which time Japanese colonial rule set about converting Korea into its idea of Westernized modernity. It also stands out as the rare reference to something explicitly Korean in Bae’s work, with its characters who quote European writers and patronize American fast-food chains — members, if reluctantly, in what Recitation‘s Kyung-hee calls

    the widespread and artificially constructed new tribe known as the ‘city dweller’, who is no longer a part of any traditional society or race, and has never at any time held spiritual or religious beliefs which arise from any geographic specificity, or at least beliefs which are current only in a specific region, given that, even in regions where such beliefs had  held sway, the degree and duration of industrialization meant not only that shamanism had lost its power but that access to collective memories of it had been completely cut off, with each individual inextricably bound up with things that would once have been foreign to them, psychological differences flattened, made to conform to an international standard now long accepted, a globally-current ‘enlightened’ standard that is considered the only one of value; the modern city dweller who has thus lost no few of their native, traditional, mythical elements, which defy explanation; the modern city dweller in whom the majority of us can now recognize ourselves.

    Shamanism resurfaces as a theme in Untold Night and Day. “Ayami” is the Siberian shamanic term, Bae has said, for an assistant spirit who dwells within a shaman’s body. From that ancient tradition descends Korean shamanism, or Musok, which even in this “wealthy, technologically advanced, and increasingly globalized country,” writes former Economist correspondent Daniel Tudor, remains “woven into the fabric of Korean society and still exerts an influence over the most rational of city folk.” For a not inconsiderable price, one of modern South Korea’s roughly 300,000 practicing musok-in will don a brightly colored hanbok and perform a raucous ceremony involving singing, dancing, drumming, and at the extremes of tradition animal sacrifice. Communion with the spirit realm (often a request for the client’s good personal or professional fortune) occurs, if cinematic depictions of such rites are to be believed, in a fearsomely ecstatic trance state.

    “Concerned with rationalism and the promotion of an orderly society,” writes Tudor, the neo-Confucians who ran Korea from the 14th to the 19th century “considered Musok emotional and metaphysical and conflated it with the feminine.” And yet in that era of “male-dominated, non-spiritual formality, people demanded an outlet for the opposite side of their character — and Musok provided that.” Bae constructs a reality around Ayami, more tightly than she does around the women at the center of her other books, whose echoes and rhymes hint at the protagonist’s perception of a separate, unseen reality beneath. This is registered not by Ayami’s conscious thoughts, barely accessible to the third-person narration, but by her feelings. “I am emotion, she heard something inside her whisper,” Bae writes as Ayami makes first eye contact with a man who will later reappear in other forms. “I am nothing but emotion.”

    There’s something of the musok-in about Bae Suah herself, who visibly writes her haphazard way into bouts of ecstasy, despair, reverie, and obsession. This produces fiction profoundly meaningful to some readers and dully incomprehensible to others, but her blithe unconcern for boundaries national or aesthetic (not least those drawn by fusty older male academics) has its own appeal, especially if you feel a kinship with her protagonists and their “almost irresistible impulse to flee to the labyrinthine shelter of some great city like London or Paris” and there “dwell solitary amid a multitude, buried by day in the cloister-like recesses of mighty libraries, and stealing away by night to some obscure lodging.” That’s J.R. Findlay on Thomas De Quincey, who described the opium experience a century before Sadegh Hedayat. In South Korea, where psychedelic drugs are practically unobtainable, you take your consciousness-alteration where you can find it.

     

    Related Korea Blog posts:

    Korea’s Greatest Living Novelist Never Published in English: Introducing Kim Hoon and His War on Abstraction

    The Book of Jiyoung: An Explosively Controversial Korean Feminist Novel Comes Out in English

    The Making of a Korean Monster: Kim Sagwa’s Bloody High-School Novel Mina

    Sex, Surreality, and Social Conformity: Han Kang’s The Vegetarian Sprouts Onto the U.S. Literary Landscape

    Why Do Koreans Love Herman Hesse’s Demian Above All Other Western Novels?

     

    Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin’s Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

     

    Image Source: Literature Translation Institute of Korea

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