Art That Makes You Feel Sick: Bae Suah’s A Greater Music, Translated by Deborah Smith

Music desk (3) (600x341)
Photo by Nicholas Schoggen

Bae Suah’s 에세이스트의 책상, translated into English by Deborah Smith and available as A Greater Music from Open Letter, has a wintry feel to it.

To be fair, much of the book does take place in winter. But while A Greater Music covers a number of years and therefore seasons, it’s winter that casts its pervasive blanket over the (biased?) snow-white pages.

The narrator, a Korean woman who spends time in Germany on a visa, even remarks on the strangeness of a place she and her male companion frequent being called Winter Park, as this park exists in other seasons, too, of course.

A Greater Music is, in a way, about blankness—more precisely, limited viewpoints and invisibility. It explores, among other ideas, that which seems to be the antithesis of the most clichéd cliché: that the most important thing in life is the present, the here and now.

A mixed-up but fairly accessible work, Bae’s novel suggests, in the form of what we might call a personal essay, the notion that the present doesn’t exist.

It explores this idea, and others of time, place and relationships, through the out-of-order story of our narrator. At one point, she falls in love with her German teacher, a sickly woman referred to only as M. At another, she’s visiting Joachim, a man she knew in Germany, after having broken things off with M and returned to Korea for a while.

Much is hidden from us as humans, much is mysterious, and we live and die through mysterious means—A Greater Music seems to be getting at all of this. It also seems to be hiding certain parts of the narrative from the audience, as details that we normally expect to find in a story involving love and loss, whether in literature or conversation, feel deliberately omitted.

The most obvious example of this is probably in the treatment of romantic relationships, which remain undefined in terms of the way we usually categorize them. Joachim is referred to as the narrator’s “on-off boyfriend” on the publisher’s page and her “current love interest” in a World Literature Today review. These seem like good educated guesses, but they may challenge your interpretation of the words “boyfriend” and “love.” The biggest hint that something like an intimate relationship exists between Joachim and the narrator is the fact that she refers to their dog, Benny, as “our dog.”

Aside from this detail, they could be roommates. It’s clear they’re living together in the “current” timeline, that they eat their meals and do chores in each other’s presence, but this only points to some kind of domestic arrangement with couplelike considerations. Sex, romance and even anything resembling real tenderness are left out. This doesn’t mean none of these phenomena exist, of course, or that any of their existence is dependent on that of the others. But in a place where we might expect to see them, the story neither confirms nor denies them.

Whatever else he is or isn’t, Joachim is kind of a jerk. He’s more cold cynic than abusive malcontent, however, and he seems to desire the narrator’s approval in at least some respects. In any case, the large swaths of blankness in the narrative feed the assumption that there are parts of their relationship that simply aren’t revealed to us.

Insofar as a feeling of intimacy exists between the two, though, it seems to exist in a negative space. The fact that he shares with her his unoriginal and gloomy views on existence (“we’re all going to die”/”art is useless” drivel) hint that he trusts her not to dismiss these views too harshly. It could be that these two characters trust the blankness in each other, that their relationship is based on a shared agreement to not ask or expect too much of the other.

If there’s a lack of warmth, there’s also a lack of tension. If Joachim is at any point jealous of the narrator’s apparently more nuanced relationship with M, he’s never shown expressing this directly. While it seems likely that someone like Joachim would simply channel feelings of bitterness and jealousy into his everyday disposition, striking back at the other person with matter-of-fact accusations, the depiction of this possibility—as when he gets angry that the narrator wants to leave a party early, cutting short his precious supply of free food and alcohol—feels like an afterthought.

By comparison to M—who bonds with the narrator over language, as her language teacher, and over music—Joachim himself feels like an afterthought. He seems to exist as perhaps a kind of default fallback partner for the narrator.

Her relationship with M, on the other hand, seems fraught with high stakes, and richer in emotion and intellect. Love and intimacy is never in question—though M is portrayed at times as being a colder person—only sex. The unanswered question of whether or not M and the main character physically have sex doesn’t necessarily seem to have any bearing on the unquestionable jealousy the narrator feels when M claims to have slept with a man they both know.

Still, with Joachim for juxtaposition, we may be led to consider that a deeper level of love and possessiveness—and maybe even what we perceive as “intimacy”—doesn’t necessarily lead to knowing one person better than another over time.

Much of the text in A Greater Music is devoted to phenomena other than personal connections. The narrator describes in detail her relationship to music, reading and education, the latter consisting of a pages-long rant that reminded me of my own experience being thrown into public school after a year in Montessori.

These reflections, which combine experience, opinion and philosophy, often read more like an essay than a novel, and they exert their influence over the text to the point of saturation.

In fact, 에세이스트의 책상 has been translated from Korean as “the essayist’s desk,” and this original title was taken from a completely different part of the novel than the title A Greater Music. I’ve worked in word-based marketing over the past couple years, and so it’s hard for me to see “changing” a translated title as an injustice these days, but I do think it could serve the reader well to know this change had been made.

Thinking of the original title seems to appropriately shrink and simplify the scope of the book—it’s more about absence than presence, and doesn’t represent any kind of grand, sweeping gesture. In fact, the title itself represents a concept the narrator argues against.

When the title phrase appears in the beginning, the narrator remarks on its oddity. You can’t have greater music, she argues, any more than you can have greater death. Music isn’t any more quantifiable than death. While the reviewers at Pitchfork would no doubt disagree, this point doesn’t so much directly contradict common cultural understanding as scrape against it in an uncomfortable, tertiary way.

I’ve always disliked the idea of saying that art should discomfit, even as I continue to chase discomfiting art. I’m probably cringing away from the popular stereotype of the artist-as-inevitably-cruel-and-pompous-person, represented from one angle by Olivier on the TV series Six Feet Under, who claims to know when art is good because it makes him want to throw up. Olivier is a largely one-dimensional character who ultimately comes off as enslaved by his own limited-use, aggressive logic—not entirely unlike Joachim. Still, I can’t deny that I buy his argument to an extent.

I know A Greater Music is good because it makes me feel the temporary discomfort of the uninitiated, something like the fear of unfamiliar heights or drinking strong espresso, a comparison also touched on by one Amazon reviewer.

On the surface, there’s nothing to warrant this. Stylistically, A Greater Music could be an artier personal essay, the type of reading you’re supposed to savor over your lunch rather than the type that makes you lose your lunch. The most potentially horrifying part is a near-drowning experience, and that’s described more in dreamlike than visceral detail.

However, Bae’s novel acknowledges the white spaces in the margins of reality, which is understandably enough to make anyone feel a little woozy.

One thought on “Art That Makes You Feel Sick: Bae Suah’s A Greater Music, Translated by Deborah Smith

  1. I like the notion of “the white spaces in the margins of teality” as another kind of (personal) winter.


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