Saturday, August 05, 2017

An Old Review Now Noted

How did I miss Deborah Smith's article of four years ago, namely, "The Uses of Uncertainty: Dalkey Archive's 'Library of Korea' Series" (The Quarterly Conversation, Issue 34, Winter 2014) - and especially how did I miss her review of The Soil that appears in that article? Follow this link (to the article link).
Ask any Korean or Korean literature student who wrote the first Korean novel, and the answer will almost certainly be Yi Kwang-su, whose career spanned the turn of the 20th century and witnessed the introduction of European literature into Korea, often via translations into Japanese, the language of Korea's colonizers at the time. The literary soil into which these new influences were being planted consisted of a rich Confucian heritage of lengthy poems and prose romances written in classical Chinese. Yi Kwang-su, among others, found in the novels of Zola and the stories of Maupassant an exciting new palette of potential techniques for creating an entirely new kind of literature, one more suited to the specific social, cultural, and political circumstances which Korea found itself in (the wrench of industrializing modernity was felt as even more of a brutal upheaval given that it was being implemented by a colonial power who also sought to suppress Korean cultural identity). However, in early novels like The Soil (serialized in the Donga Ilbo from 1932-33) we can also find intriguing traces of the earlier tradition. There's a confusingly large array of bit-part characters, and major characters who are (initially, at least) not so much fully rounded personalities as names appended to a list of characteristics, often corresponding to established types familiar to anyone versed in the Chinese classics.
Many more paragraphs follow, but let me correct one point, namely, that Yi Kwang-su wrote not the first Korean novel, but the first modern Korean novel. There is a difference. Deborah Smith, by the way, is the translator of the Korean novel Vegetarian.



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