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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

A Greater Music

Bae Suah

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To purchase A Greater Music

Title: A Greater Music
Author: Bae Suah
Genre: Novel
Written: 2003 (Eng. 2016)
Length: 128 pages
Original in: Korean
Availability: A Greater Music - US
A Greater Music - UK
A Greater Music - Canada
  • Korean title: 에세이스트의 책상
  • Translated by Deborah Smith

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Our Assessment:

B : much that impresses, but doesn't quite come together

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 22/8/2016 .
World Lit. Today . 11-12/2016 Melissa Beck

  From the Reviews:
  • "The structure bedevils as much as it illuminates, but ultimately, this book serves as an articulate and moving reflection of how life can stop "for a time in a certain fluid place between past and future."" - Publishers Weekly

  • "A Greater Music is another addition to a growing body of literature that explores the idea that human sexuality is more pliable and fluid than the rigid labels we assign to it." - Melissa Beck, World Literature Today

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       A Greater Music feels very much like an author's autobiographical working-through of a specific period in her life -- as did Bae Suah's earlier work, Nowhere to Be Found. Here, the young South Korean narrator revisits time spent in Germany, and two relationships she had there -- with student-metalworker Joachim, a modern-day proletarian, and the sickly (more) intellectual M.
       The narrator begins the novel by describing her relationship to (especially classical) music, noting also that even as it appealed to her in her youth more than, for example, music by the pop group ABBA, she set it aside in favor of what her classmates listened to, deferring: "to the tastes and opinions of the group". Attempts to 'fit in' aren't particularly successful; the narrator remains very much an island to herself, as is frequently made clear in her story -- most obviously in one of the few crowds scenes, when she attends a New Year's party with Joachim (and they find themselves riding off practically alone in a tram at midnight -- under (fairly harmless but certainly loud and bright firecracker-)assault much of the way).
       Initially, M was the narrator's language-tutor, but their relationship quickly developed into something more serious and intimate, and they even lived together. Eventually, the narrator had to decide on her future -- whether she wanted to remain with (or rather return to: there are immigration-hurdles) M in Germany, or whether they should go their separate ways.
       Language and literature always were significant for the narrator. She notices how many -- and what -- books people have, for example, and having learned to read before she started school she was ahead of the other kids and often followed her own reading rather than the teacher in class (again setting her apart). In Germany, she must deal with a new language, which she is not particularly comfortable in yet. She does find some books -- including one by Jakob Hein (yes, the son of leading East German author Christoph (Willenbrock, etc.)), an author that Bae Suah would go on to translate (a somewhat unusual choice -- it doesn't seem to have occurred to anyone to translate his work into English, for example, and it seems extremely unlikely anyone would bother).
       Music stands in contrast to language. The narrator mentions that she studied music as a child but soon gave it up, and that she was: "utterly devoid of musical talent". (In a nice touch, she gives up piano and violin lessons: "in favor of learning a computer programming language".) Yet a fascination with music remains, and she contrasts it with language and literature at even the most personal level:

     If only M had taught me music rather than language. [...] If our conversations had revolved around music, rather than language, then I might never have learned anything about her, or the opposite, ended up knowing everything there was to know. She would have been either utterly beyond my grasp, or utterly in my possession.
       A Greater Music is an effective novel of the ebbs and flows of relationships and time, the narrator's looking back a realistic back and forth across a longer period of time that is now jumbled and overlapping. Much remains unexplained, as the narrator describes some events in detail (taking care of Joachim's dog while he is away) while glossing over much else (like the nature and extent of her relationship with Joachim).
       The narrator is very much a writer -- a person for whom the act of writing is essential, and one that allows her to come to terms with her reality and experiences. Experiences in a foreign language -- with the limitations that imposes, of understanding and communication -- as well as the relationship with music, which she has even less command over than language, and yet which also affect her at a fundamental level, reinforce the idea of her trying to get a grasp on things through her writing.
       While the narrator in Nowhere to Be Found drifts similarly, A Greater Music feels both slacker and more ambitious -- but doesn't come together as neatly. Much about it impresses, but it perhaps still feels too close to being in the working-through process. So also the closing paragraph begins: "At my desk I continue to write", as she has not yet reached any finality.

- M.A.Orthofer, 4 October 2016

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A Greater Music: Reviews: Other books by Bae Suah under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Korean author Bae Suah (배수아) was born in 1965.

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