“In a word, she is ordinary. Ordinary not in the sense of average, but in the sense of a nonspecific majority among which it would be meaningless to attempt to make a distinction. One cannot conclude that she is not beautiful: ordinary beauty, that degree of beauty possessed by most young women, is also possessed by her, but she is beautiful not because she is a young woman but because she is ordinary. Possibly because hers is an impersonal ordinariness that no one could hate, too strong to be lorded over by a queen yet not strong enough to be pursued outside of a crowd. If her ordinariness were to have a character, that character would be darkness.” p.23
—Bae Suah, Milena, Milena, Ecstatic (trans. Deborah Smith)
There is a quality to Bae Suah’s flat affectless prose that I find compelling. I remember the same feeling when I read Nowhere to be Found. This is another story of hollow people and oscillating passages that build up to very little. I must read more of her work.
It isn’t possible to read books like Marek Bieńczyk’s Transparency without seeing traces of Sebald, rather like the lost Da Vinci that might lie hidden behind the Vasari mural in Florence. Bieńczyk’s form of literary historiography weaves autobiography and literary text in a discursive fusion that mostly works, though it gets a touch soggy through the middle section.
Sebald asked “what is literature good for?” and answered his question: “Perhaps only to help us to remember, and teach us to understand that some strange connections cannot be explained by causal logic.” Bieńczyk and Bae Suah’s literary sensibilities appear sharpened on this whetstone, writers that roam outside the narrow margins of genre. Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found and Bieńczyk’s Transparency, though different in technique, share this reflexive subtlety that evokes a dreamlike response long after you’ve replaced the book on the shelf.
These books that reject the grinding repetition of the conventional novel are what I seek out when I read, texts that offer greater freedom than the swindle offered by tired novels that insist on controlling their readers with outdated literary devices.
There are my old chestnuts, those writers to whom I’ve become attached. They are sufficient that I could just read and reread their works till the end, but something compels me to seek out new voices, or those that are new to me.
Three decent train journeys provided enough time to be disappointed with Max Frisch’s Man in the Holocene, not for its writing, which was quiet, meticulously observed and refreshingly bleak, but for its conservatism. It began as a novel about a man pottering about his house pondering the storm outside, how we are eroded by age and disenchantment, and how minuscule we are in time and space, and turned into the recounting of a perilous journey. The ending unspeakably compromised what started as a tale of the utmost simplicity. Of course, there is nothing inherently wrong with Frisch’s story if this sort of novel amuses you, just simply not to my taste.
The coal-dark humour of Bae Suah’s Nowhere to Be Found is far closer to the complicated depths I seek in apparently simple novels. Bae Suah’s characters inhabit the meaningless of existence, echoing TS Eliot’s hollow men, painfully aware that “life is very long, ” and that things more often end “not with a bang but a whimper.” I wanted this book to go on for so much longer than its hundred pages, with its loops, its repetition and its uncertainties.