A Greater Music

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

A love triangle lies at the heart of A GREATER MUSIC, a novel by the Korean writer Bae Suah (ably translated by Deborah Smith). But there is nothing conventional about the narrative setup; on the contrary, Suah’s love story unfolds in a strange, elliptical, cerebral way that is quite remarkable.

We meet the unnamed heroine, a Korean girl residing in Germany, where she is taking language lessons from M., a thin, sickly, but handsome woman who is the “holder of a linguistics degree, easily taken up by whatever was novel...a voracious reader and culture obsessive who’d become unconsciously influenced by Asian mysticism.”

The Korean girl has a boyfriend, Joachim, a physics major who is desperate to make money and despises the kind of literature and music she admires. Unable to successfully teach her German, Joachim hooks her up with M., never suspecting she might fall in love with her.

Music figures strongly in the relationship between M. and her pupil: they listen to Beethoven and Shostakovich together, argue over the meaning of their symphonies and sonatas–“the greater music” of the book’s title. It’s not all spiritual between them, though; there is a sexual connection from the start, one which becomes surprisingly intense for the Korean girl. Having always thought of herself as being cool and aloof, she is shocked to learn just how possessive and vengeful she can become when M. confesses to a one-night stand with a mutual friend, Erich.

These story beats are not, however, the main elements of A GREATER MUSIC. What truly matters is the author’s way with words; her precise, evocative prose, her ability to create an offbeat, haunting world which is populated with quixotic yet believable characters. Suah keeps one distanced from them even as she manages to make one care for them. It’s quite a feat.

Underlying the action is the continual presence of death, even in the music to which the Korean girl listens–especially Shostakovich’s “Sonata for Viola and Piano” and Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s last two compositions. It’s music which deals with “the approach of death, when death cannot but become their theme and they themselves cannot but confess its omnipotence.”