A Greater Music
Book Reviews by Willard Manus

A love triangle lies at the heart of A GREATER MUSIC, the new novel by Korean writer Bae Suah (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 unusual.

We meet the unnamed heroine of the novel, a Korean girl living in Germany, where she is taking language lessons from M., a thin, sickly but handsome woman who is the “holder of a linguistic degree, easily taken up by whatever was novel...a voracious readers and culture obsesssive 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 is a complete philistine who 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, discuss 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 also a sexual connection, one which becomes surprisingly intense for the Korean girl. Having always thought of herself as being cool and aloof, in control of her emotions, 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.

Again, it should be emphasized that these story beats are not the main ingredients 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, one which is populated with quixotic yet three-dimensional characters. Suah keeps us distanced from them even as she manages to make us care for them. It’s quite a trick.

Underlying the working out of the love triangle is the continual presence of death. It’s there in the characters’ thoughts and in the music the Korean girl listens to, especially Shostakovich’s “Sonata for Viola and Piano,” and in Bernd Alois Zimmerman’s last two compositions. It’s music which dealt with “the approach of death, when death cannot but become their theme and they themselves cannot but confess its omnipotence.”

(Open Letter, 128 pages, $13.95 ppbk; openletterbooks.com)