The Avant-garde: Contextualizing Korean Literature and Experimentation

The history of modern Korean literature has been one that identifies the writing of literature with the question of what is literature. On the one hand the rise of realism and lyric poetry put verisimilitude before everything else; while on the other hand they treated the question of what it means to write as the subject of literature. Realism and lyric poetry are similar in that both seek to identify reality (or emotions) with the language of literature. Avant-garde literature in Korea departs from this mechanism of identity by objectifying the language and subject of literature, seeking instead to examine the difference that lies between the two. The writers in this school are associated with a strong commitment to writing in the modernist tradition.

This does not mean that their interest lies in modernism for its own sake. Questioning the identity of literature is also one of the most modern questions that can be asked about literature. The awakening of self-examination may be called one of the defining characteristics of modernism, and modern Korean literature took up that trend by writing about the question of writing itself. This involved proving in the most avant-garde language that the modern was the most realistic, rather than simply seeking out new experiments. In other words, these writers have avoided pitting modernity as a posturing against realism as an ideal. This aesthetic effort was made possible by the socio-cultural conditions of modern society that gave birth to a new generation of literary subjects as well as the cultural awareness that a freer literature could be the sharpest critic of reality.

One of the most iconic stories of the colonial period, Yi Sang’s “Wings” (1936), stands out as a symbolic milestone of this literary trend. This story may be understood as an examination of modern identity in an urban environment constructed by the forces of colonialism. The first-person narrator lives off the earnings of his wife, a prostitute, in a colonial city where personal and social spheres are completely detached from each other. The central aesthetic motive of the story lies in the desire to save the individual from the numbing and powerlessness that arise when a market economy takes over one’s life. Formerly paralyzed by ennui, childish self-isolation, and dependence, an outing to the city reveals to the protagonist how everything is ruled by the market and how ironic life is for everyone who lives there. Irony is the only way the “genius that became a stuffed specimen” in the story may expose the modernity of the city. He is the keenest observer within the colonial city as well as an introspective, self-destructive outsider thinking outside the city. By taking this sensation of being simultaneously fascinated by modernity and repelled by the modernity ushered in by colonialism to the extreme, Yi Sang is positioned at the avant-garde of literary modernity.

Seo Jeong-in emerged in the literary scene of the 1960s. His novel Talgung (1988) weaves together a series of interlinked stories. Seo’s unique style is central to examining his work, and that style is characterized by an ironic affinity for wordplay, anadiplosis, and anastrophe. The objective of this style is to dismantle the identification of ideas and reality. This in turn results from a tireless examination of reality and language. The book is divided into 300 sections that defy any attempt to summarize the plot, as all the characters appear in episodes of equal weight. In what may be called the confessions of a woman orphaned by the Korean War, the characters spend years wandering and repeating the process of escapes and returns. Their vivid exploits and realistic conversations make up most of the novel, in which through myriad relationships, Seo captures the tragic irony inherent to human life and society. The narrator’s remarkable self-perception and reserved, intelligent gaze discourages casual judgment. The aesthetic strength of this novel rests on its refusal to sacrifice any object or character to a dominant value or gaze.

Yi In-seong’s Seasons of Exile (1983) is a collection of interlinked stories by one of the most important writers of the 1980s in Korea. The stories of this ingenious collection may be read individually on their own merit or together as part of a novel. They follow the inner struggles of the first-person narrator on his way back to Seoul after being granted a compassionate discharge from the army because his ...