In this section, we examine the lives of Korean writers and the nature of their works by sorting them into three generations: the first wave from the 1920s to the 1960s, the second wave from the 1970s to the 1980s, and the third wave from the 1990s to the present.
The Aesthetics and Modernity of Korean Künstlerroman: Artist Novels
Artist novels refer to fiction in which the artist’s journey forms the main part of the narrative. They may be considered a subgenre of the Bildungsroman or “intellectual” novel in their treatment of the artist’s inner conflict and growth as a character. Novels about writers, in particular, have always formed a core part of the artist novel genre in their autobiographical depiction of the artist’s world. The archetype of the genre in Western literature concerns the artist’s struggle between reality and the artistic ideal, depicting the growth of the artist thereof. Since modern times, artists have had to contend with feelings of inadequacy, self-loathing, and exclusion in the struggle between their artistic desires and the demands of everyday life. In the process of overcoming these obstacles, the protagonist comes to terms with how an artist may exist as a member of society, and thereby comes closer to the question of what art is in itself.
The Korean prototype of the artist novel can be traced back to a handful of short stories published in the early 1920s in literary magazines such as Creation, White Tide, and Wasteland. Stories about artists or aspiring artists revealed a budding tendency to favor aestheticism and escapism, while stories questioning the meaning of art itself also began to appear. As the 1920s were lean times for most Korean artists and writers, the humdrum reality and struggle of the intelligentsia was an oft-depicted subject. Most importantly, these early artist novels show writers questioning the role of art and the artist in the modern world, or pondering the terms and conditions of modernity in art.
Kim Dong-in’s “Sonata Appassionato” (1930) is a typical example of the early modern artist novel in Korea. The story revolves around genius composer Baek Seong-su, who resorts to arson, necrophilia, and murder to boost his creative inspiration, and the music critic who seeks to have him committed to a mental hospital so he may avoid being tried and executed as a criminal. The music critic’s reasoning that it would be a sin to execute an artistic genius according to laws written for mere mortals is a gross exaggeration of the Romantic ideal of “genius.” For Kim Dong-in, the concept of artist-as-genius elevates the artist to an absolute being. Depicting lunacy as the spring of creativity only adds to the mystique of this type of artist. A key distinction in modern art is the recognition that art and artists are autonomous from the values of mainstream society. In Kim’s case, however, the autonomy of art becomes an end in itself, an example of enlightenment that exists in a rarified, privileged sphere of its own.
Pak Taewon’s “A Day in the Life of Kubo the Novelist” (1934) is a classic example of an autobiographical artist novel. A day in the life of the eponymous Kubo forms the basis of this novella. Told through the eyes of Kubo as he meanders about Gyeongseong (colonial Seoul), the reader takes in such modern spaces as the bustling streets, the tram, coffeehouses, and Gyeongseong Station. The narrative camera pans over all the spaces where Kubo tries and fails to find happiness, eventually dragging himself back home to his mother’s domain. Kubo the writer is faced with the choice of continuing his lonely perambulations of the city or giving in to the demands of everyday life. Stuck in between the modernity of giving in to worldly, everyday concerns, and the aesthetic, avant-garde modernity of refusing to do so, he struggles to find himself. Experimental as this piece is, Kubo’s adventures never lead him in the direction of confronting the contradictions inherent to a colonial society. Unlike the traditional Korean literati, the modern writer confronts the dual task of rejecting the tyrannical capitalist order while still finding ways to integrate within its sphere. Moving from the spectacle of modern urbanity and anonymous masses back to his physical and inner self, the roaming eye of Kubo heralds...