The Significance of Artistic Salvation
Artist novels share characteristics with Bildungsroman or coming-of-age stories in their treatment of an artist’s growth to maturity. According to scholar Cho Nam-hyun, the artist novel refers to “any work of fiction whose main plot concerns events related to artistic acts.” Artist novels in Korean literature date back to the 1920s. Works penned by authors such as Kim Dong-in, Hyun Jin-geon, Pak Taewon, and Yi Sang depict the mental struggle of artists coping with the dark reality of colonial-era Korea.
Independence and division of the country followed, with writers such as Jung Hansuk, Yi Chong-jun, and Choi In-hun picking up the baton of artist novelists, followed by such writers as Kim Seungok, Han Sung-won, Lee Ze-ha, Yu Ik-seo, Yi Mun-yol, Lee Oisoo, So Young-en, Kang Sok-kyong, and Kim Seung-hee. Artist novels in the 1970s and 80s were greatly influenced by Korea’s contemporaneous industrialization and urbanization. Out of these, works by Han Sung-won, Lee Ze-ha, Yu Ik-seo, Yi Mun-yol, and Kang Sok-kyong stand out in their direct treatment of the artist’s craft.
Han Sung-won’s Love, Sing Your Heart Out (2014) is a powerful example of the genre. Set against the seaside of Jeolla Province region, it draws freely upon local mannerisms and lore, featuring a cast of hard-bitten survivors. Inspired by the life of pansori singer Im Bang-ul, the novel focuses on the healing power of song in times of hardship and weariness. Han describes Im Bang-ul’s artistic journey in minute detail, from his first love to his encounters with the greatest singers of the time. The author’s characteristic focus on the aesthetics of han (unresolved sadness and resentment) recalls one of his earlier works, “Arirang Ballad” (1977), which connected the doleful strains of the Korean folk song Arirang with Korean history.
Lee Ze-ha’s artist novels feature offbeat, grotesque characters not often seen in Korean literature. His characters are at war with reality, showing their self-consciousness and transcendental romanticism. Thanks to the antics of these characters and his frequent use of fantastic symbolism, Lee’s work has been dubbed by some as “fantastic realism.” An oft-cited example of an artist novel is his “A Short Biography of Yuja” (1969) which depicts the artist’s anger and resistance against a corrupt world. The story looks back upon the turbulent life of artist Nam Yu-ja up to her premature death at the age of 28. The world of art is represented as everything pure and good standing up against the corruption and injustice of reality. The same author’s “A Wanderer Never Stops on the Road” (1985)—an artist novel in a broader sense— deals with the dormant bohemian, artistic yearnings of the everyman. The protagonist who drifts off after his wife’s death represents the desire of modern man to transcend reality.
Yu Ik-seo’s Minkkot Sori (1989) also focuses on a pansori artist. It belongs to the author’s pansori trilogy, beginning with Saenam Sori (1981), followed by Minkkot Sori and finally Sori Kkot (2009). Out of these, Minkkot Sori follows the life of daegeum (Korean fl...