A Mediation of Water: The Bathtub by Lee Seung-U

  • onJanuary 4, 2017
  • Vol.34 Winter 2016
  • byJean-Claude de Crescenzo
La Baignoire (The Bathtub)
Tr. Choi Mikyung and Jean-Noël Juttet

A man kisses a woman by the sea in an exotic country: this is the pretext in Lee Seung-U’s The Bathtub for an act of memory that goes far beyond simply recalling a point in time. When the central character returns to collect his things from the woman’s apartment a few months later, he remembers these moments of his existence. Staring at a bathtub that has always intrigued him, he recalls the ocean, inextricably linked to the kiss, and re-examines his feelings. Lee Seung-U is creating a body of work—weaving, book after book, a world which we find each time to be “the same, but different.” His themes cut across his oeuvre, illuminating identical emotions from varying angles, so that we may call him not just a novelist, but a writer.

The movement of life—the kiss by the sea—is replaced by the immobility of death, the stagnating water in the bathtub, where the narrator sits and remembers, seeking to lose himself entirely in memory. The bathtub is a continuation of those enclosed spaces which all Lee Seung-U’s narrators attempt to flee, a coffin from which the time of memory emerges. This memory, neither joyful nor painful, is akin rather to anamnesis: it is the place from which our consciousness is constructed, the way we each reconstruct the origins of our malaise. When did the road fork in two? When did we become the “other”? When did language gain primacy over the body? The Bathtub contains numerous pivotal moments, used by Lee Seung-U to structure his work, like the pressing questions: How can we love if we do not wish to be loved ourselves? How can we allow love the power to place the ego in a position of dependency from which it will never escape?

But the most strikingly original aspect of the novel, even if others have previously touched on the same theme, is the role played by the body. In The Bathtub, it is a medium that both unites and separates the two characters. Often repressed by illness or confinement in the author’s other works, here, through the brushing of hands or the sway of a dance, the body becomes a central component in the relationship that develops between the narrator and the woman. But this body is incapable of self-fulfilment, for it is incapable of desiring or being desired. Language must compensate for the body’s failings—but language can achieve nothing. The body is therefore both censor and censored. No sooner is it conceived of as a means of communication than it is attacked: “You (the narrator) are one of those people who are afraid of any form of communication that relies on the body’s involvement.” An object of disgust during lovemaking, the body, for better or worse, takes the place of language. And while the narrator’s wife pays the price of this horror of the body, the situation is entirely different with the body of the young woman, “which he understands (as much as he does his own body)” where he had failed to understand language.

The supreme contradiction of this character is that communication, sentiments and emotions can only pass through his body. But when the body does act as a conduit for these emotions, it oversteps its role and the narrator immediately returns it to its proper place, for the only vehicle for communication is language. There is no way out, either for the body or for language. The two can never comfortably inhabit the same space at the same time: this could only happen in some distant future, and doubtless not in the time of Man.

Without a doubt, The Bathtub is Lee Seung-U’s darkest novel yet. It is a fundamentally pessimistic work, but of the paradoxical kind of pessimism, allowing us to glimpse the essence of being. Lee confirms as much to us in his preface to The Reverse Side of Life, albeit ambiguously: “So readers will read your story however they like. But you (the narrator) don’t seem to realize that it contradicts the very images it conjures up. If the people listening to your story form images that have nothing to do with it, then what is to be done?” This is the question posed endlessly by the author. Writing solves nothing, no more than reading does. All we can do is keep advancing through the morass. 


by Jean-Claude de Crescenzo
Publication Director, Keulmadang

Author's Profile

Lee Seung-U, a former student of theology, made his literary debut in 1981 with the novella A Portrait of Erysichthon. Throughout his career, Lee has maintained an interest in theological and metaphysical issues, which is reflected in his writing style that meticulously depicts the inner workings of the human soul. His works deal with questions about morals arising in quotidian life as well as more universal issues concerning God, salvation, and guilt. In particular, Lee’s novels since 2000 have inquired into the meaning of reality and the everyday, thereby bringing together the sacred and the secular, and the mind and the body. Published translations of his books include The Reverse Side of Life (Peter Owen, 2005), La vie rêvée des plantes (Gallimard, 2009), Ici comme ailleurs (Gallimard, 2013), and The Private Life of Plants (Dalkey Archive, 2015).