What I Like About Korean Literature

  • onNovember 14, 2014
  • Vol.11 Spring 2011
  • byJean Bellemin-Noël

There are many reasons for my interest in Korean literature, both as a reader and critic. It all began about 10 years ago, when I happened to become a “co-translator” with a former dissertation student I considered particularly smart. So it is thanks to Choe Ae-young that I became acquainted with Yi In-seong’s extremely innovative body of work: We translated Saisons d’exil (Paris, 2004) and then Interdit de folie (Paris, 2010), and I do see this writer as an artist of international stature.

With the support of the Daesan Foundation and the KLTI, we also translated and published a book of Jung Young-moon, Pour ne pas rater ma dernière seconde (Montreal, 2007), as well as some short stories by Kim Young-ha and Kim Kyung-wook. I personally produced critical studies on all the works we translated. I also reviewed some that had already been translated in French: La place by Choi In-hun and the pansori piece, “Byeon Gang-soe Jeon.” I came to enjoy writing these texts after I had the opportunity to supervise a special edition of the literary magazine Europe dedicated to South Korean contemporary writers (May 2010, No. 973) that was a valuable assessment of the present state of the nation’s literature. All of my studies were recently translated into Korean by Choe Ae-young and published in a book called Shock and Sympathy (Moonji, November 2010). Furthermore, I read the translation of different texts like Les descendants de Caïn by Hwang Sun-won, L’oiseau, la pierre tombale by Oh Jung-hee, Shim Cheong by Hwang Sok-yong, as well as several short story anthologies, not to mention of course the famous story of “Chunhyang.” They form a set that may be modest but have the advantage of variety. Still, it helped me get a more specific idea of what Korean literary fiction literature is.

I am attracted to it for three reasons. The main interest in some of the works I just mentioned is their historical nature: it made it possible for me to understand how people actually experienced the main political events that have formed today’s Korea (end of Japanese occupation, the Korean War in 1950-1953, and the clashes in April 1960 and June 1987). They also appealed to me from a social perspective: those stories helped me to discover and understand the permanency of some special features of traditional life in the soul of today’s Korean people, which is often quite different from how I had been formed by my origins. So there is both a source of information and an exotic charm to it.

But the main appeal to me is their purely aesthetic value. As I am first and foremost a belles lettres lover and a literary critic, what I notice most is of course the quality of the writing (i.e., what is new and different concerning the form, compared to the other cultures I know, in the West as well as in the great texts of the Far East).

On the one hand, I appreciate a certain kind of sensibility, which is quite specific and appears both in the literature and in the cinema (the latter being much better known in the West). I would describe it as the cleaving of two adjectives: extreme and contrasting. Flowers and violence, subtlety and realism, delicacy and rigidity, usually both at the same time. An ancestral cult of discretion makes it so that the tension between the opposites should never become visible, and indeed remain almost imperceptible. Whether you like it or not is a matter of personal taste.

On the other hand, I can notice that in today’s Korea, the quest or new literary expressions seems very promising and other literatures in the world would gain by getting to know it. I mentioned the name of Yi In-seong, who keeps inventing new writing techniques that ensure an exploration of the memory and the true feeling of things, in a deeper, stronger, and more accurate way than Marcel Proust, James Joyce, and Claude Simon did in their time. By age he belongs to the generation of avant-garde writers already acknowledged in the literary circle, but I could also mention younger writers whose daring work really impressed me. For the record: Kim Kyung-wook has a sense of humor that renews Kafka’s in a sharper tone; Pyun Hye-young doesn’t hesitate to present a totally squalid world in a very violent style; Han Yujoo expresses with a vague and disjointed language the conscience fluctuating when confronted by an unstable reality… All of this goes far beyond the present European modernity. I am full of admiration and therefore I try to share my enthusiasm through my translations.


 by Jean Bellemikn-Noël



* French Professor Jean Bellemin-Noël, taught for 40 years in Paris (Sorbonne, then Paris 8 University) and worked as a critic. He is the author of 20 books about French and European literature and of Shock and Sympathy (Seoul, Moonji, 2010). He also translated in French two German novels and, with Choe Ae-young, three Korean books. His French translation of an anthology of short stories, La terre des ancêtres by Lim Chul-woo, is to be published in the near future.