I was asked an interesting question recently: do I think in words?
I don’t, unless I’m writing, in which case I’ll figure out a sentence before I type it. To me, this is proof of the inherent and necessary artificiality of writing: that it’s form forced on chaos. It hadn’t occurred to me that thinking in actual words was possible. A thought is a private sensation; language is how we translate that sensation publicly. This act of translation is not always effortless. We can be just as easily tongue-tied as eloquent. Sometimes I find myself knowing the feel of the word I’m looking for without knowing its shape, as though it’s teasing multiple senses: it’s on the tip of my tongue, just past the ends of my fingers, it sounds a bit like… It might reveal itself after a few long seconds, or I might resort to the dictionary or thesaurus, or go with a lesser synonym. It doesn’t feel good when this happens. It’s frustrating, occasionally frightening.
That unsettling feeling of reaching for language but being unable to grasp it is amplified in Han Kang’s Greek Lessons, a novel concerned with the loss of sensation and expression, first published in 2011 and recently translated from the Korean by Deborah Smith and Emily Yae Won. The book’s marketing blurb tells us it’s about ‘the saving grace of language’, an interpretation that’s altogether too wholesome. Greek Lessons veers closer to nightmare than it does to affirmation, which, as Han Kang admirers will know, is a feature and not a bug in her writing—we might think of the delirium in the International Booker Prize-winning novel The Vegetarian, or the naked horror of Human Acts, her superlative, multiperspectival telling of the Gwangju Uprising of 1980, both brilliantly translated into English by Deborah Smith.
Greek Lessons boldly reflects on the mediated nature of language, where words are an occasionally beautiful but largely poor substitute for sensation. But at the same time, Greek Lessons defines language as a necessary instrument if we hope to derive any meaning from experience. The tension between these disparate tenets makes this an uncomfortable read, one that is complex enough to be challenging, but never coherent enough to be truly discomforting.
In Han’s novel, an unnamed woman attends evening classes to learn Ancient Greek, taught by an unnamed man. The woman has lost the power of speech for the second time in her life: ‘This eternally incomplete, eternally unwhole word stirs deep within her, never reaching her throat.’ The last time, she regained her voice through parroting her French teacher, so she believes the unfamiliarity of Ancient Greek might unlock her speech. Her therapist thinks that because this loss of language occurred after her mother passed away and she lost custody of her son in a messy divorce, it’s a response to trauma. The woman is sure that there’s more to it.
Her lecturer, the unnamed man, is unaware that his student cannot speak, believing she’s merely withdrawn. He has his own secret troubles: his hereditary sight loss has progressed to the point where he can no longer move freely in low light. The woman’s sections in the novel are written in third person—aptly, as she is unable to articulate her perspective. The man’s are in the first person, largely in the form of letters to people from his past: the love interest who physically assaulted him, leaving him scarred; his sister, a confident vocalist favoured by his hateful father; a recently deceased childhood friend who once harboured feelings for him and with whom he debated philosophy. The man and woman are drawn together after slowly recognising each other’s pain. It’s at this point the reader might reasonably begin to doubt that marketing blurb about the ‘saving grace of language’, because, without wanting to give anything away, that’s an interesting take.
Connecting both protagonists’ narratives, and the relationships they recount, are patterns of loneliness, miscommunication, and regret. The man’s letters are unsent, or returned, or addressed to the dead. Having lived half of his life outside of his native Korea, he finds comfort and identity in Hangul and the written word, which he will lose as he loses his sight. He acknowledges that he and his students may be drawn to Ancient Greek because of their undemonstrative personalities: ‘… this language is a long-dead one and doesn’t allow for oral communication.’ The woman’s silence is not heartrending, but chilly; ice is deployed as a metaphor from one end of the novel to the other. When the man reflects on her muteness in a letter to his sister, it’s with despair. ‘There was something frightening in that woman’s silence, something terrible.’ Even here there is inarticulacy, vagueness. Something frightening. Something terrible. This letter is written and rewritten and scrapped and restarted, but every attempt at expression comes up short. Later, he tells the woman, ‘I was genuinely afraid that your silence would turn to actual death.’
As desperate as this is, Han offers no simple contrast between fluency and silence; expression is not necessarily the better option. Language is not presented as a remedy, even if its loss is disabling. Words are offered clumsily if they are offered at all. When the man blurted out his hopes for a future with his first love, he was violently rejected; his attempts to connect with his silent student are ignored. The woman remembers language not with longing but as something ‘that had pricked and confined her like clothing made from a thousand needles’. She’s as worried about being made to speak than never speaking at all, flinching at the thought of ‘a terrifying force’ that might ‘aspirate her voice from her lips and throat’.
In losing language the woman loses family, standing, and independence; she is considered inferior and incapable, almost inhuman. This injustice is sharply specific and plausible. The woman herself is less so. She’s constructed from worthy idiosyncrasies: uninterested in friendship or romance, deeply sensitive, her relationship to words synaesthetic. Her nightmares about language as a gravitational singularity stretch credibility. She ‘no longer thought in language’ but is nonetheless able to read and write to express herself; this inconsistency diminishes some of the novel’s power. The man is the more fully realised of the two, an overexplainer whose attraction to Plato, Borges, and philosophy that trivialises the visible world makes clear his terror of what’s to come. It’s easy to feel for him.
The turns in their relationship aren’t wholly convincing even as frantic acts born out of mutual loneliness. What redeems this is its emotional ambiguity; what comes across as inconsistency of character becomes unexpectedly strong when delivered in fragments of flickering perspective. A rush of portentous, dreamlike intimacy at the novel’s end could as easily be a terrible beginning as a sweet ending.
Writers are always battling the imperfection of language, trying to make it enough while knowing full well that no words truly describe music or colour or passion, and that, in a sense, every sentence is an exercise destined to fall short. Greek Lessons shows Han trying to make sense of the novelist’s responsibility, the point of it all. For writers, self-mythologising can feel like a duty in a world we worry doesn’t value what we do. It’s tempting for readers and writers alike to make words the cornerstones of a constructed self, and Greek Lessons will appeal to those readers enchanted by their own capacity for reading. But despite its focus on language, and the ways it might be interpreted as a writer’s self-mythologising, I’m not sure this book really means to win anyone over or advocate for the affirming potential of words. It’s too knotty, too enigmatic, too resistant to answers. It’s hard to argue with the ostensible message that language is all-important, life-or-death important, when you’re grasping for just the right word, or find yourself saying the wrong thing during a fraught conversation. But for Han, all-important doesn’t mean all-positive, and life-or-death is no simple dichotomy. Greek Lessons is a puzzle, like the speaking of a dead language or the act of simplifying sensation to pin it to a page. I’m unable to decide whether some truth about language has been excavated in the book—but also whether that was ever the point. As the woman writes on a piece of blank paper left on her therapist’s table, ‘It isn’t as simple as that’.