Research Seminar: ‘Middle-brow Modernism: Irish Writers and The New Yorker in the Mid-Twentieth Century’ by Dr Yen Chi Wu.

This semester Dr Yen Chi Wu presented a paper outlining the culture around publishing in The New Yorker according to twentieth century Irish writers. Many writers saw The New Yorker as an affront to art – seeing it as low quality, whereas others celebrated it. He mentioned many names I am familiar with – John McGahern (whose novel Amongst Women I read in undergrad); Michael McLaverty (whose novel Call My Brother Back was my aunt’s favourite book when she was growing up as it was set in the same neighbourhood in West Belfast where she grew up), Frank O’Connor (I’m from Cork, what can I say?), and Brian Friel (one of my favourite playwrights!) to name a few. However, Dr Wu’s research was refreshing as he primarily focused on the publications of Irish women writers of the mid twentieth century. Shamefully, I had only heard of these women in passing. I had never read any of their works.

            One of the writers that Dr Wu focused on was Mary Lavin, and he detailed her short story ‘In a Café’ which she published in The New Yorker on the thirteenth of February 1960. It was originally a story set in Winter, but it was adapted to suit its Spring/Valentine’s Day debut. The cover art of the edition of The New Yorker that this story was printed in showcased a cartoon of identical men, in identical suits, buying identical heart shaped boxes for their wives. A not so subtle jab at the monotony of love in a capitalist society. The story is about a widowed woman who meets a painter at a café whose hands remind her of her late husband’s. What struck me most about this piece was a line that Dr Wu quoted from it – “I’m lonely, are you?” (Lavin 1960). The widow asks this of the painter while they are alone together. Loneliness is a feeling I know well. It has been an acquaintance of mine throughout my single-parent/only-child childhood and well into my more social adult years. Loneliness, to me, has a sort of double meaning. It is at once a wistful ache and a great comfort. I have been lonely in many ways. Lonely. Alone. In solitude. Isolated. Tranquil. At peace. Loneliness is what instigated my obsession with literature and writing in the first place. But, of course, it’s so much more than that. Loneliness is a kind of driving force for me. It is also a haven. And it can be a hell, sometimes, too.

Throughout my life, I haven’t come across many definitions or artistic expressions of loneliness that resonate with my own. That is, until I started listening to the music and reading the translated lyrics and literature of musician and novelist, poet and artist Kim Jonghyun. I have found that my own conceptions of time and loneliness mirror his in intimate ways. In his song ‘Lonely’ which he released in his 2017 album The Collection: “Story Op. 2”, he wrote the words “loneliness and misery; the difference is only memory”. I have spent so much time pondering this specific quote. Which is attached to memory? Loneliness or misery? Perhaps, it is misery that is attached to memory. Loneliness, somehow, feels more attached to the future and the present, in my experience, than it does to the past. Loneliness, longing, melancholy, peacefulness, contentedness. These could all be synonyms to me. And these words are all emotionally rooted in the present and the future, in my experience, and reach past memory towards something more emotional. Loneliness is more complex than misery. Loneliness aches where misery throbs. Loneliness is sore where misery hurts.

“2015-09-18_bumtoshine__G9oaz4Oh6U_2” by palu_s is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

            I am currently learning Korean, and something I would love to do when (if?) I become fluent in the language, is to translate Jonghyun’s novel Skeleton Flower: Things That Have Been Released and Set Free into English. I would also like to translate his lyrics, his poetry, into English, too. From what I can understand of his writing thus far through my limited Korean and through reading informal fan-translations of his lyrics – Jonghyun was no mere lyricist, but a poet of literary merit and depth. However, in many of the informal translations that I’ve read, the literal translations eclipse the artistry of his use of language and the ways he examines abstract concepts in his lyrics. I hope, as a fellow creative, that my future translations can do his literary output justice. Over the winter break, I plan to reread his novel and to write a blog post on it. It is a quiet, introspective, and lonely novel. And it is so, so beautiful. So, while Mary Lavin’s meditation on loneliness doesn’t, perhaps, intersect with my primary research, it does complement the research I plan to do in translation studies in the future. In relation to my literary research, it would be interesting to examine the intersections between loneliness and grief, particularly in the aftermath of death. This is something I write about often in my creative writing, and it is something I would like to examine in the writing of others. For example, suicide is a recurring theme in James Baldwin’s works. While Baldwin doesn’t particularly focus on the act itself, he often focuses on the way grief manifests for those who live through losing a loved one to suicide. I am interested in the theme of suicide in literature but have not yet approached researching it to any deep degree. At the moment, my meditations on suicide have been confined to my own creative writing.

So, if you have a spare moment this evening, listen to one of Jonghyun’s solo albums on Spotify, or perhaps watch one of his live performances on Youtube that I have linked below. And yes, to those of you who are unfamiliar with Korean pop music and are wondering… These ARE live vocals.

Watch Jonghyun and Taeyeon perform ‘Lonely’ live here:

Watch Jonghyun sing a verse from ‘A Gloomy Clock’, a song he wrote for Korean superstar IU, here:

Watch Jonghyun perform the title song, ‘Crazy (Guilty Pleasure)’, of his first album BASE here:

Watch Jonghyun perform with his band SHINee here (This is their debut song ‘Replay’ performed eight years after it was initially released):

Works Cited

JONGHYUN. “Lonely.” JONGHYUN The Collection “Story Op. 2,” 2017. Spotify.

“Lonely” by JONGHYUN translation credit:

Kim, Jonghyun. Skeleton Flower: Things That Have Been Released and Set Free. Seoul, South Korea, 2015. (Unofficial Translation by sigani_jina on Archive of Our Own:

Lavin, Mary. ‘In a Café’. The New Yorker, February 1960, p 32.

Featured Image Credit: : “2015-10-20_bumtoshine__ncC5qMvW4w_3” by palu_s is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 

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