The Literary Salon in Le Bon Marché Department Store – Jin Lee, Part 4

This week, we’ll finish up volume 1 of Kyung-sook Shin’s historical novel, Jin Lee (신경숙의《리진》) and move on to volume 2 of the book series. One thing of note about East Asian novels is that, unlike in the US where we have no problem carrying around a 700 or 800 page novel in one volume, the East Asians like to keep their books no larger than 300 to 400 pages, hence you get long novels split into multiple volumes though the book technically isn’t a series in the classical sense. That’s the situation here with this novel.

The title of Chapter 6 of part 2 is “Take Me to the Louvre.” The opening letter is dated December of 1888, and it primarily talks about treaty negotiations for the Paris Bank, a discussion of French books and architecture in the context of Joseon, and a visit by King Gojong to the French military barracks. The main chapter then delves into Jin’s fascination with French novel Les Miserables and its focus on poor people and orphans. She has read it three times. She’s adjusting to life at the French Legation and immersing herself in French and Western culture there, including the viola and pipe organ, ancient Greek heroic tales and Collin’s souvenir photos. Collin wants to take a photo of their wedding when they have it in France to send back to Joseon for those who can’t attend.

During this time, Okgyun Kim sent an assassin to kill the Queen, but she is only wounded and is cared for at a Western-style hospital.

Jin has also been spending a fair amount of time with Mrs. Seo at Missionary Blanc’s orphanage, and there’s another scene where they help the children wash up and get dressed. When Collin shows up at the orphanage garden, they discuss taking commemorative photos. A student named Jongu Hong was preparing at that time to study abroad in Paris and came to meet with Collin in person to get his help. Hong plans on studying law and needs a letter of introduction. I think he takes a photo of Jongu Hong, though Hong is rather suspicious of the whole process. He also reacts rather distastefully seeing a court lady living at the French Legation.

Missionary Blanc hears about Jin and Collin’s impending marriage and seems a little upset by it. He seems to think it is rather sudden, and he reflects on what he would have wanted for her and Yeon Kang. Blanc had hoped Yeon Kang would go into the priesthood, but instead he chose to be a court musician, and now Jin is going from being a court lady to the wife of the French minister.

Later when Collin and Jin are alone, they have a tender moment. Jin lists all of the famous places in Paris that she wants him to take her to, such as the Louvre, Notre Dame, the Opera House and other landmarks. This finishes volume 1 of the novel. In volume 2, the storyline will turn much darker.

Part 3 of the novel starts off volume two, and it is six chapters long. It parallels part 2, starting off each chapter this time with a letter from Jin in France to the Queen in Joseon, which I think is a very nice structural touch to the novel.

The first chapter in this part is “The Literary Salon.” I have to admit this volume is really taxing my Korean since there are so many French names that are unrecognizable in hangul. It’s slowing me down considerably since I can’t quite figure them out from the sound and need to research them. One thing I’ve noticed is that the nasal ending n in French words is transcribed into Korean as ng, which makes it even harder to recognize.

At the start of chapter 1, Jin is sitting at a desk trying to write to the Queen and smells the scent of bread baking somewhere downstairs. She has been in Paris 5 months with Collin, and Christmas is a month away. The text describes her in Western dress, including a corset, and with a Western hairstyle. She uses a quill pen and ink, or at least some sort of dipping pen, I’m not entirely sure of the make since that’s a pretty esoteric subject, but in contrast Joseon would probably be using brushes to write.

She attempts four letters to the Queen. The first one is a description of Paris, some mention of Napoleon’s Europe and new inventions in Europe such as trains and steamships. Her second attempt describes the port of Marseille and Christmas preparations, which include sampling wine. She compares Marseille to Jemulpo back in Joseon as well as the harbors of Singapore, Alexandria and others. She talks more about literature and novelists, including how she read The Count of Monte Cristo where the character Edmond Dantes is connected to Marseille’s port. This part also describes the gypsies, white men and women and others at the port, which makes it a direct parallel with the opening scenes of volume 1 where the port of Jemulpo is described. This is another nice structural touch to the novel.

The third letter she tries to write to the Queen describes Collin falling ill with a fever and his hospitalization. Her fourth and final attempt describes how she is studying French culture, including philosophy, history, literature and music. She contrasts Missionary Blanc’s activities back home with the way people don’t even go to church in France.

Their servant Vincent brings her red roses from the garden, and they discuss how there will be a literary salon at the reading room of Le Bon Marché Department Store. Here are some details on this famous store:

This literary salon is sponsored by a Mr. Plaseur or something like that. I can’t find any translation of the name, and transliteration is tricky, so I’m guessing the French might look something like that. Here is the way it is written in Korean if anyone has a better idea of what it would be in French: 플라사르. She talks for a while with Vincent about this department store. Vincent came from Collin’s home village of Plancy, and he wanted to work there as a cashier when he first came to Paris.

When they arrive at the department store, Jin finds Collin waiting for her at the reading room along with Mr. Plaseur and his wife. Everyone has heard that Collin came back to France with a wife from the east, and there is some controversy over her French language skills. The room is full of the scent of white sandalwood, and Collin asks her if she doesn’t like it. It is something they use back in Joseon, however, and she doesn’t object. Jin spends some time talking with Mr. Plaseur’s wife, who wonders if Jin is Japanese then Qing Chinese. Jin answers that she is from Joseon, but Mrs. Plaseur doesn’t know where that is. Jin has to explain to everyone there where that is, and they conclude Joseon must be like Italy. Her dancing comes up, but she didn’t prepare to do the spring nightingale dance.

While she is mingling, Jin notices a man dressed in Joseon clothing. It turns out to be Jongu Hong, the exchange student who visited them at the French Legation before they left Joseon. They speak for a bit with Collin anxiously looking on, but then the salon begins a discussion about Rousseau’s Confessions, and Mr. Plaseur introduces author Guy de Maupassant! The room is silent while they listen to Maupassant speak. Eventually, he wants Jin to address the room, and it is decided that she and Jongu Hong will translate French books into Korean. The chapter ends with Jin mentioning that she wants to visit Notre Dame Cathedral, but they keep mentioning the morgue, which I am not familiar with. Here is a description of what they could be referring to:

I have to admit that I don’t know much about French literature other than just knowing the names of important writers and their works, but this story takes place fairly close to Maupassant’s death. I also can’t say how the themes of this novel have been influenced by the French works the author references, but there might very well be something significant there.

Part four of a six part series.

About Lady Xiansa

Lady Xiansa is a writer, linguist, artist, and dancer. She has been a core volunteer for the Silk Screen Asian Arts Organization from 2007 to 2018 and has provided content for Pitt JCS anime events since 2011. She has taught both ESL and Beginning Korean. Her gothic horror novel, The Haunting at Ice Pine Peak, won the Bronze Award for Young Adult Fiction E-book in the 2016 Moonbeam Children's Book Awards and earned the 2018 Story Monsters Approved Seal in the Tween Category.
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