Greek Lessons

A Novel

About the Book

NEW YORK TIMES EDITORS’ CHOICE • A dazzling novel about the saving grace of language and human connection, from the “visionary” (New York Times Book Review) author of the International Booker Prize winner The Vegetarian

“Both a disquieting journey about the loss of sense and a return to the sensorium of touch and intimacy, Greek Lessons soars with sensuous and revelatory insight.”—Cathy Park Hong, author of Minor Feelings


A BEST BOOK OF THE YEAR: The New Yorker, Time, Chicago Public Library, Kirkus Reviews, Publishers Weekly, Library Journal

"Now and then, language would thrust its way into her sleep like a skewer through meat, startling her awake several times a night."

In a classroom in Seoul, a young woman watches her Greek language teacher at the blackboard. She tries to speak but has lost her voice. Her teacher finds himself drawn to the silent woman, for day by day he is losing his sight. 

Soon the two discover a deeper pain binds them together. For her, in the space of just a few months, she has lost both her mother and the custody battle for her nine-year-old son. For him, it's the pain of growing up between Korea and Germany, being torn between two cultures and languages, and the fear of losing his independence.

Greek Lessons tells the story of two ordinary people brought together at a moment of private anguish—the fading light of a man losing his vision meeting the silence of a woman who has lost her language. Yet these are the very things that draw them to each other. Slowly the two discover a profound sense of unity—their voices intersecting with startling beauty, as they move from darkness to light, from silence to breath and expression.

Greek Lessons is the story of the unlikely bond between this pair and a tender love letter to human intimacy and connection—a novel to awaken the senses, one that vividly conjures the essence of what it means to be alive.
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Praise for Greek Lessons

“In Greek Lessons, Kang reaches beyond the usual senses to translate the unspeakable.”—Los Angeles Times

“Hypnotic . . . Kang is one of the most unconventional, perceptive and truly innovative writers publishing today.”—San Francisco Chronicle

“Cerebral and sensuous . . . I was so stirred I had to step away every few chapters only to return a day or two later, as though pulled by a magnet . . . I was left in awe.”—The Boston Globe

“[Kang] is an astute chronicler of unusual, insubordinate women. . . [Greek Lessons is] for readers drawn to considering language itself as a source of self-revelation . . . a celebration of the ineffable trust to be found in sharing language.”—The New York Times

“Stirring . . . quietly beautiful.”—Time

“A woman’s extreme protest against the horrors of the human condition . . . touching [and] sympathetic.”—The Wall Street Journal

“A quiet, lovely meditation on language and disability . . . a story of the quiet violence of grief, the gaps language can and cannot bridge, and the necessity of communication and connection.”—Buzzfeed

“Evocative and elliptical.”The Washington Post

“Suffused with crackling sensory imagery that emphasizes our ties to the world.”—Minneapolis Star Tribune

“An incredible meditation on one woman’s abdication of language after she can no longer tolerate a world where violence is rooted even in speech.”—Cathy Park Hong, author of Minor Feelings

“Sinuous and sublime . . . an extraordinary meditation on language, violence, loss and intimacy. Han Kang is a writer like no other. In a few lines, she seems to traverse the entirety of human experience.”—Katie Kitamura, author of Intimacies

“A love letter to language, learning, and the hope of connection. It is about the mind and the body, our thoughts and our senses—about what it means to be a person in the world.”—Julia Phillips, author of Disappearing Earth

“Reading a Han Kang book is a pleasure like no other. Both poetic and deeply philosophical, Greek Lessons is a beautiful, haunting story about the fragility and power of human connection. I can’t stop thinking about it, and I don’t want to.”—Angie Kim, author of Miracle Creek and Happiness Falls

“Breathtaking . . . Kang is always the most revelatory writer: she widens the sky of feeling. She is simply my favorite living writer to read, and think with, and see the world with.”—Max Porter, author of Grief Is The Thing With Feathers

“Quiet, sharply faceted, and devastating . . . A stunning exploration of language, memory, and beauty from an internationally renowned writer.”Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Brilliant, shimmering . . . Once again, Kang demonstrates great visionary power.”—Publishers Weekly (starred review)
 
“[A] haunting exploration of tentative possibilities and yearned-for connections.”Booklist (starred review)
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Excerpt

Greek Lessons

1

As his dying wish, Borges requested the epitaph “He took the sword and laid the naked metal between them.” He asked this of María Kodama, his beautiful, younger wife and literary secretary, who had married Borges two months before he died, at the age of eighty-seven. He chose Geneva as the place of his passing: it was the city where he had spent his youth and where he now wanted to be buried.

One researcher described that epitaph as “a blue-steel symbol.” For him, the image of the blade was the key that would unlock the significance of Borges’s writing—the knife that divides Borges’s style from conventional literary realism—whereas for me, it seemed an extremely quiet and private confession.

The line was a quotation from a Norse saga. On the first night a man and a woman spent together (which, in this saga, was also to be their last), a sword was placed between them and left there until dawn. If that “blue-steel” blade was not the blindness that lay between the aging Borges and the world, then what was it?

Though I’d traveled to Switzerland, I didn’t visit Geneva. I had no strong desire to see his grave first-hand. Instead, I looked around the library of Saint Gall, which he would have found endlessly enrapturing had he seen it (I recall the rough feeling of the felt slippers that visitors were given in order to protect the thousand-year-old library’s floor), caught a boat at the wharf in Lucerne and floated through the valleys of ice-covered Alps until dusk.

I didn’t take any photographs. The sights were recorded only in my eyes. The sounds, smells and tactile sensations that a camera cannot capture in any case were impressed on my ears, nose, face and hands. There was not yet a knife between me and the world, so at the time this was enough.

2

Silence

The woman brings her hands together in front of her chest. Frowns, and looks up at the blackboard.

“Okay, read it out,” the man with the thick-lensed, silver-rimmed spectacles says with a smile.

The woman’s lips twitch. She moistens her lower lip with the tip of her tongue. In front of her chest, her hands are quietly restless. She opens her mouth, and closes it again. She holds her breath, then inhales deeply. The man steps back toward the blackboard and patiently asks her again to read.

The woman’s eyelids tremble. Like insects’ wings rubbing briskly together. The woman closes her eyes, reopens them. As if she hopes in the moment of opening her eyes to find herself transported to some other location.

The man readjusts his glasses, his fingers thickly floured with white chalk.

“Come on now, out loud.”

The woman wears a high-necked black sweater and black trousers. The jacket she’s hung on her chair is black, and the scarf she’s put in her big, black cloth bag is knitted from black wool. Above that somber uniform, which makes it seem as if she’s just come from a funeral, her face is thin and drawn, like the elongated features of certain clay sculptures.

She is a woman neither young nor particularly beautiful. Her eyes have an intelligent look, but the constant spasming of her eyelids makes this hard to perceive. Her back and shoulders are permanently drawn in, as though she is seeking refuge inside her black clothes, and her fingernails are clipped back severely. Around her left wrist is a dark purple velvet hairband, the solitary point of color on an otherwise monochrome figure.

“Let’s all read it together.” The man cannot wait for the woman any longer. He moves his gaze over the baby-faced university student who sits in the same row as the woman, the middle-aged man half hidden behind a pillar and the well-set-up young man sitting by the window, slouching in his chair.

“Emos, hemeteros. ‘My,’ ‘our.’ ” The three students read, their voices low and shy. “Sos, humeteros. ‘Your’ singular, ‘your’ plural.”

The man standing by the blackboard looks to be in his mid to late thirties. He is slight, with eyebrows like bold accents over his eyes and a deep groove at the base of his nose. A faint smile of restrained emotion plays around his mouth. His dark brown corduroy jacket has fawn-colored leather elbow patches. The sleeves are a bit short, exposing his wrists. The woman gazes up at the scar that runs in a slender pale curve from the edge of his left eyelid to the edge of his mouth. When she’d seen it in their first lesson, she’d thought of it as marking where tears had once flowed.

Behind thick, pale green lenses, the man’s eyes are fixed on the woman’s tightly shut mouth. The smile vanishes. His expression stiffens. He turns to the blackboard and dashes off a short sentence in Ancient Greek. Before he has time to add the diacritical marks, the chalk snaps and both halves fall to the floor.



Late spring of the previous year, the woman had herself been standing at a blackboard, one chalk-dusted hand pressed against it. When a minute or so had passed and she was still unable to produce the next word, her students had started to shift in their seats and mutter among themselves. Glaring fiercely, she saw neither students, nor ceiling, nor window, only the empty air in front of her.

“Are you okay, seonsaengnim?” asked the young woman with the curly hair and sweet eyes who sat at the very front of the class. The woman had tried to force a smile, but all that happened was that her eyelids spasmed for a while. Trembling lips pressed firmly together, she muttered to herself from somewhere deeper than her tongue and throat: It’s come back.

The students, a little over forty in number, looked at each other with raised eyebrows. What’s she up to? Whispered questions spread from desk to desk. The only thing she was able to do was to walk calmly out of the classroom. Exerting herself, she managed it. The moment she stepped out into the corridor, the hushed whispers became clamorous, as though amplified through a loudspeaker, swallowing the sound her shoes made against the stone floor.

After graduating from university the woman had worked first for a book publisher and then at an editorial and production company for a little over six years; and after that she spent close to seven years lecturing in literature at a couple of universities and an arts secondary school in and around the capital. She produced three collections of serious poetry, which came out at three- or four-year intervals, and for several years had contributed a column to a fortnightly literary review. Recently, as one of the founding members of a culture magazine whose title had yet to be decided, she’d been attending editorial meetings every Wednesday afternoon.

Now that it had come back, she had no choice but to abandon all such things.

There had been no indication that it might happen, and there was no reason why it should have happened.

Of course, it was true that she’d lost her mother six months previously, divorced several years earlier still, had eventually lost custody of her eight-year-old son, and it was coming on five months since he had moved in with her ex-husband, after a prolonged battle in the courts. The grey-haired psychotherapist she’d seen once a week because of insomnia after the boy’s departure couldn’t understand why she denied such clear causes.

No, she wrote, using the blank paper left out on the table. It isn’t as simple as that.

That was their final session. Psychotherapy conducted through writing took too long, with too much scope for misunderstanding. She politely turned down his proposal to introduce her to speech and language therapist. More than anything else, she lacked the finances to continue with such expensive treatment.

About the Author

Han Kang
Han Kang was born in 1970 in South Korea. A recipient of the Yi Sang Literary Award, the Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Manhae Prize for Literature, she is the author of The Vegetarian, winner of the International Booker Prize; Human Acts; and The White Book. More by Han Kang
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About the Author

Deborah Smith
Deborah Smith was a newspaper editor before she became an award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of contemporary romances, including the books A Place to Call Home and Blue Willow. She has published more than 30 novels over the course of her career and is now focusing on writing fiction with romantic elements. More by Deborah Smith
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About the Author

e. yaewon
Deborah Smith was a newspaper editor before she became an award-winning and New York Times bestselling author of contemporary romances, including the books A Place to Call Home and Blue Willow. She has published more than 30 novels over the course of her career and is now focusing on writing fiction with romantic elements. More by e. yaewon
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