Murakami Bargain

Picked up Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood in Ottaker’s for £1 (!) this lunchtime. I was tipped off by HoneyPotts on Palimpsest.

The Guardian have a good profile of Murakami here. I’ll quote the whole thing, as it’s a good read and I am bound to want to come back to it later.

Haruki Murakami got up at four o’clock every morning to work on his latest novel. Five hours later he would rise from the keyboard, put on his running kit, and set out for a lengthy jog through the leafy streets and parks of Aoyama, a chic Tokyo suburb. After that, an hour or two would be devoted to visiting record stores, where he would browse through the second-hand jazz sections, looking for rare vinyl LPs. Then there would be time for a swim and a game of squash. In the evening, before turning in at nine o’clock, he would return to his desk and spend a few hours translating the work of American authors into Japanese.

This routine lasted six months, weekends included, until he had completed the first draft of Ubime no Kafka ( Kafka on the Shore ), which will be published in English next year. “It’s a very big book,” he said the other day, during a rare visit to London. For Murakami, “big” means at least 250,000 words. “I worked every day for 180 days until I finished the first draft. Then I took a rest for one month. I rewrote for probably two months. I took another rest. And then I rewrote again for one month.”

To Murakami, 54, rest is a relative term. Although it is almost two decades since the sale of 3.5m copies of Norwegian Wood , his pellucid meditation on youth and love, turned him into the most popular and widely discussed Japanese novelist of his generation, taking a rest still tends to mean spending more time at work on texts by the American writers whose work he has always admired. In parallel with his own writing, he has presented a Japanese readership with translations of Raymond Carver’s oeuvre, a fair chunk of F Scott Fitzgerald’s, and books and stories by Truman Capote, Grace Paley, John Irving and JD Salinger (a new version of The Catcher in the Rye is his latest effort). “That’s just a hobby,” he says. “It’s not work.”
But then Murakami undertakes most things with a certain intensity. His intimate knowledge of music and food gives him material to colour his fiction; the exercise provides the fuel for his work. “I’ve been running a full marathon every year for more than 20 years, and my record is getting worse,” he says, with a mildly rueful air. “Getting older, getting worse. It’s natural. I used to run a full marathon in three hours and 25 or 26 minutes. Not any more. I ran the Boston marathon last weekend and it took four hours, flat.” Whether he finishes fifth or a 1,005th in such an event is not a matter of concern. “I’m not competitive in that sense. I’m a writer, not a professional runner. It’s fun and it helps me write. I need powerful concentration.”

Those unfamiliar with Murakami’s stories might be forgiven for mistaking this interest in physical well-being for a Yukio Mishima-style obsession with muscular male torsos and whirling samurai blades. In fact the two could hardly be further apart: Mishima is among the pantheon of authors, ranging from Natsume Soseki, the father of the modern Japanese novel, to Kenzaburo Oe, the 1994 Nobel laureate, whose example Murakami rejected when he set out on a literary career that was to bring him the sort of acclaim usually familiar only to pop stars.

Nevertheless his efforts to keep fit appear to indicate that he sees creativity as a muscle as much as a gift. “I make it a practice to sit at the desk every day, even if I don’t write anything. I just sit at the desk with the keyboard and my hands like this.” He spreads them out in front of him, as if resting them on a desk-top. “It’s a kind of custom for me.” There are days, he adds, when he writes nothing at all. What does he do on those days? “I do something. I imagine.”

There really is no equivalent in present-day English or American literature for a man whose activities encompass not just his hugely popular fiction (nine novels, many short stories) and his translations but non-fiction works on subjects including urban terrorists, jazz musicians and the 2002 Olympic games, travel essays, translations of children’s books, and various websites and CD-Roms offering other aspects of his work. Nor are there many of his generation whose writing appeals so directly to younger readers, not only in his own country but around the world, embodied by the students who packed out his two recent London readings and who, alongside older enthusiasts, queued in hundreds to have their books autographed (strictly one book per person; no dedications; mild disappointment for the person who had travelled from Norway in the hope of having Murakami’s complete works personally inscribed). Such is the lasting effect of the celebrity that descended upon this quiet, unassuming, drily humorous figure soon after the publication in 1987 of Norwegian Wood, a medium-length novel in which the narrator, a man of 37 (Murakami’s age at the time), is on a plane when a Muzak version of the Beatles song takes him back to his student years. Studded with references to western culture, from The Great Gatsby to Thelonious Monk, Norwegian Wood created and sustained the mood of an intelligent romantic reverie so effectively that it sold 2m copies in its first year of publication and, according to its admirers, brought the Japanese novel into the modern world.

Its popularity generated critical disapproval, prompting comparisons with the reaction to some of western literature’s scandalous successes. Like This Side of Paradise , Murakami’s novel brought news – however belatedly – of a generation’s preoccupations. Like L’étranger , it shocked readers by abandoning the wide-angled lens of conventional literature in favour of an intense concentration on the life of an emotionally detached individual. Like Bonjour Tristesse , it evoked the wistfulness of adolescence with a curiously resonant delicacy. And yet Murakami’s relatively advanced age (he was not 18, as Sagan had been, or 23, like Fitzgerald, or even 28, like Camus) enabled him to situate his rather fragile story in a more robust frame; for all its concentration on the hopes and uncertainties of adolescence, and its charming descriptions of early sexual fumblings, there is nothing callow about Norwegian Wood. Instead there is a largely non-specific but pervasive sense of longing, of absence and of loss. This would soon become recognised as Murakami’s signature.

Perhaps being an only child had something to do with it. He was born in 1949 in Kyoto, Japan’s old imperial capital; later the family moved to the less picturesque suburbs of Osaka and Kobe. His father, the son of a Buddhist priest, met his mother while both were teachers of Japanese literature. Although Murakami’s mother gave up work, the household remained an environment with strong cultural traditions. Growing up in the aftermath of the second world war, Murakami developed an early distaste for what those traditions seemed to represent. He found a world of his own when he discovered foreign voices that spoke more clearly to him.

“My parents were always talking about Japanese literature,” he says, “and I hated it. So I read foreign literature, mostly European writers of the 19th century – Chekhov, Dostoyevsky, Flaubert, Dickens. They were my favourite authors. Then I took up American paperbacks. Hardboiled detective stories. Science fiction. Kurt Vonnegut, Richard Brautigan, Truman Capote. After I studied English, I began to read those books in English. That was quite an experience. It was like a door was opening to another world. And of course when I was a kid I got a transistor radio. There was music – Elvis, the Beach Boys, the Beatles. That was exciting. And they became a part of my life.”
In 1963, at the age of 14, there was another moment of revelation when he attended a concert by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers. “I was so impressed,” he says of the night he became hooked on the music’s spon-taneous warmth and the musicians’ cool stance. “Since then I have been a very enthusiastic jazz listener.”

So enthusiastic, in fact, that jazz was to provide an unorthodox route into his professional life. In 1971, shortly after marrying Yoko Takahashi, a fellow student whom he had met three years earlier, he suspended his studies at Waseda University in Tokyo. Together they worked in a record shop by day and a coffee bar by night to save the money – about £5,000 – which, augmented by loans from a bank and Yoko’s father, would allow the two 22-year-olds to open a jazz club in a Tokyo suburb. Called Peter Cat after Murakami’s beloved pet, it was a basement room that functioned as a coffee bar by day and a jazz club at night, with live bands at the weekends. Murakami served drinks, washed the dishes, changed the records and booked the musicians. In between and when business was slow, he read voraciously and studied for his degree, which he received in 1975 (Yoko had graduated three years earlier).

With a change of premises in 1977, when they moved to a downtown location, Peter Cat lasted seven years. Murakami credits the long hours and the need for financial prudence with providing a solid platform upon which to establish his independence from the template of the Japanese “salaryman”, wedded to the same paternalistic company from graduation to the grave. “I had to work hard to survive,” he says. “It was tough, but I found something very precious there.”

Not until 1978 did he begin writing. He has said he was watching a baseball game when the idea came to him. He bought a fountain pen and paper on the way home and set to work on a novel, using Vonnegut and Brautigan as his models. After six months of late-night effort, when Yoko became (as she remains) his principal sounding-board, Hear the Wind Sing was submitted for a literary magazine’s award for new writers, which it won. Prefiguring passages of Norwegian Wood (like Fitzgerald, Murakami often “strips” his stories for re-use), it looks back at the time of student dissent and incorporates several other favourite themes: adolescent metamorphosis, literature, jazz clubs. Critics and readers noted his cool, semi-detached tone and distinctly offbeat sense of humour.

There was also a self-deprecating quality which has persisted in his work, in the face of considerable material success. “If it’s art or literature you’re looking for,” he wrote, in the voice of his narrator, in Hear the Wind Sing , “you’d do well to read the Greeks. In order for there to be true art, there necessarily has to be slavery. That’s how it was with the ancient Greeks: while the slaves worked the fields, prepared the meals and rowed the ships, the citizens would bask beneath the Mediterranean sun, rapt in poetical composition or engaged in their mathematics. That’s how it is with art. Mere humans who root through their refrigerators at three o’clock in the morning can only produce writing that matches what they do. And that includes me.”

The success of short stories and a second novel prefaced the Murakamis’ decision to sell the jazz club, enabling him to become a full-time writer. He switched to a regime of early rising and healthy eating (including vegetables grown in their new suburban garden). For relaxation he began his parallel career as a translator, often in collaboration with Motoyuki Shibata, professor of American literature at the University of Tokyo. As Murakami’s fame increased, so his name on a translated volume brought a new audience to Fitzgerald, Capote and Carver. “His contribution is enormous,” Shibata says. “Carver wouldn’t be so popular in Japan if someone else had translated him. The same is true with Tim O’Brien and Grace Paley.”

In 1984, during his first visit to the United States, Murakami made two pilgrimages: one to Princeton, Fitzgerald’s alma mater, and the other to Port Angeles, Washington state, where he and Yoko stayed with Carver and his second wife, the poet Tess Gallagher. “Raymond Carver was without question the most valuable teacher I have ever had, and also the greatest literary comrade,” he wrote after Carver’s death from cancer in 1987.

It was with A Wild Sheep Chase, his third novel, published in 1982, that Murakami began to confirm his individuality. Hallucinatory, surrealistic, full of narrative digressions and unexplained mysteries, it features gangsters, a man in a sheep costume (sheep are unknown in Japan outside Hokkaido, the north island, to which they were imported in the 19th century) and a girl whose unusually beautiful and super-sensitive ears confer extraordinary pleasures: “She’d shown me her ears on occasion; mostly on sexual occasions. Sex with her with her ears exposed was an experience I’d never previously known. When it was raining, the smell of rain came through crystal-clear. When birds were singing, their song was a thing of sheer clarity.” Although he borrowed the book’s dynamic structure from Chandler’s novels (and was amused when someone rechristened it The Big Sheep ), this was the first time he had sat down with no idea of what he was about to write, letting the story tell itself.

“It’s kind of a free improvisation,” he says of the method that still serves him well. “I never plan. I never know what the next page is going to be. Many people don’t believe me. But that’s the fun of writing a novel or a story, because I don’t know what’s going to happen next. I’m searching for melody after melody. Sometimes once I start, I can’t stop. It’s just like spring water. It comes out so naturally, so easily.” The spontaneity and the “searching for melody” appear to relate to his interest in jazz; to him, this shows itself most clearly in the rhythms of his prose. “Since I’ve been listening to jazz music so carefully and intensively, that rhythm is part of me. So when I’m writing my novels and stories, I always feel a rhythm. That’s essential to me.”

The rhythms took on a new complexity in Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World, a double narrative located in a pair of linked netherworlds, attracting comparisons with Philip K Dick, although Murakami confessed to adapting the technique from Ken Follett. Critics were impressed and the novel landed an important literary prize. His sales were now up to about 100,000, a comfortable niche.

Echoing the adventures of Scott and Zelda Fitzgerald, the Murakamis spent the last weeks of 1986 wandering the shores of the Mediterranean. “I didn’t like Japanese society so much when I lived in Japan and I wanted to get out,” he says. “I’m a writer, so I’m free to go anywhere. We have no children, it’s just my wife and me. So we got out. I just wanted to be an individual, to be independent, which was not easy in Japan. In Europe or America it’s a natural situation. But for a while I was kind of lost. What am I? What am I going to do? What’s the purpose of my life? What does it mean to be Japanese, to be a Japanese writer?” Early in 1987 they settled first in Palermo and then in Rome, where he wrote Norwegian Wood and a very different author emerged. “I had never written that kind of straight, simple, rather sentimental story,” he says, “and I wanted to test myself.” And, as the novel caught the attention of a generation of young women in their teens and 20s, a different audience appeared.

The expression of their enthusiasm took many forms, as did its exploitation. They wrote to Murakami in their tens of thousand; they paid visits to the Shinjuku nightclub mentioned in the text; they bought CDs compiled from the featured music, boxes of chocolates done up in wrapping paper with a Norwegian forest theme, and guides to the book’s various locations. Rubber Soul, the Beatles album on which the song had first appeared, enjoyed a new lease of commercial life. Offers were made (and declined) for the film rights. Murakami was invited (and refused) to appear in television commercials. Sitting thousands of miles away in Rome, he watched himself being turned into a pop star.

The reality, however, did not strike him until he went home in 1988, having completed a fifth novel, Dance Dance Dance. By then sales of Norwegian Wood had risen to 3.5m. “When we were in Italy, we lived a very peaceful life,” he says. “Actually, there was a kind of storm going on. I was so uncomfortable. I felt I was becoming another person. I was getting famous, but it was a fabrication. Before Norwegian Wood, it was a very cosy position I had. Then my life changed. But I survived it.”

In the short term, he and Yoko survived by returning to Europe for a few months. “Then we went back to Japan in 1990, at the height of the bubble economy, when people got rich and everybody was talking about money, money, money. We hate that kind of society, so we got out again after 10 months and went to the States, to Princeton. I had been impressed when I visited in 1984 to do research into Fitzgerald’s life. It was a beautiful place, quiet and peaceful.” Two years as a visiting scholar at Princeton were followed by two more as a writer in residence at Tuft’s University in Medford, Massachusetts; during that time he produced two more novels, the short, tightly focused South of the Border, West of the Sun and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, a huge and fantastical adventure across episodes from recent Japanese history, exemplifying the polar extremes of his output.

“He has two distinct styles,” says his friend and admirer Kazuo Ishiguro, the Booker-winning author of The Remains of the Day. “There’s the bizarre, anarchic style and there’s the very controlled, melancholy approach. Of the latter, South of the Border is beautifully judged, so fragile. It’s almost like a piece of cocktail jazz you hear playing in a bar, a perfectly measured piece from beginning to end. On the other side is The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, the berserkly inventive side where he keeps hitting you with things and you’re not quite sure what to do with them.”

Ishiguro feels Murakami stands alone in Japanese literature. “I see much more of an affinity with some of the film-makers of his generation, such as Juzo Itami and Yoshimitsu Morita. There’s the deadpan, surreal-verging-on-absurdist comic tone, a willingness to bend the edges of reality in stories set in an otherwise mundane setting, and the underlying melancholy observed in everyday middle-class rituals. And in his early work Murakami was saying, as they did, ‘This is the Japan that we know and it has very little to do with any of those ideas you may have.’

“Yet,” Ishiguro adds, “there’s also a thematic obsession going back very far into the past, which is that falling-cherry-blossom thing, about the ephemerality of life. And he identifies it while his characters are still relatively young: they’re people only just entering middle age but recognising that a time of beautiful energy has passed them by without them being quite aware of how it happened.”

Loss is certainly the big theme of Murakami’s fiction, although he declines to identify its source. “It’s a mystery,” he says. “Honestly, I don’t know what it is, that sense of loss. You could say, all right, I’ve lost many things in the course of my life. For instance, I’m getting older, and the rest of my life is less and less. I keep losing my time, my possibilities. I lost my youth, my actions – everything, in a sense. Sometimes I wonder what I’m looking for. I have my own mysterious space in myself. It’s a dark space. It’s a basement and I enter it when I’m writing. It’s a very special door for me. The things in that space might be the things I lost along the way. I don’t know. It must be a kind of sorrow.”

The plot of Kafka on the Shore involves a teenage boy in search of his missing mother, the latest in a series of women whose disappearances are a constant feature of Murakami’s fiction. Do they have their origins in his life? “Yes. Some girls disappeared.” A long pause. “And some girls don’t go away.” A laugh, and another pause. “But, you know, I had some friends who’ve been lost – some who killed themselves, some who just disappeared. I have the memories of those people, and I like to write something for them. That is my sentiment. But if I wrote about the actual people, the writing would be no fun at all. To make up the person, the character, that’s the fun of writing.”

In the early weeks of 1995, however, two events occurred that persuaded him to stop inventing fictional characters for a while. He was still living in America when he heard the news first of the Kobe earthquake, in which more than 5,000 died, and then of the sarin gas attack in the Tokyo underground, by members of the Aum Shinrikyo cult, in which 11 died and others were crippled. Later that year the Murakamis returned to Japan.

“I stayed in the States from 1991 to 1995,” he recalls, “and during that time the bubble economy burst. We had our own recession. When I got back to Japan, the earthquake and the poison gas attack had happened. Everything had changed. I found myself looking for something to do for my country, for my readers.” He began interviewing victims and perpetrators of the sarin attack for a work whose methodology was based on the oral histories of Studs Terkel, and which appeared in English as Underground. For a man who had revelled in the play of the imagination, it represented a significant change of direction, and one that widened his view of Japanese society.
“The victims were hard-working people who served their companies,” he says. “For a long time I was not interested in that kind of person, but after those interviews I sympathised with them. I could understand what they are and how they live. That recognition changed me somehow.” The interviews with the cult members were similarly enlightening, particularly since they represented a diseased extension of the desire for individuality with which he has always been identified. “I could understand what they were feeling and what they were looking for. They are outsiders. They took off from the system. But they went too far.”

Now Murakami is “resting”, running and swimming and playing squash and making short trips abroad with Yoko, working on translations and essays, wondering whether to stay on in Japan or to accept one of several offers from foreign universities, and searching for a certain LP, released only in Poland many years ago, by Stan Getz, his favourite musician. And if his house were burning down, which three albums, out of several thousand, would he save? “I give up. I couldn’t choose three. So I let it burn. Everything. I save the cat.”