“I’m sometimes asked, ‘Why don’t you write novels with characters the same age as yourself?’ I’m in my mid-sixties now, in 2015, so the question is, why don’t you write stories with characters that age? Why don’t you write about the lives of those kinds of people? Isn’t that a natural job of a writer? But there’s one thing I don’t understand, which is, why is it necessary that a writer write about people the same age as him? Why is that a ‘natural job’? As I said before, one of the things I enjoy the most about writing novels is being able to become anyone I want. So why should I, on my own, give up such a wonderful right? When I wrote Kafka on the Shore I was a little past fifty years old, yet I made the main character a fifteen-year-old boy. And all the time I was writing I felt like I was a fifteen-year-old. Of course these weren’t the ‘feelings’ a present-day fifteen-year-old boy would be feeling. Instead I transferred the feelings I had back when I was fifteen onto a fictional ‘present.’” — Haruki Murakami, Novelist as a Vocation, p. 164-165.
Novelist as a Vocation is a collection of essays by Haruki Murakami about why he writes, how he writes, how he interacts with publishers and translators, and the development, in general, of his craft as a novelist. Originally published in Japanese in 2015, this interesting work has just been translated and published here; some of the essays have been published in American magazines recently, as well. (Earlier this month, I wrote about one excerpt about how he creates characters, here.)
“The first time I sat down to write a novel, nothing came to mind—I was completely stumped. I hadn’t been through a war like my parents, or endured the postwar chaos and hunger of the generation directly above me. I had no experience of revolution (I had experienced a kind of ersatz revolution but didn’t want to write about that), nor had I undergone any form of brutal abuse or discrimination that I could remember. Instead I had grown up in a typical middle-class home in a peaceful suburban community, where I suffered no particular want, and although my life had been far from perfect, neither was it steeped in misfortune (in relative terms I was fortunate). In other words, I had spent a mundane and nondescript youth. My grades weren’t the greatest, but they weren’t the worst, either. There was nothing, in short, that I felt absolutely compelled to write about. I possessed some measure of desire to express myself, but had no intrinsic topic at hand. As a result, until I turned twenty-nine I never considered writing a novel of my own. I lacked material, I thought, as well as the talent to create something without it. I was someone who could only read novels. And read them I did, piles and piles of them, never supposing for a moment that I could write one.” (p. 81)
A few days ago, I read through this recently-published book of essays. After reading about the creation of the novels he wrote, I decided to go back to reread some that I have enjoyed in the past. I started with Kafka on the Shore, a very complex book that weaves among two sets of characters. As is usual with Murakami, magical realism is the genre of this book, so the two sets of characters are linked by inexplicable forces. Having read so many of his books, I did not expect everything to be explained, and not having this expectation made it much more readable!
The mysterious power of music (especially Beethoven’s Archduke trio) is an impressive part of the atmospheric tale, as well as a man who can talk to cats, a woman who wrote a mystic song and then disappeared for years and who appears as a ghost while she’s still alive; a stone that links to a mysterious “entrance;” a strange episode where a number of children fall asleep, and one never regains his former identity… there’s so much mystery. Two non-human apparition-like characters claim to be Colonel Sanders and Jack Daniels lead a bit of bizarre humor to the weirdness.
I find it striking that in talking about his writing process and style, Murakami basically did not mention the magical elements in his novels. Nor did he discuss another very special feature of his work that always fascinates me: the use of detailed food descriptions as part of his narrative. In Kafka on the Shore, the characters frequently stop for meals at low-end diners or small inexpensive restaurants or cook from a pantry that’s been stocked for their use. The author always tells you exactly what they ate. For breakfast one morning it’s “rice, miso soup with eggplant, dried mackerel, and pickles,” for example. Or foods like eel, chicken-and-egg over rice, or omelet with “salt-grilled mackerel, miso soup with shellfish, pickled turnips, seasoned spinach, seaweed.” (p. 359, p. 189, p. 209)
Unfortunately, Murakami never mentions the rather famous food-centered feature of his narratives in his rather general descriptions of how he writes. I liked the parts of Novelist as a Vocation where he talks about his history as a writer. I was less enthusiastic about the parts where he gave advice. And I wish he had discussed some of the ways that he uses food to create characters and to ground the magical side of the work in a baser reality.
Blog post © 2022 mae sander.