Sunday, 1 September 2013

Books That Grow With You: 'Norwegian Wood' by Haruki Murakami

My well-worn copy

Last week, a friend told me he'd bought Norwegian Wood, which I'd recommended a while back, citing it as one of my favourite novels. This inspired me to refresh my connection with it. I can't specifically remember the last time I did that; I first read it when I was 17 years old, and I believe I've reread it at least twice since then. I'm inclined to do that with very few books. Seeing as I seem to be getting through books really quickly these days, I thought there was no harm in revisiting this one. I do have a couple of other books I'm aiming to finish before I leave, but they're pretty slim and I don't think I'll have any trouble with those.

The first time I read it, I quickly became aware that this was a book that gets right under your skin. Aside from anything else, I related to it heavily because there were some undeniable parallels with what was going on with me at the time. First love, acceptance of mortality, finding solace in music, studying Euripides, learning languages: it seemed to have come into my life for a reason. But maybe I'd focused too heavily on those parts and not actually paid much attention to everything that goes on during the course of it. And I'm not really sure how I feel about it now - definitely differently, though.

While I am not going to explicitly spoil any major events in the novel, those who have not yet read it may prefer not to continue under this cut if they wish to form their own, unblemished opinion.

You see, even though I consider it a favourite of mine, that does not necessarily make it a light read. I usually find that favourite books fall into one of two distinct categories: either they are admirable, stylistic, technically very accomplished pieces of literature, or they're something that's not canon but who really cares because no-one else has ever quite managed to describe that feeling you have just about every day so accurately. A book that falls into the latter category tends to be like an old jumper that you slip into when you come home after a long time. It might be a bit tatty, but sinking into it again is easy, and without making any special effort, it reminds you that sometimes life is not so bad as we've let ourselves believe.

But the anomalous Norwegian Wood slots neatly into neither of these categories. Upon this reading of it, roughly my third, I gradually realise that it is a "difficult read". Not in the way that James Joyce's work might be considered difficult, but because the overall tone is just so melancholy, veering on troubling, and at no point in the book is there any true respite from that fact.
For example, when Toru is engaged in a conversation with Reiko, who is telling him about her life before the sanatorium, she decides to stop halfway through the story but resolves to continue at another time. In the next few pages, Toru is with Naoko, who recounts a saddening event from her past. And then just as the reader is recuperating from that, Toru and Reiko resume their conversation, and her story takes a bizarre, disturbing turn. It makes for one of the most uncomfortable parts in the book, but Toru takes it calmly. Interestingly, prior to this moment, Naoko and Reiko have been repeating that the sanatorium rules entail liberal communication and no secrets. This heralds those next few shocking pages, and it also forced me to consider the openness - or lack thereof - that other characters share with each other.

One of the central themes of Norwegian Wood is definitely youth - specifically how quickly it passes and how some of the decisions made during these years cannot be reversed. The focus is on how every single one of the years between late teens and early twenties can be vastly different, as well as crucial to personal development.

'I don't know, it's stupid being 20,' she said. 'I'm just not ready. It feels weird. Like somebody's pushing me from behind.'
'I've got seven months to get ready,' I said with a laugh.
'You're so lucky! Still 19!' said Naoko with a hint of envy. (p. 47-48)

This exchange alone speaks volumes. Things don't magically change when we have a birthday, not immediately, but when you're 18, 19, 20, each year matters, and you feel that with each changing year something new will be revealed to you, you will feel more grown-up. I should highlight that whenever I read this book, I was those ages mentioned. Now that I'm 22 - alright, not much older at all, but definitely a little wiser and also basically Taylor Swift - I do have to wonder whether I only found myself falling in love with this book because at times it seemed incredibly relevant to what I was experiencing at those ages. I initially took such a liking to it because it did such a good job of verbalising certain feelings that had plagued me during those years. Up until then, only Sylvia Plath's The Bell Jar had brought me to this point. And what with all the music-and-books namedropping that goes on throughout the novel, I guess it was a shoo-in. I am curious about how much differently I'd have reacted if I had been 14 or 40 when I read this for the first time.
There are, without a doubt, those snippets of text that are still applicable to my life now, but I guess the only difference is that I have since learnt that I don't always need to hide myself in books to learn things.

It should be mentioned that this novel was first published in 1987. Even though this is hardly ancient, in some ways, I feel it hasn't dated well. An authorised English translation was not produced until 2000. While I am obviously unqualified to comment on whether or not it is an accurate depiction of 1960s Tokyo, I think the novel's setting is irrelevant here and it could be more to do with what the publishing industry favoured 26 years ago. By "dated", I am referring to some of the attitudes portrayed in the book - usually expressed via the characters - which made me feel a little uneasy and probably would not get by so easily in a book published in 2013.
Which leads me onto this point: I love Murakami's writing, but his female characters can be problematic at best. Nothing hammered this home more than a reread of Norwegian Wood. I'm not the first to make this criticism, I know; when I finished 1Q84 recently, I immediately consulted Google as to whether others had noticed that just when you think a female protagonist is finally going to be progressively written, suddenly she is reduced to a description of her breasts (they had). Luckily, there is a strong enough plot to carry it away from this, but it is still a bit disappointing.
Similarly, the sex scenes in Norwegian Wood are not necessarily graphic, but they always overstay their welcome and their execution makes me feel uneasy; they feel somewhat mechanical. We know that Toru has many one night stands with women he has no emotional connection with, which is pretty much conventional. But the descriptions are still pretty bland when he is with women he's supposed to love. Moreover, these scenes are, without exception, extremely male-gazey. Some might contend that this is only to be expected seeing as the narrator is male, and the author is male, but the truth is that I have read many more books with the very same configuration that handle such scenes with much more care. Yikes, I think even Bukowski has been more tasteful. I think the problem is perhaps that often, the scenes are neither particularly subtle nor unusually vulgar, but just very abrupt and feel wholly unnatural as a result.

The part of the book where Toru is out with Midori and constant references are being made to how short her skirt is - as well as the insinuations that Midori is "inviting" attention from male strangers by virtue of the skirt - was irritating. Certain parts of the book came off as outright misogynistic, something I had not really noticed before (or maybe I had just tolerated it, I'm not sure). For example, the descriptions of menstruation or PMS were unabashedly lazy and stereotypical, even out of the mouth of a female character; you could tell they were written by someone who has never experienced these things in their life, never will, and has no interest in asking an actual, real-life woman how she would put it!
It's also been pointed out that there scarcely one female character that Toru doesn't at least try to get into bed, all of them being variations on some fantasy movie girl or another. It is difficult to disagree there. In this sense, the relatively minor character of Hatsumi was a relief. It was sad that she was not accorded a better fate, but what went on between her and Toru had after the argument with Nagasawa in the restaurant was one of the most sincere and moving parts of the book for me. Speaking of which, even though Nagasawa was probably intended to be an unsympathetic character, I thought that at least he had integrity, in his own way, and was upfront about what he wanted. I mean, he has one of the best lines in the entire novel:

'Don't feel sorry for yourself,' he said. 'Only arseholes do that.' (p. 316)

I'm not sure how much of my criticism should be attributed to the fact it's a Japanese book that has been translated for a Western audience. I do not know too much about how our respective societal attitudes towards subjects such as gender and suicide may differ, although my own brief research indicates that in some respects, they do indeed.

To get a different slant, I looked up its titles in different languages. In French, it is La Ballade de l’impossible (the ballad of the impossible), and in German, Naokos Lächeln (Naoko's smile). The Japanese title is a literal translation of "Norwegian wood", as in a wood in Norway, maybe so as not to alienate readers who knew no English. Or possibly because using the English name would transcribe awkwardly into Japanese characters. At any rate, it is interesting to see where the focus lies in those two particular translations, and I'm sure there are many more. As far as I can remember, no particular emphasis is made on Naoko's smile in the book. The French title makes a lot of sense, given that the power of song plays such an important role right from the beginning. Toru has to make an "impossible" choice between Naoko and Midori, both of whom are indispensable to him in their own ways. Where the German translation makes a direct reference to Naoko, this does not betray the ending to the reader, but rather acknowledges her lasting impact.

Overall, Norwegian Wood is not mystical in the way that Murakami's other novels are, but it is still certainly extraordinary. The way it draws you in and spits you out again compares to no other book I have ever read, and I suppose that is why I love it. It lures you in, at first convincing you it will be a fairly ordinary, if bittersweet love story - not one without its confusion and obstacles, mind - but in the end, it's a lot more than that. It addresses solitude and loneliness (and the difference between them).

When reading the book, I get the overwhelming feeling that its events seem more likely to be taking place in a film than in a book. I have not seen the 2010 film, but what I mean is you get this sense that things are happening in a different world even though they are entirely, palpably possible. The prose is not to be taken at face value, either, and that is what it does share in common with the Murakami books that are more surreal, preternatural. Even though I don't think every single line is poignant, and some parts are definitely off-putting, there are moments that redeem this and as it comes together it starts to make a lot more sense. While most novels only touch on the pain of loving somebody who is emotionally unavailable, in Norwegian Wood it's treated as a premise in and of itself, and that sets a certain mood because once you open those pages, you are pulled into a world where what is happening outside is of little importance, because suddenly, the novel and its idiosyncrasies seem as if they could hold the answers to questions you've been asking yourself for a long while. So perhaps it is, in fact, not as fully removed from Murakami's other novels as I have convinced myself may be the case. I still maintain that it is the best introduction to his work.

One more thing: duh, but this book is best read while listening to Rubber Soul by The Beatles.