Tag Archives: murakami haruki

Quote of the Day

Image result for soseki natsume

“To objectively fabricate a purpose at the outset and to apply it to a human being was something that the individual who came into this world had to make for himself. But no one, no matter who, could freely create a purpose. This was because the purpose of one’s existence was as good as announced to the universe by the course of that existence itself.”

Back when my good friend Jason T. gave up on his dream of becoming a professional sumo wrestler in Nippon, and subsequently failed to be accepted into the yakuza community, he moved to Korea, where I was living at the time. We became fast friends and he soon introduced me to Japanese literature, which is to say pretty much every writer except the two Murakamis (Haruki and Ryu).

One of these novelists was Natsume Sōseki, considered by many to be the greatest Japanese writer in the modern era.  Sōseki wrote around the turn of the 20th century and had a profound impact not only on his peers and colleagues, but on generations of Japanese writers to come.

My first foray into Sōseki’s universe was through And Then. Per the book’s introduction:

“Daisuke, the protagonist, is a man in his twenties who is struggling with his personal purpose and identity as well as the changing social landscape of Meiji-era Japan. As Japan enters the 20th century, ancient customs give way to Western ideals, and Daisuke works to resolve his feelings of disconnection and abandonment during this time of change”

As seen from the Quote of the Day, however, there is also an existential element to the story about free will versus fate. While thinking of a friend recently who is struggling with her own significant life choice (is she indeed the master of her fate, the captain of her soul?), I came across this book I read many, many moons ago, a time, as they say, when tigers smoked.

For anyone looking to broaden their Japanese literature resume, I would highly encourage you to enter the world of Natsume Sōseki. Do not pass go and do not collect $200. Just read him!


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Quote of the Day

Image result for the wind-up bird chronicle

Is it possible, in the final analysis, for one human being to achieve perfect understanding of another? We can invest enormous time and energy in serious efforts to know another person, but in the end, how close can we come to that person’s essence? We convince ourselves that we know the other person well, but do we really know anything important about anyone?

In the spirit of what Facebook yesterday called Happy Friends Day, I thought it apropos to quote something about friendship and ended up stumbling on Murakami Haruki’s The Wind-up Bird Chronicle. However, unlike almost all the other quotes I use as part of this series, I have to say that I vehemently disagree with it. Whether this passage is exclusively the belief of the book’s protagonist, Toru Okada, or of Murakami himself, either way I don’t buy in to it.

Although Murakami’s characters tend to sway more to the cynical side of things, usually it’s not a “hot issue” (Norwegian Wood is a prime example). Perhaps it’s a cultural difference? Maybe it’s a trait of Murakami’s characters? I don’t know for sure, but what I do believe is that if you don’t “know anything important about anyone,” you don’t have what the Koreans call nunchi (눈치) and the Japanese call kidzui (気づい), which is essentially an emotional quotient high enough to read others’ feelings and mood.

It’s not about knowing  the most number of secrets about a friend, for example, that makes you close. It’s understanding their inner workings, sympathizing with what you share in common, while empathizing when unable to relate directly. In the case of Toru Okada and The Wind-up Bird Chronicle, I think this passage actually works because here’s a guy whose wife walks out on him one day out of the blue while going to look for their cat, never to return.  After a series of encounters with some legendary supporting characters (May Kasahara, Lieutenant Honda, Creta and Malta Kano, Nutmeg and Cinnamon Akasaka and, of course, the legendary Boris the Skinner), the only contact he’ll ever have again with his wife is through this dark, cold, emotionless machine called a computer (remember Murakami was writing this novel before most people knew what the word email meant).

In any event, the passage may work for the novel and a cynical protagonist, but is not reflective of what friendship should be or can be. As my brother likes to say, “Friends are friendly!” Ergo, friendliness is next to…err…godliness?

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The Good Ol’ Social Media/Toxicity Conundrum

 Image result for another place you've never been

Author of Another Place You’ve Never Been (the prequel to I Know This Much is True?), debut novelist Rebecca Kauffman posted a thought-provoking piece on publishersweekly.com called “Is Social Media Toxic to Writing?” Ms. Kauffman explores an issue that I wrangled with for years, ever since publishing my first book way back in the Stone Ages of 2003 (hard to believe, but in that year there were no such things as Facebook [2004], Twitter [2006], Tumblr [2007], or Instagram [2010]): Do I succumb to the pressure and become a social media who**? For many years, I resisted. Social media platforms were dumb, fake (goddamn phonies, to quote Holden C.), pointless, and a waste of the space-time continuum.

Then, in 2013, I published my first novel and reality hit me like a stinky fish from Tsukiji Market across the face –>  No social media presence = No chance of building a core audience = No chance of landing an agent = No chance of signing with a respectable publisher = No chance of turning my dream into a full-time career. So what did I do?

Well, I think the answer is obvious by now. Perhaps Nick Carraway would be disappointed in my decision to sell out, but then again maybe Jay Gatsby would have seen it like Carraway described in Fitzgerald’s classic novel:

“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock.”

Although Ms. Kauffman looks at literary superhero Murakami Haruki as a case in point as to whether one should  spend hours on social media daily, exposing intimate parts of yourself and your inner-workings to the public (the Japanese literary superhero is notorious for giving very few interviews or public readings, let alone using social media on a regular basis), I think it’s dangerous to seek guidance in this area from a writer such as Murakami; for anyone who started a career in writing after 2004, the rules of engagement are forever changed.

I believe it was Jonathan Franzen, celebrated author of The Corrections and Freedom, who said it best when he expressed his sorrow for young writers trying to make a go of it in today’s publishing world because they are so pressured to spend time Tweeting and Facebooking, for example, that it takes time away from their craft. Franzen is especially irked by Twitter, telling all those who gathered for a talk of his at Tulane University in 2012:

“Twitter is unspeakably irritating. Twitter stands for everything I oppose. It’s hard to cite facts or create an argument in 140 characters … It’s like if Kafka had decided to make a video semaphoring The Metamorphosis. Or it’s like writing a novel without the letter ‘P’… It’s the ultimate irresponsible medium. People I care about are readers … particularly serious readers and writers, these are my people. And we do not like to yak about ourselves.”

Ultimately, I think Ms. Kauffman would agree with Franzen when she ends her Publishers Weekly piece by stating:

“For me, the best way to work, the only way to work, really, is to create a space for myself in which the reader’s perception of me (as a person) does not exist. It’s only after I have squashed down all awareness of myself that I’m able to access another world and explore it freely and truthfully.”

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Remembering Raymond Carver


And did you get what

you wanted from this life, even so?

I did.

And what did you want?

To call myself beloved, to feel myself

beloved on the earth.

(from the inscription on Raymond Carver’s tombstone)

James Carver recently wrote a very nice piece about love, literature and remembrance that he posted on medium.com called “A Tribute to Raymond Carver on His Birthday, by His Brother James — With Never-Before-Seen Family Photos” to commemorate his late brother’s birthday, which was May 25. His big bro was an American literary giant in his day, author of notable works like Cathedral and the stories “Why Don’t You Dance?” and “Errand.” Although he lived a somewhat scandalous, alcohol-fueled life (on a par with other writers like Hemingway, Kerouac and Fitzgerald at times), he’s regarded as a titan in the field of American literature, as evidenced by his induction in the American Academy and Institute of Arts and Letters in 1988.

For those who’ve read Raymond Carver, the link might not seem so obvious, but he actually had a profound effect on another giant’s writing: Murakami Haruki, author of international bestsellers like The Wind-up Bird Chronicle and A Wild Sheep Chase and, more up Carver’s alley, short story collections like The Elephant Vanishes. Today, there’s even a Japanese professor named Hosea Hirata who teaches a course on the subject and the correlation between the two authors.

For those not in the know, and as his go-to translator Jay Rubin wrote about in Haruki Murakami and the Music of Words, Murakami used to very much enjoy his Suntory time, maybe not as much as Carver liked his booze, but the two connected early in the Japanese writer’s career, when he was just trying to get a foot in the door with the whole translation thing. In fact, as Rubin documents in detail, another American literary great, John Irving, whom Murakami went jogging with in Central Park to earn Garp’s trust (which he did after proclaiming his admiration of Setting Free the Bears – ouch!), represented one more of Murakami’s earliest inroads to the country’s literary establishment.

That said, I like what brother James had to say at the end of his short piece, as it sums up not only his relationship with his brother, but many of our own relationships with a lot of the people whom we love:

“I miss my brother very much. I loved him and respected him enormously…We can’t really get inside the other person’s mind to see how it ticks; we can never know the true feelings one may have for another. We can only be guided by the things said and the feelings shown to us by the other person, and believe it to be true. Ray captured the complexity of those relationships, in love or outside of love.”

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Why Read the Same Book Twice?

Is reading a book for a second time akin to dating an ex- again? Like, what’s the point? You’ve been down that path, you know the score, it ain’t your first rodeo with it/him/her, so why bother?

As per the first question, no, it’s not like dating an ex- for the second time. To begin, a second run through a book lacks the drama of the latter (and the petty, petty fights). With respect to the other self-directed question, the point is in the details; reading a book for a second time is the difference between gazing at the stars with the naked eye and with a telescope. With an awesome piece of Galilean machinery, the stars really start to glitter.

My book club is nearing its 7th anniversary and over that time we’ve been fortunate to read some very good literature, both fiction and non-fiction alike. This month, however, one member decided to shake things up a bit (variety is the literary spice of life?). Instead of choosing a new title as we usually do, she asked everybody to pick one book we’ve already done and either go back and reread it (or read it for the first time if you happened to miss that month). Brilliant, says I.

That’s how I ended up choosing Kent Haruf’s Plainsong again this month. I purposefully chose this book because it’s not only a deeply soulful, thought-provoking read, but it’s sloooooooooooooow. My life is too hectic right now. I’m in the middle of my busy season for work and practically coming off the rails when not fighting deadlines 24/7. I started Plainsong once again yesterday and know that I have made the right decision. Haruf’s lyricism is so simple it can’t help but make you smile, especially when you consider the metaphor that I’ve cluttered and complicated my own life with all this bloody work. And wouldn’t you know it? I’m actually enjoying the book more this time through than I did the first time around.

However, I should point out that the experience is not always the same when you have a second kick at the can with books. For example, although The Wind-up Bird Chronicle is one of my favourite books and hugely impactful on my own writing, I didn’t enjoy it nearly as much the second time. Alternatively, The English Patient became more poetic the second time (and even better the third), Richler’s Barney’s Version  was even more piss-your-pants funnier the second time around, and my personal bible, Gibran’s The Prophet, has only become more poignant over the years with each subsequent read (I lost count at 10).

The thing is, you’ll never know how good a book can be a second time until you’ve tried it. Unfortunately, in this day and age of bucket lists, an addiction to newness, and the pressure to stay up on what’s hip and relevant, many of us don’t take the time to go back to the proverbial well and recall fond memories of stories that helped shaped us on our life journey. You should try it. I’m pretty sure you won’t regret the trip down memory lane in this epoch of Go! Go! Go!

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Does Alcohol + Writing = Genius x Calamity ÷ The X Factor?

What do Ernest Hemingway, James Joyce, Hunter S. Thompson, Edgar Allan Poe, F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, Jack Kerouac, Tennessee Williams, Raymond Chandler, and O. Henry all share in common?

They were all alcoholics at one time, many of them for life, some of whom actually died as a direct result of their affliction.

Frighteningly enough, the above list only represents some of the greatest names in English literature over the past 150 years. This raises another alarming question: Is a grossly unhealthy dependence on alcohol necessary to become a great and prolific writer? Should writers follow Hemingway’s advice when he once mused, “Write drunk; edit sober”? While a humorous, pithy, and catchy suggestion, was Papa onto something?

Fortunately, the answer is a resounding NO!

Just ask Stephen King, who since quitting drugs and drinking has produced arguably his best work; David Mitchell, who’s an insanely responsible person and health nut; Murakami Haruki, who quit smoking and left his heavy whiskey-drinking days behind long ago at his former Tokyo bar and now takes solace in jogging, not the bottle. I’m pretty sure Margaret Atwood and Michael Ondaatje are on the straight and narrow, too. Then there’s Isaac Asimov, Anne Rice, and Stephenie Meyer, each famous as a writer for different reasons, but all of whom are teetotalers (abstinent from alcohol).

Over the past few weeks, I’ve been binge-watching Intervention Canada, an intense documentary that spends a few days following drug and/or alcohol addicts (and by “addict” I mean so far gone in most cases that it’s actually difficult to watch sometimes) before facilitating an intervention and offering treatment at many of Canada’s top treatment facilities. (Sidebar here: is it just me or are all the best rehab centres in Canada located in British Columbia?)

While watching an episode of IC a few days ago, I was struck by the courage one young woman summoned up when coming to grips with her demons, so I decided to write it down:

“I do not know what it is to be brave. And I do not know what the word bravery means to other people. What I do know is that strength is brought about by confidence. What I do know is that hardship fosters understanding. I believe kindness and thoughtfulness are the keys to ensuring a successful life. As I move forward, and embark on a new life, a life free of alcohol, free of pain, a life free of poison, I take to heart what the word bravery might actually mean.”

Scientists and philosophers have long tried to determine what exactly leads to genius. I think the only thing people can agree upon is that there is most definitely a biological factor; some people are simply blessed with a formidable brain. But it’s not all nature, I think. There is most certainly a nurture component – hard work, dedication, and a passion for a particular field of knowledge. At the same time, I feel equally confident saying that crutches like OxyCoton, meth, heroin, crack, whiskey, gin, beer, etc. (ad infinitum) will get a person nowhere, especially an artist like a writer, who already spends enough time alone and possibly dredging up memories and emotions that could sink even the strongest person if not handled with extreme cerebral care.

So if you’re interested in getting started on that story you know you have in you, or perhaps you’re brash enough to want to become a professional writer (ha ha ha ha ha…that’s just dumb and dumbly), do so with a cup of Joe or a mug of herbal tea, preferably in the hours before the sun rises, and you (and your liver) will be grateful for the decision in the years to come.

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