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Novelist as a Vocation by Haruki Murakami

I am always fascinated to read about how writers operate. The more I read, the more I think that every writer has a slightly different way of working, a different routine or a different inspiration that drives then to put words on a page. This is especially interesting in this case because not everyone likes Murakami. His writing has plenty of detractors, and he talks about that quite openly in this book. His unusual style is not for everyone, but it is fascinating to read more about how he developed that style.

Novelist as a Vocation is made up of eleven essays on a variety of writing related topics. These include literary prizes, originality, making time to write, schools and characters. Each chapter is about twenty pages long, which makes the book ideal to dip in and out of. In the foreword Murakami tells us that this book was first published in Japan in 2015, seven years before publication in English. All sorts of things have happened in that time, and he stresses that these were his feelings in 2015.

I was particularly interested in Murakami’s chapter on originality. This is what he says:

In my opinion, an artist must fulfil the following three basic requirements to be deemed “original”:

1. The artist must possess a clearly unique and individual style (of sound, language, or colour). Moreover, that uniqueness should be immediately perceivable on first sight (or hearing).

2. That style must have the power to update itself. It should grow with time, never resting in the same place for long, since it expresses an internal and spontaneous process of self-reinvention.

3. Over time, that characteristic style should become integrated within the psyche of its audience, to become a part of their basic standard of evaluation. Subsequent generations of artists should see that style as a rich resource from which they can draw.

The first chapter is called ‘Are novelists broad-minded?’ In it Murakami recalls a book he read as a child about two men who travel to learn what there is to know about Mount Fuji.

Neither of them had seen Fuji before. The smarter of the two men sizes up the mountain from several vantage points at the foot of its slopes. Then he says, “So this is the famous Fuji-san. Now I see what makes it so special,” and heads back home, satisfied. His way is efficient. And fast. The less intelligent man can’t figure it out like that, so he stays behind to climb the mountain all the way to the summit. That takes a lot of time and effort. By the end he has used up all his strength and is completely pooped. “So that’s Mount Fuji, huh?” he thinks. Finally he has understood it, or perhaps grasped its essence at a less conscious level.

Novelists (at least some of them) tend to be more like the second man – in other words, the stupider guy. They are the type who has to climb to the top to understand Mount Fuji.

Murakami further develops his picture of the writer saying, “It’s not difficult to write a single novel. Even a very good novel, depending on who you are. It isn’t easy to pull off, but it’s not impossible. What’s really hard is to keep writing novels year after year. That’s not something just anyone can do.”

One thing that really surprised me was that Murakami was able to pinpoint the moment that he realised that he wanted to become a novelist. An April afternoon in 1978. He was twenty-nine at the time. And because he remembers it so clearly, he is able to describe the scene. He is watching a baseball game in downtown Tokyo. He recalls the team and the batters and the resounding crack when bat met ball and left the field for a clean double. At that precise moment it struck him that “I think I can write a novel.”

I can still recall the exact sensation. It was as if something had come fluttering down from the sky and I had caught it cleanly in my hands. I had no idea why it had chanced to fall into my grasp. I didn’t know then, and I don’t know now. Whatever the reason, it had taken place. It was like a revelation. Or maybe “epiphany” is a better word.

So here he is, aged twenty-nine, running a small jazz club and sitting up late at night after his wife has gone to bed writing longhand at his kitchen table. He has no training or qualification to be a writer. For several months he operates on pure guesswork. He is dissatisfied with his output. But then he decides to try something different. Using an old Olivetti typewriter, he decides to write the opening of the novel in English.

Needless to say, my ability in English composition didn’t amount to much. My vocabulary was severely limited, as was my command of English syntax. I could only write in short, simple sentences. Which meant that, however complex and numerous the thoughts running around in my head, I couldn’t even attempt to set them down as they came to me. The language had to be simple, my ideas expressed in an easy-to-understand way, the descriptions stripped of all extraneous fat, the form made compact, and everything arranged to fit a container of limited size. The result was a rough, uncultivated kind of prose. As I struggled to express myself in that fashion, a distinctive rhythm began to take shape.

The resulting novel, Hear the Wind Sing, was short-listed by Gunzo literary journal for their Prize for New Writers. Murakami goes on to talk at length about his dislike of literary prizes and the expectations they create. He emerges from the pages as a shy and reclusive artist, whose main concern is his art rather than the trappings of success. At no point does he feel the need to conform.

“The most important thing,” I tell them, “is good readers. Nothing means as much as the people who dip into their pockets to buy my books – not prizes, or medals, or critical praise.”

When writing about characters, Murakami makes this profound comment:

What I want to say is that in a certain sense, while the novelist is creating a novel, he is simultaneously being created by the novel as well.

He talks about how characters can take on a life of their own, and can urge him to take a direction that was never his intention. That is both magical but I also know it to be true from my own writing experience.

One last feature about books such as this is the way they allow us to discover obscure facts about countries which we might never find without visiting for ourselves. Here in New Zealand we have a separate shelf for our homegrown books and authors. That was a surprise to me when I arrived from England. In Japan, their obscure habit is that male and female writers’ works are often placed in separate corners.

Reviewer: Marcus Hobson

Harvill Secker


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