By Sarah Moorhouse
Is there a ‘novelist type’? This species of writer is filled with maverick sensibilities, bohemian lifestyles, and unstable existences. The phrase ‘truth is stranger than fiction’ exists for a reason: from Charles Dickens to Ernest Hemingway and Vladimir Nabokov, the lives of novelists are often every bit as dramatic as their stories. But does writing fiction require an unconventional, or even perilous, life? In his newly translated memoir, Novelist as a Vocation, Haruki Murakami seeks to dispel such an idea. At pains to prove that he is an ‘ordinary guy,’ Murakami pits himself with pride against the ‘anti-establishment writer who creates literature out of ruin and chaos.’
Yet Murakami’s own life has been anything but ordinary. Japan’s most celebrated living novelist, his output spans nineteen works of fiction and a literary empire. It has spawned numerous film adaptations and even a Haruki Murakami T-shirt line with UNIQLO, released alongside a 2021 series of essays entitled Murakami T: The T-Shirts I Love. First published in Japan in 2015 and translated into English by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goossen, Murakami’s Novelist as a Vocation is the latest in a series of efforts to consolidate his status as an international literary icon. Across his autobiographical works, we are offered a Murakami brand that belies his claims to ordinariness. His lifestyle, in its sheer discipline, is as eccentric as the chaotic adventures of Hemingway, whom he particularly admires. His latest memoir testifies to a career of intense drive and ambition, offering in each chapter a guide to an aspect of novel-writing, from choosing your subject matter to managing your time. Murakami claims to believe that anyone – not only eccentrics – can write a novel. However, his intimidating emphasis on his own efficiency reminds us that becoming a novelist is dependent on strategy and stamina as well as intention.
Murakami declares about his vocation to become a writer, ‘I had to build my own neat little world.’ Really, he has created two of them: the lucrative empire of his reputation, and the strange and alluring universe of his novels. From the labyrinth of city streets winding outwards in After Dark (2004) to the forests and wells of Norwegian Wood (1987), Murakami specialises in investing space with strangeness and intrigue. Peppered with unresolved symbols, such as random encounters and haunting sounds, his novels refuse to ascribe fixed meanings; instead, his spare and clean narrative voice suggests the undisturbed rhythms of a mind thinking to itself. When Murakami writes about himself, the distance between his two worlds becomes apparent. Whilst in his novels, Murakami stills the demands of the real world to invest his prose with a cool aloofness, his memoirs reveal him to oscillate between pride and self-deprecation. He frets, in his chapter ‘On Literary Prizes,’ about the many awards that he has and hasn’t won, revealing that he views novel-writing not only as a private pleasure: it is also unflinchingly public. Being a ‘novelist’ is, Murakami suggests, dependent on reputation as much as personal vocation.
Murakami has focused increasingly in recent years on describing the demanding labour of novel-writing. He tells us in Novelist as a Vocation that his greatest satisfaction is in ‘rewriting’ when composing his novels, and he has applied the same principle to autobiography, reworking a set of stories about himself. He ascribes his favourite of these stories, the moment that he realised he could write a novel, with legendary significance. ‘One bright April afternoon in 1978,’ he declares, he attended a baseball game in Tokyo. As a player struck the winning bat and applause broke out, Murakami was seized by a sudden conviction: ‘It was as if something had come fluttering down from the sky and I had caught it cleanly in my hands.’
This ‘something’ is the conviction that he will be a novelist, and a great one. His ‘clean’ catch presages what is to come: a writer’s life characterised by neatness and order. The scene exemplifies Murakami’s perception of his identity as a novelist; while watching baseball, a singularly dull sport, he just happens to be struck by creative inspiration. Murakami does not elaborate on why, at this precise moment, his otherwise ordinary existence was transformed. The moment is almost humble – why him? – and yet the certainty of this memory, which Murakami has rehearsed in previous interviews, serves to bolster his image as an inspired novelist.
There is a striking sense of self-satisfaction in this anecdote. Murakami has excelled in today’s publishing landscape and the memoir, if not exactly offering a blueprint for novel- writing, does uncover something of what it takes to generate an audience as a contemporary novelist. Rather than the dramatic or tragic circumstances we might associate with great novelists, Murakami’s ‘simple’ life rests upon an unwavering commitment to optimal functioning. He claims that this, rather than any extraordinary intelligence, is his key to literary success. While anyone can write a novel, what makes a novelist is a person who can dedicate their life to producing a succession of novels. Quantity, Murakami would have it, is as important as quality in determining who is a true novelist. He declares that his task is to ‘provide as many ‘cases’ as possible,’ calling upon his readers to appreciate his style across the whole range of his works.
Murakami’s favourite analogy for the ‘Herculean’ task of writing, which he develops from his 2008 memoir, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, is his commitment to long- distance running. He tells us that his interest in this pursuit began with his writing career at the age of 30 and uses this obsession as a foil for his relentless drive to produce novels. In Novelist as a Vocation, Murakami claims that ‘the act of running represents, concretely and succinctly, some of the things I have to do in this life,’ and that long-distance running has helped him to cultivate the ‘mental toughness’ required to complete writing a long novel. At the heart of Novelist as a Vocation is the subject of physical and mental endurance, and how this rests upon the author’s obsessive commitment to his routine. Claiming that he ‘hardly ever tak[es] a break,’ Murakami constructs parallels between a novelist’s career and those of long distance athletes, trained to run marathon after marathon. However, just as Murakami’s fixation with literary prizes chimes oddly with the exploratory voice of his novels, his descriptions of his physical discipline contradict the sparks of imagination and lightness of tone that invigorate his fiction.
Murakami outlines how, alongside his commitment to producing large quantities of fiction, he strategically developed the audience for his work. We learn that Murakami’s fame spread from Japan to the United States and Europe in the 1980s, when he moved to America to capture the loyalty of an Anglophone audience. Murakami reflects with satisfaction on the ‘generations’ of readers who appreciate his books, mentioning families who pass his novels from grandparent to grandchild. One cannot help but feel, however, that space in the book would have been better given to discussing the novels themselves rather than such unnecessary proof of his wide readership. Murakami’s obsession with quantity of production and of readers is surprising in a writer whose works are so individually distinctive; in First Person Singular, for example, a collection of short stories published in 2020, Murakami crafts eight distinctive narrators, complete with joyfully inventive histories and relationships. In telling us rather too much about his ‘neat’ routine, from the baseball he watches in his spare time to his liking for both salad and beer, Murakami only widens the gap between his readers and his private thought processes. Murakami is not willing to commodify his imagination, we realise.
Nevertheless, Murakami’s memoir does offer moments of insight into how he generates his material, and these are passages of the most interest. The chapter ‘So what should I write about?’ proposes a how-to of novel-writing. His ingredients are unsurprising: Murakami suggests that the seeds for his novels were sown through a childhood filled with voracious reading and the close observation of his surroundings. Declaring an allegiance to James Joyce’s dictum that ‘imagination is memory,’ he claims that he possesses a ‘mental chest of drawers,’ full of ‘disjointed’ memories. He tells us that rather than noting down possible material in a notebook, he retains suggestive details through memory alone, so that extraneous information is filtered out through a ‘process of natural selection.’ Whilst Murakami doesn’t offer examples of how this technique manifests itself in his novels, refusing to bridge his worlds of imagination and reputation, the reader might notice various moments in Murakami’s fiction that draw upon his own life. For example, he has mentioned how he was deeply affected by the student protests in Japanese universities in the 1960s, and the strange atmosphere generated by this unrest finds its way into Norwegian Wood.
We learn that Murakami’s protagonists – whom he often writes in the first person – are constituted of rearrangements of his own experiences. Murakami claims that he ‘unconsciously pull[s] out the information and various fragments from the cabinets in my brain and then weave[s] them together,’ thereby blurring the line between himself and his protagonists. Novelist as a Vocation has its roots in the physical world of writing and Murakami’s increasingly commodified public image, rather than the imaginative space in which ideas are generated. Murakami makes clear the distinction between his public identity as a novelist and his private imagination throughout the memoir, suggesting that his narratives come as a surprise even to himself. He claims that he has ‘never had the sense that I’m writing for someone else,’ rather viewing ‘my readers and myself [as] one.’ Moments like this reveal that, for Murakami, writing is an intimate dialogue with his own memories and past selves, one that allows experience to be relived in surprising ways. Paired against his attempts to fix his own label as a ‘great novelist’ and his concern with his reputation are glimpses of Murakami’s private delight in the imagination. Beyond his insistent self-branding is a writer who, as he declared in a 2019 New Yorker interview, writes to ‘dream intentionally.’
Novelist as a Vocation is not about Murakami’s novels. Rather, it is the self-portrait of a novelist accustomed to being in the public eye. On one level, Murakami seems almost boastful, calling for us to emulate a lifestyle free from ‘writer’s block’ and attempt novels of our own. On another, he seems insecure about his identity as a novelist, insistently going over his achievements. Fans of his work who are so enthralled by his narratives – I count myself as one of them – might be disappointed at this return to autobiographical essays. Murakami emphasises too heavily the contrast between his extraordinary imagination and his status as an ‘ordinary guy’. However, despite the flimsiness of this volume, it will do well. We come to novels to satisfy our nosiness about other people’s lives, and there is something irresistible about the memoirs of the writers who produce these books for us. It is unfortunate that the neatness of Murakami’s memoir, and indeed his brand, undermines the psychological depth of his fiction.
SARAH MOORHOUSE completed her BA and MSt in English Literature at Oriel College and now works at SAGE Publishing. She collects books and tote bags to carry them in.
Art by Tasie Jones