Reading Murakami’s “Norwegian Wood” and Rediscovering “Rubber Soul”
By Stuart Mitchner
I’m lost amidst a sea of wheat
where people speak but seldom meet…
—Keith Reid (1946-2023)
Haruki Murakami’s Novelist as a Vocation (Knopf 2022) comes with a blurb from Patti Smith, who compares readers waiting for the novelist’s latest work to past generations lining up at record stores for new albums by the Beatles or Bob Dylan. As it happens, the Beatles are at the heart of Murakami’s chapter “On Originality” where he recalls a boyhood moment sitting in front of his “little transistor radio” listening to them for the first time (“Please Please Me”), thinking, “This is fantastic! I’ve never heard anything like this!” It was as if “air of a kind I have never breathed before is pouring in, I feel a sense of profound well-being, a natural high. Liberated from the constraints of reality, it’s as if my feet have left the ground. This to me is how ‘originality’ should feel: pure and simple.”
A Fateful Double
In the chapter “When I Became a Novelist,” Murakami recalls attending the April 1978 baseball season opener between his team the Yakult Swallows and the Hiroshima Carp at Tokyo’s Jingu Stadium. Yakult’s first batter was Dave Hilton, “a rangy newcomer from the United States and a complete unknown.” Hilton slammed the first pitch into left field for “a clean double. The satisfying crack when bat met ball resounded through Jingu Stadium…. In that instant, and based on no grounds whatsoever, it suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.”
After the game, Murakami went to a bookstore, picked up a sheaf of writing paper, and “splurged on a Sailor fountain pen.” Each night after that, he sat at his kitchen table writing what became his first novel, Hear the Wind Sing (1979), the first draft begun on opening day and “wrapped up” in October, “right when baseball season ended.” In April 2023, with a new season underway both in America and in Japan, I’m here to say that although Dave Hilton (1950-2017) ended his hepatitis-shortened big-league career with a mediocre .213 batting average, he and he alone delivered the hit that inspired a future Book World All-Star to play the writing game.
The first two tracks on the 1965 Beatles album Rubber Soul delivered titles for two of Murakami’s best-known works — the story “Drive My Car,” the basis for last year’s Oscar-winning film of the same name, and the novel Norwegian Wood, written in voluntary exile from the literary culture of Japan. As he recounts in Novelist as a Vocation, Murakami wrote Norwegian Wood on board ferry boats in Greece, “in the waiting lobbies of airports, in shady spots in parks, and at desks in cheap hotels.” In Rome he bought a college-ruled notebook, writing in it with a disposable Bic pen on wobbly tables in noisy cafes and in hotels where couples “were going at it hot and heavy” in the room next door. The novel was a breakthrough literary success in 1987, selling more than four million copies in Japan while creating a Beatlemaniacal sensation that sent him hurrying back to the West, where he worked on his most widely acclaimed novel The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (Vintage 1997) while teaching at Princeton in 1991-92 and at Tufts in 1993-95.
My reading of Norwegian Wood awakened me to the greatness of Rubber Soul. As much as I’ve enjoyed this album through the years, it’s always been overshadowed by the Beatles LPs and singles that followed. Listening to the 14 songs while reading Murakami’s narrative half a century later has been like hearing the album for the first time and feeling something close to what Murakami felt on first hearing “Please Please Me,” the “sense of profound well-being, a natural high.”
Aside from the power of the music, I’m struck by how well the lyrics chime with the ambiance of the novel; certain lines from “In My Life” — “All these places had their moments with lovers and friends I still can recall / Some are dead and some are living / In my life I’ve loved them all” — would make a fitting epigraph for college-age narrator Toru Watanabe’s adventures and misadventures with girls like sad and soulful Naoko; zany Midori; the stylish, pool-playing Hatsumi, who wears a hooded Princeton sweatshirt when she’s relaxing at home; and Reiko, a woman in her thirties who plays “Norwegian Wood” for Naoko on a guitar that she thinks of as “a warm little room.” While John Lennon’s lyrics (“I once had a girl, or should I say she once had me?”) relate to Toru’s experience, for Naoko the song evokes wandering in a deep wood “all alone” where “nobody comes to save me,” which is how it is at the end when she takes her own life.
The lyric to “You Won’t See Me” could refer to Wantanabe’s on-again off-again friendship/romance with the human whirlwind Midori, whose whose wild and wayward spirit can be felt in the “la-la-la” backup vocals and the exhilarating bridge — “time after time you refuse to even listen / I wouldn’t mind if I knew what I was missing.” John Lennon’s searingly plaintive singing of “Girl” evokes all the angst and pain in Murakami’s coming-of-age story, and “Nowhere Man” haunts the novel’s conclusion, when during a phone call Midori asks, “Where are you now?” and Wantanabe has no idea, no idea at all. Where was this place? All that flashed into my eyes were the countless shapes of people walking by to nowhere. Again and again, I called out for Midori from the dead center of this place that was no place.”
The Beatles song ends with “Nowhere Man in a nowhere land making all his nowhere plans for nobody.”
The name Murakami gives his narrator is the sixth most common surname in Japan. So, there’s no reason to think an allusion is being made to the doomed hero of Akira Kurosawa’s great film Ikiru. Even so, that’s what the name suggests to me: a Tokyo bureaucrat who has been given only months to live, a nowhere man going nowhere. In fact, the first-person narrator of Norwegian Wood is probably one of the most autobiographical characters in Murakami’s world of fiction. He’s 19, a college student working in a record store who refers casually to John Coltrane, Thelonius Monk, and albums by Miles Davis like Kind of Blue; he’s read and reread Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby and has obviously lived with the works of J.D. Salinger, for instance the Salingeresque nuances in Midori’s quirky view on life, and the moment Reiko says to Wantanabe: “You’ve got this funny way of talking … Don’t tell me you’re trying to imitate that boy in Catcher in the Rye?” More than once in Jay Rubin’s Murakami-overseen translation, Wantanabe definitely sounds like Holden (“Whaddya want me to say?”)
The Murakami of Rock
My epigraph is taken from Keith Reid’s lyric “Quite Rightly So,” a song on Procol Harum’s second album, Shine On Brightly. In a review centered on the Beatles’ Norwegian Wood, it might have been more appropriate to simply use a line from Lennon & McCartney or Harrison, but I’ve done that already in the review and as writers they have less in common with Murakami than the mysterious lyricist who was remembered a year ago in the New York Times for his “surreal paradoxes” that invoked “literary and historical allusions and spun tall tales, sometimes at the same time.” While it may seem presumptuous to call Reid the Murakami of rock, his wonderfully “wild and whirling words” fit well with a novelist known for fusing “the realistic and fantastic” in works that have won the World Fantasy Award and the Franz Kafka Prize.
It also seems very Murakami that Reid, the forever offstage member of Procol Harum, should appear a year before his own death in a March 2022 Times obituary for singer and composer Gary Brooker, the man who set his lyrics to music. Reid died this past March 23, a year and a month after his songwriting partner. Remembering Brooker last March, I suggested that he and Reid can be spoken of in the same breath with Lennon and McCartney. Whether they will ever be recognized in those terms, the process may have begun in 2018 when “Whiter Shade of Pale” was admitted to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in a newly established category for songs.
I hope I’m right in assuming that Murakami knows and admires Reid’s work. He would surely be intrigued by his background. His father was one of more than six thousand Jews arrested during Kristallnacht, November 9-10, 1938. After a brief internment in Dachau, he fled to England along with a younger brother. The paternal grandparents Reid never knew were apparently Holocaust victims. I hope to write a full appreciation of Reid in a future column.