About the Book by Haruki Murakami Titled “Novelist As a Vocation”—It Blends Writing Advice and Memoir

From a New York Times review by Charles Finch of the book by Haruki Murakami titled “Novelist as a Vocation”:

Since 2007, success as a novelist settled comfortably upon him, the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami has, in his eccentric way, been writing an autobiography. Without advertising itself as such, it nevertheless keeps arriving, piecemeal: first a short, brilliant book about his habits as a daily runner, later a long essay about his father, most recently an illustrated compendium of his T-shirt collection.

And now he’s written “Novelist as a Vocation,” a reflection on his career. It blends writing advice and memoir, tracking his early triumphs — in typically magical Murakamian fashion, he won a prize for his first novel after submitting his only copy of the manuscript to the judges — through his years as an international star, his work translated into more than 50 languages, his betting odds for the Nobel Prize very short each October.

The result is a book that’s assured, candid and often — never meet your heroes, they say — deeply irritating.

Murakami’s greatness as a novelist is incontestable. Of his 14 novels published in English, at least three are masterpieces, and all are worth reading. The finest of them is “The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle,” first published in 1994, which represents the apotheosis of his early style: a first-person narration, in lucid, unassuming sentences, that reveals dreamlike depths within its protagonist’s modest Tokyo life. The sublime tension of Murakami’s work is that his writing is simple and open (Hemingway and Carver are among his heroes) while the world it depicts gets only more mystifying, an uncanny naturalism that augured writers such as David Mitchell and Jesmyn Ward.

In its strongest passages, ably translated by Philip Gabriel and Ted Goosen, “Novelist as a Vocation” shares these qualities of transparency and deep thought. There’s a wonderful account of the epiphany that led Murakami to become a novelist, which took place at a Tokyo baseball game in 1978. “The sky was a sparkling blue,” he remembers, “the draft beer as cold as cold could be, and the ball strikingly white against the green field. … In that instant, and based on no grounds whatsoever, it suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.”

But aside from these rare moments, the book makes for a weird, cranky document. Its chapters focus on subjects that should be useful to any aspiring or working writer — originality, literary prizes, publishing abroad — yet each somehow collapses in on Murakami’s experience, leaving only traces of practical advice, and a narrator who seems at once proud, complacent, tone-deaf and aggrieved.

The first lesson he wants to impart is that writing is easy. “To tell the truth, I have never found writing painful,” he says. “What’s the point of writing, anyway, if you’re not enjoying it? I can’t get my head around the idea of ‘the suffering writer.’ Basically, I think, novels should emerge in a spontaneous flow.” What is a young writer to make of this? Murakami presses the idea again and again, and it no doubt explains his productivity and fluency, yet the fact remains that for nearly every writer other than him, the work is frequently awful, “a long, sunken fatigue,” in Proust’s words, a “bout with some painful illness,” in Orwell’s.

Of course, Murakami has only his own practice to summon. But in other matters as well he seems fatally limited by his experiences. Take his chapter on literary prizes, the book’s nadir. On never having served on a selection jury: “I am just too much of an individualist. I am a person with a fixed vision and a fixed process for giving that vision shape.” On critics: “One saving grace — or at least a possible salvation — for me is the fact that so many literary critics have harshly criticized my works.” “Being only Haruki Murakami is just fine with me,” he concludes.

The accumulation of lines like these is punishing, but what’s worse is the strange anti-factuality of the whole endeavor — a huge central evasion, which is that Murakami is not just another professional novelist, but a titanic figure in Japanese and world culture, one of the few people, from all eight billion of us, whose stories draw a crowd up to the primeval campfire. The author himself seems delighted but incurious about the situation. “Apart from the fact that many of my women readers are quite beautiful — this is no lie — there’s no characteristic that they all share,” he says. Well, OK.

The conundrum here is that Murakami’s generosity of spirit is such a central part of his fiction. Perhaps the difficulty is that this is a book full of prosaic explanations, unleavened by vision — the opposite of his fiction, which speaks finally for the truth of images more than language, until the setting sun, the thin moon, the curl of a wave, old friends in non-comprehension, seem to exist inside his characters.

When Hilary Mantel died recently, I thought with a pang of real sorrow — oh, there goes one. At any moment on our planet there are at most a few dozen novelists working with great power, for a broad audience, with the material of consciousness, which is what the novel is so uniquely good at handling, how it feels to be inside us, what it means, the devastations and beauties it brings. Murakami is one of them. If his book about that experience is fitful and odd, perhaps it reveals, rather than diminishes, the undomesticated radiance of his gifts. “I am not an ornithologist,” Saul Bellow once said. “I am a bird.”

Charles Finch is the author of “What Just Happened: Notes on a Long Year,” a chronicle of the pandemic.

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