One of the most pleasant surprises I’ve had in the past couple years involves three encounters with the work of Haruki Murakami. In isolation, I would not have considered any one of them to have been revelatory but all together they comprised a unique way of getting to know an author and left me with several ideas that have affected the way I think about my day-to-day life.
I was introduced to Murakami when The New Yorker published an essay called “The Running Novelist” that was an excerpt from his forthcoming memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. The piece appeared in the late spring, at the time of the year when I am traditionally most enthusiastic about running, and it was fronted by an illustration of Murakami in his marathon gear that caught my eye.
The essay described how when he was thirty Murakami remade himself from a jazz club owner into a novelist. The process did not happen all at once. He wrote his first novel in the predawn hours after he’d finished tallying receipts and washing down the bar. His writing sessions sometimes lasted only half an hour, at which point he’d fall asleep. Even under those conditions Murakami was able to mine the talent that would eventually make him famous. He submitted his manuscript, later titled Hear the Wind Sing, to a contest for aspiring novelists. Some months later he found out he’d won.
Over the next two years Murakami wrote two more novels in this same way (Pinball, 1973 and A Wild Sheep Chase) but eventually he realized there were limits to what he could accomplish so long as writing remained a secondary activity in his life. When he was thirty-two Murakami sold his jazz club and with his wife moved to Narashino, a rural town fifteen miles outside of Tokyo. There he set about reordering his life. He began waking up around the time he’d formerly gone to bed and went to sleep when the sun set. He gave up alcohol and meat, cut down on rice, and “decided that from then on we’d try to see only the people we wanted to see, and, as much as possible, get by without seeing those we didn’t.” He would write in the morning, do errands in the afternoon, and read at night. He started running every day.
What appealed to me most about Murakami’s essay was the way it joined something very big, like writing a novel, with something very small, like what time each day to go to bed. I was twenty-seven at the time and still very much befuddled by the large-scale project of adult life. Murakami’s essay was not a panacea, but it did sketch a type of path that I thought I might be capable of following. While I may not have known exactly what I wanted from the next fifty years, with a little reflection I could parse the minor decisions in my days—what to eat, who to see, how to spend the last hour before bed. I hoped, maybe against odds, that the answers to larger questions would resolve themselves out of the gradual buildup of small but deliberate choices.
My next encounter with Murakami took place a year later—in August 2009—when I finally got around to reading his memoir. What I Talk About When I Talk About Running is a short book (I read it in a single night) that is framed by Murakami’s preparation for the 2005 New York Marathon and gathers together his reflections on his more than thirty years as a writer and a runner.
The prose in the memoir is spare even by Murakami standards. Not all reviewers were taken with this approach—one said of the book, “It’s not bad, but it’s sort of ordinary and doesn’t amount to much”—but I thought the straightforward writing allowed What I Talk About to feel notably honest. Running is a simple pursuit and Murakami presents himself as an unadorned man and it made sense to me that the style of the book would reflect those facts.
There is one particular piece from What I Talk About that has stayed with me in the ten months since I finished reading the book. It is Murakami talking about the initial stages of training for a marathon:
To keep on going, you have to keep up the rhythm. This is the important thing for long-term projects. Once you set the pace, the rest will follow. The problem is getting the flywheel to spin at a set speed–and to get to that point takes as much concentration and effort as you can manage.
In the same way that people pace a marathon by thinking about how fast they want to run each mile, I think Murakami paces his life by thinking about what actions, in what quantity, and in what order he wants to be part of his daily routine.
It’s a seductive idea once you think about it—and I’d say I’ve thought about it almost every day since reading What I Talk About. “[G]etting the flywheel to spin at a set speed” applies to running, of course, and to writing, but also to endeavors like being nice or raising a child that are less amenable to being broken down into unit measurements. It’s definitely not an approach for everyone. In the same way that a lot of people find distance running to be tedious, the routine and austerity of Murakami’s days might seem to lack an essential zest. But for anyone who has a hard time seeing how today fits with the rest of his life, I think this way of looking at things makes a lot of sense.
After reading Murakami’s memoir, I was eager to try his fiction—I wanted to see what types of stories grew out of the mind of the deliberate, self-aware runner I’d been introduced to in What I Talk About. In February I went to the branch of the Philadelphia Free Library near my apartment and scanned the shelves until I found Murakami’s name. The only book the library had in at that time was Kafka on the Shore.
It does not take much imagination to figure that Kafka and What I Talk About were written by the same person. The protagonists in the two books are both best pictured alone, on a journey to a place they have not yet identified. Music features prominently in both stories, and while What I Talk About is hardly sensual, I thought that the way Murakami described the bounce of a coed’s ponytail as she ran past him along the Charles River foreshadowed the sexuality in Kafka. Both books are also distinguished for the way that they engage primary emotions that other writers might consider too cliché to confront head on.
Just as with What I Talk About, there is a single passage from Kafka that has stayed with since I finished the book. It is Kafka speaking to a woman named Miss Saeki who he is in love with, and it was here that the connection between Murakami the memoirist and Murakami the novelist was most clear to me. Kafka says:
“The strength I’m looking for isn’t the kind where you win or lose. I’m not after a wall that’ll repel power coming from outside. What I want is the kind of strength to be able to absorb that outside power, to stand up to it. The strength to quietly endure things—unfairness, misfortune, sadness, mistakes, misunderstandings.”
Here I think Kafka is giving voice to the reasons why Murakami runs and tries to be so purposeful about his days. It is easy, in the face of the hard moments that feature in any life, to come unmoored from the ways of thinking, feeling and acting we’d otherwise want for ourselves. But there are also ways to fight back, and I think this is what Murakami—and anyone else—stands to gain from careful attention to the shape of the day. As he put it in his New Yorker essay, “[L]ife is basically unfair. But, even in a situation that’s unfair, I think it’s possible to seek out a kind of fairness.”