Revisiting Norwegian Wood in Japanese: Knots of Air (Week 1)

Revisiting Murakami’s Norwegian Wood is like a nightmare that has come back to haunt you. I’ve recoiled at the mere mention of its name, inspiring dread and boredom. I remember reading it back in high school at Singapore; I was sixteen maybe and was sitting on this one bench on the third floor that oversaw the whole field. My copy was from Heathrow Airport’s book store and Murakami was my first real contemporary writer. I’ve also bought Naomi (痴人の愛) by Junichiro Tanizaki and After Dark by Murakami, both I love very dearly. But Norwegian Wood, despite having the title of a decent Beatles track, had fogged up my memory. I couldn’t recall any sort of memory reading it except images, scenes, and the numerous sex scenes. And oh yes, the tanks. The memories were all turning into mud, just dirty mud that got stuck on your boot.

Now, I’m twenty-two in Chicago and one of the class texts is, of course, Norwegian Wood. I have to study it for its writing techniques and other writerly things. I love my fate, thank you very much Nietzsche, so I shall stay for the night to write a response on the first few fifty pages. “But wait,” I said to my professor, “may I read this book in Japanese?” My professor was all excited and said, “Yes, please tell us how different it is.”

I have actually told my professor that Murakami reads basically the same as translations, but the fear of “losing meaning” in translations shall always override any reason.

So today I have read up to chapter three, which is about 86 pages in the 上/Part One (286 pages total). The original Norwegian Wood is split up into two books; most of Murakami’s novels are like that because they are quite long by Japanese standards.

I hope I have grown up from my pretentious hipster teenage self who preferred to watch The Element of Crime over The Princess Bride. In fact, I doubt my series of posts on Norwegian Wood will be very negative. If it is negative, it is at least a side-effect of being critical as I reexamine Norwegian Wood and possibly myself as I read the work. I want to put myself into check whether I actually mean it when I say I try to read works critically with an awareness of my biases or not. Many people seem interested in how I read too (unless I am so narcissistic and in reality, people think I’m insane) so I feel like this is an opportunity for me to note down things I’ve observed before I forget. I do need these notes for class discussion on Monday anyway.

So let’s talk about Murakami. Contemporary Japanese writer, likes jazz and classical music, magical realist writer (whatever this means). He has been nominated for Nobel Prize in Literature aka the award no one in literary circles care. John Updike has called Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore not only a pageturner but a “metaphysical mind-bender” in the New Yorker. Michiko Kakutani of the New York Times is more cautious, suggesting that while Wind-up Bird Chronicle is ambitious it “often seems so messy that its refusal of closure feels less like an artistic choice than simple laziness, a reluctance on the part of the author to run his manuscript through the typewriter (or computer) one last time.” In Japan, many critics and writers have divided themselves into two camps. Critic Fukuda Kazuya (福田和也) claims that in his ranking of writers Murakami is one of the best writers since Natsume Soseki. Saitou Tamaki, the psychologist most famous for coining the term hikikomori and also critic, has an eloquent description of Murakami’s popularity, which I will now translate poorly:

村上春樹の文学は結婚詐欺で、読者は皆、それに騙されたがっている人たちだ。彼の人気はベッカムが人気があるのに似ている。サッカーは知らないがベッカムは好き。といった状態だ。

Haruki Murakami’s writing is practically like a marriage scam. The people who read his books are those who want to be fooled by the scam. This situation is much like David Beckham’s popularity; people who don’t know soccer love Beckham.

It’s hard to not accumulate this knowledge as I start rereading Norwegian Wood in Japanese. My professor has read the beginning of the book in English aloud and I can remember the memories trickling back. We have just finished reading a few pages of Orlando: A Biography and are practically exhausted from Woolf’s listing of images forever and ever. To read something as simple as Murakami is a relief.

As my professor read aloud in her earthy voice, mispronouncing Watanabe and Naoko a couple of times, I have scribbled everything that has caught my mind’s eye on my notebooks. Most of these words don’t mean much but small glimmers of images. But the ones that stick out and actually relive a certain memory have something in common: they are concrete:

“… that day in the meadow, mountain a brilliant green, one long strand of cloud on a dome of blue … hazy sound, two bright red birds dart into a meadow, two of us together … the smell, the bark … no one is there, tiny cold hands, straight black hair…”

My notes on Orlando, by the way, are titled “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” and are far, far detailed because Woolf is more insistent in listing tangible, concrete images:

“… deers swarming, single oak tree, 19 English counties or 40 if weather is fine, English cute, rivers with boats, mansion circled with walls, east spires of London … the pheasants, the back of the great horses, the little leaves hug, the dragonfly flew past, a body webbed by nature, red clouds turned red … abyss black, trumpet…”

I do remember my wrist aching when I was noting down images for Orlando.

And so, my professor assigns us fifty pages to read from both books. Like every good college student, I procrastinate (furi: well, I actually have work to submit but I’m bad at time management) until the weekends. I start reading the beginning of Norwegian Wood again, this time in Japanese.

And the first thing that strikes me is how un-Japanese the writing is.

I’ve read and dropped Kafka on the Shore in Japanese before since that was the only major novel outside Tsukuru Tanizaki I haven’t read. But I do not recall if Kafka was this dense:

Japanese writing doesn’t usually have these long ass paragraphs. Lines are divided up by 段落 (danraku), which are uh vague. They really are line breaks and do not constitute the belief of “a paragraph is an idea”. Sometimes, they’re just one sentences. A million years ago, Moogy-heika-dono-sama has shown me this interesting paper on writers who have written in 段落 for their whole lives try to write in paragraphs. It’s quite interesting if you want to check out the difference in composition. The nonexistence of topic sentences in Japanese is quite mind-blowing when you think about it.

I have realized that I take for granted how 段落 and paragraphs work whenever I read. It’s hard to follow what Murakami writes in Japanese as his paragraphs are unbelievably long:

 直子はその日珍しくよくしゃべった。子供の頃のことや、学校のことや、家庭のことを彼女は話した。どれも長い話で、まるで細密画みたいに克明だった。たいした記憶力だなと僕はそんな話を聞きながら感心していた。しかしそのうちに僕は彼女のしゃべり方に含まれている何かがだんだん気になりだした。何かがおかしいのだ。何かが不自然で歪んでいるのだ。ひとつひとつの話はまともでちゃんと筋もとおっているのだが、そのつながり方がどうも奇妙なのだ。Aの話がいつのまにかそれに含まれるBの話になり、やがてBに含まれるCの話になり、それがどこまでもどこまでもつづいた。終りというものがなかった。僕ははじめのうちは適当に合槌を打っていたのだが、そのうちにそれもやめた。僕はレコードをかけ、それが終ると針を上げて次のレコードをかけた。ひととおり全部かけてしまうと、また最初のレコードをかけた。レコードは全部で六枚くらいしかなく、サイクルの最初は『サージャント・ペパーズ・ロンリー・ハーツ・クラブ・バンド』で、最後はビル・エヴァンスの『ワルツ・フォー・デビー』だった。窓の外では雨が降りつづけていた。時間はゆっくりと流れ、直子は一人でしゃべりつづけていた。

Naoko was unusually talkative that night. She told me about her childhood, her school, her family. Each episode was a long one, executed with the painstaking detail of a miniature. I was amazed at the power of her memory, but as I sat listening it began to dawn on me that there was something wrong with the way she was telling these 47 stories: something strange, warped even. Each tale had its own internal logic, but the link from one to the next was odd. Before you knew it, story A had turned into story B, which had been contained in A, and then came C from something in B, with no end in sight. I found things to say in response at first, but after a while I stopped trying. I put on a record, and when it ended I lifted the needle and put on another. After the last record I went back to the first. She only had six. The cycle started with Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band and ended with Bill Evans’ Waltz for Debbie. Rain fell past the window. Time moved slowly. Naoko went on talking by herself.

This ain’t Mareni whose writing gives us breaks through commas (remember: Japanese commas don’t signify a separate clause or whatever; they are just pauses). This is just Murakami not knowing how to press the Enter button. But it is far easier to read in English because Murakami does supply us with a topic sentence and the paragraph ends because the idea in the topic sentence has been explored with a full stop. In Japanese, it’s just a lot of words.

I only encounter this wordspam whenever Murakami goes into descriptions of places and character’s mannerisms.

First, places: Watanabe Toru (he is called ワタナベ for some reason — a bunch of characters’ names like 直子/Naoko are referred in kanji and others are in katakana) is moving into the dorm for the first time. He observes the buildings around him:

 その寮は都内の見晴しの良い高台にあった。敷地は広く、まわりを高いコンクリートの塀に囲まれていた。門をくぐると正面には巨大なけやきの木がそびえ立っている。樹齢は少くとも百五十年ということだった。根もとに立って上を見あげると空はその線の葉にすっぽりと覆い隠されてしまう。
コンクリートの舗道はそのけやきの巨木を迂回するように曲り、それから再び長い直線となって中庭を横切っている。中庭の両側には鉄筋コンクリート三階建ての棟がふたつ、平行に並んでいる。窓の沢山ついた大きな建物で、アパートを改造した刑務所かあるいは刑務所を改造したアパートみたいな印象を見るものに与える。しかし決して不潔ではないし、暗い印象もない。開け放しになった窓からはラジオの音が聴こえる。窓のカーテンはどの部屋も同じクリーム色、日焼けがいちばん目立たない色だ。
舗道をまっすぐ行った正面には二階建ての本部建物がある。一階には食堂と大きな浴場、二階には講堂といくつかの集会室、それから何に使うのかは知らないけれど貴賓室まである。本部建物のとなりには三つめの寮棟がある。これも三階建てだ。中庭は広く、録の芝生の中ではスプリンクラーが太陽の光を反射させながらぐるぐると回っている。本部建物の裏手には野球とサッカーの兼用グラウンドとテニス・コートが六面ある。至れり尽せりだ。

Located on a hill in the middle of the city with open views, the dormitory compound sat on a large quadrangle surrounded by a concrete wall. A huge, towering zelkova tree stood just inside the front gate. People said it was at least 150 years old. Standing at its base, you could look up and see nothing of the sky through its dense cover of green leaves.
The paved path leading from the gate circumvented the tree and continued on long and straight across a broad quadrangle, two three-story concrete dorm buildings facing each other on either side of the path. They were large with lots of windows and gave the impression of being either flats that had been converted into jails or jails that had been converted into flats. However there was nothing dirty about them, nor did they feel dark. You could hear radios playing through open windows, all of which had the same cream-coloured curtains that the sun could not fade.
Beyond the two dormitories, the path led up to the entrance of a two-story common building, the first floor of which contained a dining hall and bathrooms, the second consisting of an auditorium, meeting rooms, and even guest rooms, whose use I could never fathom. Next to the common building stood a third dormitory, also three storeys high. Broad green lawns filled the quadrangle, and circulating sprinklers caught the sunlight as they turned. Behind the common building there was a field used for baseball and football, and six tennis courts. The complex had everything you could want

This paragraph is interesting to examine because it creates spatial relations in the world Murakami is building. We are following his map with Watanabe as the tour guide through this dorm and its surroundings. Hell, I think we’re in Watanabe’s shoes as we walk around the dorm and seeing all these flats sandwich us. We like to remember lyrical descriptions of places fondly, but I argue the best descriptions should include those that do it plainly. This part in Norwegian Wood is an example of that because we do see the dorm’s layout clearly.

When it comes to character mannerisms, Murakami likes to sperg on this a lot. This is understandable because how else do we understand a character through their quirks? Quirks, mannerisms, habits are what makes characters alive. Murakami uses this to actually characterize the right-wing nature of the dorm:

 寮の一日は荘厳な国旗掲揚とともに始まる。もちろん国歌も流れる。スポーツ・ニュースからマーチが切り離せないように、国旗掲揚から国歌は切り離せない。国旗掲揚台は中庭のまん中にあってどの寮棟の窓からも見えるようになっている。
国旗を掲揚するのは東棟(僕の入っている寮だ)の寮長の役目だった。背が高くて目つきの鋭い六十前後の男だ。いかにも硬そうな髪にいくらか白髪がまじり、日焼けした首筋に長い傷あとがある。この人物は陸軍中野学校の出身という話だったが、これも真偽のほどはわからない。そのとなりにはこの国旗掲揚を手伝う助手の如き立場の学生が控えている。この学生のことは誰もよく知らない。丸刈りで、いつも学生服を着ている。名前も知らないし、どの部屋に住んでいるのかもわからない。食堂でも風呂でも一度も顔をあわせたことがない。本当に学生なのかどうかさえわからない。まあしかし学生服を着ているからにはやはり学生なのだろう。そうとしか考えようがない。そして中野学校氏とは逆に背が低く、小太りで色か白い。この不気味きわまりない二人組が毎朝六時に寮の中庭に日の丸をあげるわけだ。
僕は寮に入った当初、もの珍しさからわざわざ六時に起きてよくこの愛国的儀式を見物したものである。朝の六時、ラジオの時報が鳴るのと殆んど同時に二人は中庭に姿を見せる。学生服はもちろん、学生服に黒の皮靴、中野学校はジャンパーに白の運動靴という相好である。学生服は桐の薄い箱を持っている。中野学校はソニーのポータブル・テープレコーダーを下げている。中野学校がテープレコーダーを掲揚台の足もとに置く。学生服が桐の箱をあける。箱の中にはきちんと折り畳まれた国旗が入っている。学生服が中野学校にうやうやしく旗を差し出す。中野学校がロープに旗をつける。学生服がテープレコーダーのスイッチを押す。
君が代。
そして旗がするするとポールを上っていく。
「さざれ石のお──」というあたりで旗はポールのまん中あたり、「まあで──」というところで頂上にのぼりつめる。そして二人は背筋をしゃんとのばして(気をつけ)の姿勢をとり、国旗そまっすぐに見あげる。空が晴れてうまく風が吹いていれば、これはなかなかの光景である。

Each day began with the solemn raising of the flag. They played the national anthem, too, of course. You can’t have one without the other. The flagpole stood in the very center of the compound, where it was visible from every window of all three dormitories.
The Head of the east dormitory (my building) was in charge of the flag. He was a tall, eagle-eyed man in his late fifties or early sixties. His bristly hair was flecked with grey, and his sunburned neck bore a long scar. People whispered that he was a graduate of the wartime Nakano spy school, but no one knew for sure. Next to him stood a student who acted as his assistant. No one really knew this guy, either. He had the world’s shortest crewcut and always wore a navy-blue student uniform. I didn’t know his name or which room he lived in, never saw him in the dining hall or the bath. I’m not even sure he was a student, though you would think he must have been, given the uniform – which quickly became his nickname. In contrast to Sir Nakano, “Uniform” was short, pudgy and pasty-faced. This creepy couple would raise the banner of the Rising Sun every morning at six. When I first entered the dormitory, the sheer novelty of the event would often prompt me to get up early to observe this patriotic ritual. The two would appear in the quadrangle at almost the exact moment the radio beeped the six o’clock signal. Uniform was wearing his uniform, of course, with black leather shoes, and Nakano wore a short jacket and white trainers. Uniform held a ceremonial box of untreated paulownia wood, while Nakano carried a Sony tape recorder at his side. He placed this at the base of the flagpole, while Uniform opened the box to reveal a neatly folded banner. This he reverentially proffered to Nakano, who would clip it to the rope on the flagpole, revealing the bright red circle of the Rising Sun on a field of pure white. Then Uniform pressed the switch for the playing of the anthem.
“May Our Lord’s Reign…”
And up the flag would climb.
“Until pebbles turn to boulders …” It would reach halfway up the pole.
“And be covered with moss.”
Now it was at the top. The two stood to attention, rigid, looking up at the flag, which was quite a sight on clear days when the wind was blowing.

These two super duper minor characters and their religious ritual of raising the flag may be the vocal minority, but they represent how absurdly right-wing and nationalistic this dorm is.

It will, of course, foreshadow the upcoming student riots. Murakami is setting up how dorm life is always like. When the tanks start rolling in, then of course this ritual ends. It is much like how fairy tales always start like “Once upon a time, long time ago, the Smurfs lived happily. They always liked to cut wood and sing songs on the campfire. Until the Big Bad Wolf came.” It’s the until that starts the story. Till then, we get some fun and interesting setup.

Also, it’s interesting how this small event eclipses previous paragraphs where Toru talks about the political gossips surrounding this dorm. The image of two dudes raising the Flag of the Rising Sun is far more potent than the usual narration in this book which I will talk about in the next post, I think.

Naoko’s second appearance has this:

 我々は殆んど毎週会って、そんな具合に歩きまわっていた。彼女が先に立ち、僕がその少しうしろを歩いた。直子はいろんなかたちの髪どめを持っていて、いつも右側の耳を見せていた。僕はその頃彼女のうしろ姿ばかり見ていたせいで、そういうことだけを今でもよく覚えている。直子は恥かしいときにはよく髪どめを手でいじった。そしてしょっちゅうハンカチで口もとを拭いた。ハンカチで口を拭くのは何かしゃべりたいことがあるときの癖だった。そういうのを見ているうちに、僕は少しずつ直子に対して好感を抱くようになってきた。

We kept on walking like this almost every weekend. She would lead, and I would follow close behind. Naoko had a variety of hairslides and always wore them with her right ear exposed. I remember her most clearly this way, from the back. She would toy with her hairslide whenever she felt embarrassed by something. And she was always dabbing at her mouth with a handkerchief. She did this whenever she had something to say. The more I observed these habits of hers, the more I came to like her.

We get not only a glimpse of Naoko’s moe (pardon my literary jargon) but Toru’s perceptiveness. In the first chapter, Toru is trying to remember how Naoko looks like and all he can see is abstraction. One of the conflicts that haunts Norwegian Wood is the problem of memory especially with appearances and death. Naoko asks Toru to remember her in the end of the flashback at chapter one, but Toru remembers nothing. But this slide of the hair he does remember.

Naoko also unwittingly suggests she is innocent, exposing herself to danger, and I don’t think I am not the only one who finds Toru’s narration here kinda creepy. I mean, sure, we can read the last line as something charming and gentlemanly. I would have rendered the line as pure as yuri when I read it in high school. But my cynical self today will raise his eyebrows. Is this foreshadowing how much of a fucking loser Toru becomes in the end (or beginning) of the book? If you recall the lyrics of “Norwegian Wood”, then you may understand why I find this moment very interesting.

And so, I understand why these paragraphs are wordspams compared to the others: it’s because these descriptions are actually packed with concrete images and information. They let you visualize the scene and hence, the easiest to excerpt without the need of much context. I find excerpting scenes out of context a good way to figure out if the image sticks with you or not.

But most people who have Norwegian Wood will be surprised I haven’t mentioned anything of the abstract so far. To me, personally, those are the weakest parts of Murakami’s writings.

It’s easy to find these passages. Murakami’s works are filled with these. Norwegian Wood is more blunt with these abstractions because it’s not surreal like anything in his previous works like The Rat Trilogy.

しかしどれだけ忘れてしまおうとしても、僕の中には何かぼんやりとした空気のかたまりのようなものが残った。そして時が経つにつれてそのかたまりははっきりとした単純なかたちをとりはじめた。僕はそのかたちを言葉に置きかえることができる。それはこういうことだった。

死は生の対極としてではなく、その一部として存在している。

言葉にしてしまうと平凡だが、そのときの僕はそれを言葉としてではなく、ひとつの空気のかたまりとして身のうちに感じたのだ。文鎮の中にも、ビリヤード台の上に並んだ赤と白の四個のボールの中にも死は存在していた。そして我々はそれをまるで細かいちりみたいに肺の中に吸いこみながら生きているのだ。

I tried hard to forget, but there remained inside me a vague knot of air. And as time went by, the knot began to take on a clear and simple form, a form that I am able to put into words, like this:

Death exists, not as the opposite but as a part of life.

It’s a cliché translated into words, but at the time I felt it not as words but as that knot of air inside me. Death exists – in a paperweight, in four red and white balls on a pool table – and we go on living and breathing it into our lungs like fine dust.

This paragraph is just cheesy and what you’d expect to read from bad poetry. It tries to be philosophical on the concept of death while Toru struggles with it internally, but utterly fails because the metaphors are clumsy. What does the 「空気のかたまりのようなもの」 (a vague knot of air) mean and how does it remain inside you? How in the world does that knot become clearer and simpler and then, become a form that one can put into words? I can see what Murakami is trying to do as it is a human reaction to try and find words that capture our state of distress. But the narration becomes waxing poetic, especially when we get to the part about the cliche. There is one neat literary trick in this paragraph however: Murakami mentions the pool table, which becomes a small motif in this scene.

Remember Saitou Tamaki who compared Murakami’s undeserved fame to Beckham’s? He talks about why he thinks Murakami’s writing is a marriage scam: his words are so abstract that it has a fake impenetrable depth to it. The reader can project anything he or she wants to Murakami’s words. Vagueness is plastic surgery of beauty.

The one that offends me gravely is, of course,「空気のかたまりのようなもの」. It could mean anything. I have come up with several interpretations: solitude, loneliness, depression, emptiness… It’s infinite because it’s vague.

This problem does challenge my philosophy of reading and aesthetics. I have always believed that the more interpretations, the better since the novel is an interpretation-generation machine. But I guess I have to be more explicit: only the novel is allowed this treatment. If a phrase is this vague, it’s just bad writing and doesn’t deserve examination. You would expect people to get offended by this sort of vagueness (furi: bewitchery) but Google ‘Murakami “knot of air”‘ and get real wrong.

But is it just me? Am I just offended by anything that I perceive as manipulative and vague? Is everything I perceive in this book as negative really a reflection that I am a hypocrite when I say, “I try to look for the positives and love every book as hard as I can!”?

I have grown to be less sure that there are such things as “objective standards”, which are probably more like institutionalized criterions by the cultures I am in. It is difficult whether what I perceive as negative is a case of value-judgment or poor writing.

I know, for one, I still giggle like an idiot whenever I see the word “penis” in printed text:

僕は彼女にくちづけし、乳房をやわらかく手で包んだ。直子は僕の固くなったペニスを握った。彼女のヴァギナはあたたかく濡れて僕を求めていた。

I kissed her and held her soft breasts in my hands. She clutched at my erection. Her opening was warm and wet and asking for me.

Maturity as a writer and an adult is impossible to gauge, but I am beginning to feel that I kinda need it.

Putting the dull anxieties aside, I finish the assigned reading. The last page of chapter 3 ends with a total contrast from the “knot of air”: this 空気のかたまりのようなもの has materialized into something tangible — a firefly.

 瓶の底で螢はかすかに光っていた。しかしその光はあまりにも弱く、その色はあまりにも淡かった。僕が最後に螢を見たのはずっと昔のことだったが、その記憶の中では螢はもっとくっきりとした鮮かな光を夏の闇の中に放っていた。僕はずっと螢というのはそういう鮮かな燃えたつような光を放つものと思いこんでいたのだ。

The firefly made a faint glow in the bottom of the jar, its light all too weak, its colour all too pale. I hadn’t seen a firefly in years, but the ones in my memory sent a far more intense light into the summer darkness, and that brilliant, burning image was the one that had stayed with me all that time.

And I feel confident that I am actually right on this matter. Toru releasing the firefly is an image I can actually see and conjecture about unlike the knot of air. We don’t need the literary snazz of vagueness to grasp the reader’s emotions. Concrete images are what make good writing (and poetry) stick in the reader’s mind. Abstract, fleeting things like emotion can only make an impression on us if we see something like a firefly disappear into the darkness.

Anyway, this blog post is too long now and I only wanted to write this as a way to warm up my writing skills. I hope you enjoy this blog post.

また、来週

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6 thoughts on “Revisiting Norwegian Wood in Japanese: Knots of Air (Week 1)

  1. Moogy February 14, 2016 / 10:51 am

    Interesting that the last excerpt translated 思い込んでいた as “stayed with me.” I feel like the Japanese version there has a slightly exasperated nuance to it, like he’s kind of disappointed with himself for believing fireflies to be something grander than they really are. Meanwhile the English version just comes across as kind of… sentimental recollection or something, and I don’t think Murakami’s writing needs to get any more sentimental, lol. Dunno, maybe I’m overthinking it or there’s some additional context, but the verb 思い込む in this usage does carry a negative impression for me.

    If nothing else, I guess that’s a good example of how even a small change (or difference of interpretation) can make a passage come across very differently across languages/translations.

    Also, “get real wrong.” Your command of the English language never ceases to impress me.

    • Kastel February 14, 2016 / 10:59 am

      I neglected to talk about the strange translation choices Jay Rubin did because I felt like I would have digressed more than Ikuhara’s plots. But there were some lines that made me question if this was either a stylistic translation choice or just bad translating.

      そう考えると僕はたまらなく哀しい。何故なら直子は僕のことを愛してさえいなかったからだ。
      The thought fills me with an almost unbearable sorrow. Because Naoko never loved me.

       彼女はテーブルの上の灰皿をとくに意味もなくいじりまわしていた。
      She was playing with the ashtray on the table.

      「今日は珍しく真剣だったじゃないか」と僕は訊いてみた。
      “Why so serious?” I asked.

      There is a top Amazon US review that asks potential buyers to buy the Birnbaum translation instead. If I am bored enough, I’ll check that translation. Though I do recall getting weirded out by Birnbaum’s Hardboiled Wonderland and the End of the World.

      Alas, these errors are not as masterful as my “get real wrong” expression. Only I can get real wrong with English. If only Murakami can get inspired by my colorful use of the English language, his prose will definitely improve.

  2. chinjianxiong February 14, 2016 / 1:02 pm

    So in the end you do know how to evaluate objectively after all!

    The reason why the metaphor fails isn’t that its vague. It’s that its boring. It’s a simple stating of internal emptiness that goes all the way back to the banal rambling of Plath’s angsty Bell Jar:

    “I felt very still and empty, the way the eye of a tornado must feel, moving dully along in the middle of the surrounding hullabaloo.”

    And the cheapness isn’t from the fact that its abstractly open (the part I disagree with, because something that’s vague, when placed at the correct spots, can give ten times more weight), but simply from the fact that its vague without thought, applied indiscreetly to banal existential ruminations Death.

    John Green commits roughly the same sin with: “Some infinities are bigger than other infinities” etc… An abstraction that simply fails because its used to explicate on melodramatic sickgirl stuff.

    Furthermore he does that thing that David Foster Wallace likes to do where he even admits its a cliche, then twists it over to say that “Oh its a cliche but its like cliches are so completely real and an expression of unvarnished truths in our system” bullshit. Kind of like a comedian going “don’t judge me guizzzzeeeeee” after a bad joke.

    If you want two examples of people who express the same vagueness, in almost the same form even, yet simply kill the cliche dead at it, would be The Snow Man by Wallace Stevens, and The Infinite by Leopardi.

    http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/174502
    http://www.solearabiantree.net/namingofparts/infinite.html

    The first uses an equivalent of the empty knot, and the second uses the equivalent of stillness + an eternity, but its because they are tight in their momentum that they use it to open up into a panorama that goes beyond cliche into genuine pathos. Vagueness as merely an expression of the things larger than ourselves, but rooted firmly in concrete notions. Rilke also does it a lot but he blows it out of proportion by being absolutely on touch when he places his abstractions.

    On the other hand, I actually like the “in a paperweight, in four red and white balls on a pool table”, while” breathing fine dust” is another cliche.

    “I tried hard to forget, but there remained inside me a vague knot. And as time went by, the knot began to take on a clear and simple form, which I felt not as words. Death exists – in a paperweight, in four red and white balls on a pool table – and we go on living and breathing it.”

    See what happens when you apply concision to the paragraph? It becomes a comparatively straightforward, and much better, kick in the nuts, whilst expressing the same sentiment. Can you really tell me that, outliers aside, people are so disjunctive in their reasoning that if I surveyed them I wouldn’t be able to predict which side they would orient to? You called my view of Art a form of ‘panpsychism’, but this is simply that the more you read the more you can differentiate what’s plainly important and what’s plainly not important. This is simply something that occurs intuitively within humans, as statistical modelers of reality, contrary to all that about ‘institutionalized criteria’ or everything having its own innate positivity.

    Maturity, contrary towards growth outwards, encompassing wider and wider visions, is really just a streamlining towards those things that matter. I’m not a hardline believer of evolutionary determinism as being the end-all explanation at the bottom of all activity, but I believe that the categorization becomes more precise, than inclusive, over subsequent samplings of information simply because we’re inclined to it. People don’t register the ‘knot of air’ as cheap because they apply a broad outlook to the terms, seeing the variety of connotations you pointed out (solitude, loneliness, depression, emptiness) without understanding the nuanced modulation (in fact, Rubin’s translation as ‘knot’ seems more nuanced because it streamlines the interpretations towards the English proverbial ‘knot/ribbons in the stomach’, bindingness, and associated conceptions of being tied up. Still a cliche, but comparatively sharper).

    On the other hand, the old notion rings true, that something that encompasses Everything, also really encompasses Nothing. Bakhtin had a definition of language as being both ‘centrifugal and centripetal’ around core globes, exploding outwards into possibilities, but then returning backwards into meanings. This is a notion I find to be more inclined towards, expressive of the strange middle between chaotic fluctuation and organization that we’re currently situated in. It also links up to tests that Lev Vygotsky did on children when they were young. These children were told to separate different blocks based on certain qualities like ‘tallness’ and ‘color’. Initial attempts were in associative chains, rather than broad categorization (the blocks were all different but there was a quality each block had that was similar to the next). Later ages started to understand categorization. By adolescence, the categorization was no longer intuitive, but conscious. Wild frenzied association being streamlined into packets of meaning, although, of course, being stuck in-between, never reaching the Logical Positivist dream of the perfectly formalized language.

    I don’t see why you should feel particularly anxious that you can’t ‘love everything’. If a person was trying to purely encompass everything on an equal level, he would disappear into a stream of words like Joyce at the end of his life. Contrary to that, the more I look at things, the more I find myself accepting that everything is developing towards organization, objectivity, and standards. Not particularly rigorous standards, mind you, but standards that at least ensure you can approach and model things with a general calculus of reason, and expect a reply that rings relatively well in reference to those standards provided that the other person is open to these things.

    • Kastel February 14, 2016 / 5:50 pm

      I don’t think you seem to understand that I don’t consider this objective. In fact, I have actually stated that I don’t believe in an objective standard.

      What is clear to me is that I am biased for images I can see. If I don’t get anything concrete, I just dislike the whole thing. Murakami’s writing is filled with vague shit, but at the same time I am also willing to say that I could be all wrong and that I am rather old-fashioned. Murakami is so popular now that there is a trio of Chinese writers called the Murakami children. It is possible in the future such vague knots of air will be popular and I may grow up to be a cranky grandpa, criticizing the younglings for such abstraction. I will be no better than the critics of cubism, Dada, and abstract art — three movements I dearly love.

      There is little reason to not love everything if you are a writer interested in writing. What is the point for disliking novels? It is easy to say, “I dislike something”, if you are merely a consumer. But I feel it is narrow-minded to say, “I don’t like this thing.” What kind of writer engages in the conversation of books and then says, “There are some garbage novels out there”, especially when they know writing is difficult? There are writers who do say crap about other people, but their opinions are not taken seriously and could sometimes be seen as their resistance to incorporate something in their writing (it has been proven that Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway was influenced by the book she abhors, Ulysses). Art is not something one can like or dislike, it is something to be fully loved.

      So I approach reading holistically, wondering how a book is situated in a universe of books. I used to believe that long sentences were the objective standard, then short sentences, then lyrical sentences, then plain sentences … in reality, everything is right. It is all relative. It is okay to like or dislike novels on maybe a personal level (definitely not on a professional level as I mentioned), but then realize your goddamn preferences aren’t objective standards. Preferences aren’t biases. There are people who find the knot of air beautiful; I prefer to think otherwise. That is why I entertain the notion of being wrong. If you aren’t as serious and insane about writing as me, then feel free to indulge in preferences and biases. I will be here trying to understand novels and their relation to the world because that is going to be my vocation.

      Besides, the whole objective shit is so pseudoscientific. Literary criticism is not a science as much as Frye wishes to not admit it. We can’t get scientific laws and even if we do, it won’t be falsifiable.

      Anyway, this isn’t the place to talk shit like this here because I don’t want to derail the post. If you do have anything to say about Norwegian Wood, do say it. If not, I won’t respond.

  3. Makkusu February 19, 2016 / 7:34 am

    Just read this post today. I liked what you mentioned about Murakami and his tendency to write super long paragraphs, especially in Norwegian Wood. It seems to me as if he were trying to emulate Western paragraphs, be it conscious or unconsciously; perhaps he’s been greatly influenced by some Western writers, and I believe that is why he became so popular, both in and out of Japan. His prose, because is so un-Japanese, attracted the Japanese demographic – long past accustomed to the usual danraku of writers – and at the same time, it matched a style Westerners were familiar with. In this sense, Western readers didn’t really have to embrace a new style, nor learn about it, and that being the opposite situation in Japan. In occasions I can’t help but ponder if Murakami isn’t some reincarnated New Yorker writer in a melancholic Japanese. (Their writing is cemented in ideals with wide differences, but his writing reminded me of John McPhee a couple of times).

    This came to mind too as I’m currently reading through Akuma no Mikata from Ueo, and he tends to take a similar choice of organization every now and then in certain volumes, and every few pages too: http://imgur.com/jwuBpD6

    As you can see, he makes usage of other resources, be it adding commas, or putting brackets, so it’s a bit clearer than Murakami’s. Also, he goes back to pages where there’s ten sentences at best, so it’s a balanced read in that respect. I like both writers, though. Murakami makes me chuckle because I’m reading his prose and I’m literally conjuring or nitpicking the English in my head. Ueo is witty, and articulates his prose in a pretty neat yet concise way.

    I’m going a bit off-topic here, so to conclude (and sorry if it’s in an abrupt way) I’ll just add that I agree with what you said at the beginning of the post about not being negative when analyzing something. I believe there’s little to gain if works are not analyzed in a practical way. What they taught us, be it meagre or plentiful, and why – if the case is given – we disliked them or liked them, and deepen in from there. It’s about coming to understand why something bored you, or why you finished a book in a day. To put it bluntly, I feel like the author is not at fault if I don’t like the book, but me. So I proceed to examine myself. You can never be totally objective, but always less or more subjective. Something like that.

    Thanks for the read.

    • Kastel February 23, 2016 / 8:32 am

      Actually, Murakami has written his first novel Hear the Wind Sing in English first and then he later translated it into Japanese. It seems I have neglected to mention that. Will do it in the next post god-knows-when.

      I know Ueo is influenced by cyberpunk literature for sure. Vehicle’s End is filled with giant passages that are practically paragraphs. Compare that with Qualia, which actually reads like a normal Japanese book.

      It is interesting to see the subtle differences between 段落 and paragraphs and how they inform the writer and reader what to expect next. I can’t imagine writing in 段落 since I have been brought up in a wonderful education of topic sentences and four paragraph formats. Even novels follow that structure, though nowadays they are loosely based on it. Memoirs and certain essay genres probably work best in 段落 since the writer usually explores different subjects in the same work. Which is why I think creative nonfiction is really popular in Japan while only nonfiction aimed to help you understand Twitter marketing or give you instructions to change your car tires is more popular in the West. But that’s just baseless speculation.

      I used to believe there is no difference between Western and Eastern storytelling. But there kinda is, not in the way we expect. It’s just how we form sentences on the page. Tradition also goes into play, but again not in the way we expect: Japanese writing favors passive voice while English writers enjoy the active. And so, we find minute differences in how the author distances or pry themselves from/into their fiction, how characters talk, how the narrator discuss the chronology of events, and so on. Then, there are the readers’ struggle to get through the novel too. I suppose I see a weak linguistic relativism in the creation of fiction and maybe that is why there are readers who either feel they prefer Japanese fiction more than others or people who say there is a culture barrier and they can’t understand why it’s popular.

      I haven’t seen an actual “international” writer who is influenced not only by the Western cultures of writing but the “Eastern” way as well. Akutagawa is the closest we will ever have because he believes we should bridge the Japanese and Western cultures through novels. Too bad he’s dead. But I feel that in the future, we may be seeing a literary culture that could be defined as “international”. A fusion of the way we normally read/write English books plus the way we normally read/write Japanese books. I think it is exciting we have been getting translations of novels because subjects explored will take on a global scale. However, it will be a while before such a thing happens especially in America which has satisfied itself with its own products.

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