Why do we do what we do? This question popped up more than once while i was reading ‘What I talk about when I talk about running’, by Haruki Murakami. The little book has quite a special position in Murakami’s oeuvre. It’s not an essay. And it’s not an autobiography. “I see this book as a kind of memoir. Not something as grand as a personal history, but calling it an essay collection is a bit forced.” Maybe this comes the closest: “(…) through the act of writing I wanted to sort out what kind of life I’ve led, both as a novelist and as an ordinary person, over the last 25 years”.
Whatever you name it, the document offers a gripping insight in the deeper levels of the man's being. Even if these deeper levels can only be described in an indirect, ‘musical’ way. Maybe i should lose the ‘even if’, and replace it by ‘just because’. For as far as this kind of digging goes, Murakami is an absolute master.
This book gives a thorough and honest account and insight in the man and writer, from the moment he was twenty-something and running a jazz club in Tokyo until he, quite suddenly, decided to give the writer in him a real chance. Here are some quotes:
“After I closed the bar and began my life as a novelist the first thing we – and by we I mean my wife and I – did was completely revamp our lifestyle.”
“It’s a lifestyle, that doesn’t allow for much nightlife, and sometimes your relationships with other people become problematic. Some people even get mad at you, because they invite you to go somewhere and do something with them and you keep turning them down.”
“I placed the highest priority on the sort of life that lets me focus on writing, not associating with all the people around me. I felt that the indispensable relationship I should build in my life was not with a specific person, but with an unspecified number of readers.”
“I can’t see my readers’ faces, so in a sense it’s a conceptual kind of relationship, but I’ve consistently considered this invisible, conceptual relationship to be the most important thing in my life.”
The writer’s splendid isolation. I’m thinking about Prince, about whom i wrote an article a couple of days ago. And about Kafka, - next time i’ll tell you something about his Letters to Felice, his first love. Or so-called love.
Murakami is very down-to-earth about writing, and about art in general. No bullshit, no arty-farty, no hocus-pocus. Which is wonderful of course. In his eyes one needs talent, but almost as important are focus, and endurance. “To write a novel I have to drive myself hard physically and use a lot of time and effort.” Focus: the great Raymond Chandler confessed that even on days he didn’t write anything, he sat down at his desk and tried to concentrate. He was just strengthening his willpower. Murakami: “Writing novels, to me, is basically a kind of manual labor. Writing itself is mental labor, but finishing an entire book is closer to manual labor.” “The whole process – sitting at your desk, focusing your mind like a laser beam, imagining something out of a blank horizon, creating a story, selecting the right words, one by one, keeping the whole flow of the story on track – requires far more energy, over a long period, than most people ever imagine.” Very recognizable.
So Murakami starts running. About 6 miles a day. A marathon every year. One ultramarathon. And triathlons. When he writes about this he’s not the only one who’s in a trance; actually, it’s the trance every single Murakami novel brings you into: you can’t stop turning the pages. It’s like running. Or jazz. Or Kelloggs Choco Pops (the round ones). It’s an addiction. You’re mesmerized. Just like Murakami is while writing, i guess. When you finish the book, you immediately want to read another Murakami novel. Weird. Is it only the running? Or is it the jazz? Is it because when he’s writing Murakami seems to take you by the hand, walk a stretch of this life’s road by your side? Maybe it’s because he needs you, the reader, the ‘invisible’ reader, conceptual as he or she may be – of flesh and blood though? He seems to be walking next to you, talking to you. But do we have to search for an answer? The running, the jazz, the writing… It simply is Murakami. It’s his way of being. It might be the honesty doing the trick.
All that running, why? He doesn’t know. Not because he’s competitive, for that matter, he doesn’t care if someone runs faster or slower, and when he’s counting the number of runners passing him it’s only to give him an idea of his own performance. “Maybe it’s some pointless act like pouring water into an old pan that has a hole in the bottom, but at least the effort you put into it remains. Whether it’s good for anything or not, cool or totally uncool, in the final analysis what’s most important is what you can’t see but can feel in your heart. To be able to grasp something of value, sometimes you have to perform seemingly inefficient acts.” It’s a feeling he can’t rationally explain. He won’t even try. It’s useless to try. The thing is, “Long-distance running has molded me into the person I am today, and I’m hoping it will remain a part of my life for as long as possible. I’ll be happy if running and I can grow old together. There may not seem to be much logic to it, but it’s the life i’ve chosen for myself.” A beautiful mind, a beautiful soul. Not entirely lonely, not even in his splendid isolation – because beautiful souls never are.
“Some day, if I have a gravestone and I’m able to pick out what’s carved on it, I’d like it to say this:
Writer (and Runner)
At least he never walked.”
(Haruki Murakami, 'What I talk about when I talk about running', 2007.)
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