Novelist As a Vocation by Haruki Murakami review – the secrets behind the literary phenomenon

The celebrated novelist offers insights into his ways of working, his direct style and the moments that shaped him in this intriguing book on writing

On an April afternoon in 1978, Haruki Murakami was sitting in the stands of Jingu Stadium in Tokyo watching a baseball game when he underwent a life-changing epiphany. It happened just as a player for his local team struck a ball into left field, to the delight of the home crowd. “In that instant,” he writes, “and based on no grounds whatsoever, it suddenly struck me: I think I can write a novel.”

Within six months, Murakami had written his first book, a short novel called Hear the Wind Sing. He sent the only manuscript copy to Gunzo, a Japanese literary journal, and promptly forgot about it. On receiving the news that he had been shortlisted for Gunzo’s prestigious Prize for New Writers, he went for a walk with his wife and experienced another unlikely epiphany. It happened just after he had rescued an injured pigeon he had found on a back street and was cradling the frightened bird in his arms. “That’s when it hit me,” he recalls in Novelist As a Vocation, a collection of essays on writing, inspiration and creativity, “I was going to win the prize. And I was going to go on to become a novelist who would enjoy some degree of success.”

The book, which is a very personal guide to fiction writing peppered with biography and opinion, contains a handful of strange, and strangely revealing, moments such as these, when his experiences read more like passages from his novels than fact. What’s more, they are recounted in a matter-of-fact way that echoes the deceptively simple, conversational style of his fiction, which often moves from the almost mundane to the mysterious without any appreciable shift in tone. He describes it at one point as an “unadorned natural style”, but one that was arrived at in characteristically unorthodox fashion: having failed dismally on his first attempt to write what would become Hear the Wind Sing, he began again from scratch, writing not in his native Japanese, but English. “My vocabulary was severely limited, as was my command of English syntax,” he writes, and yet when he translated his words back into Japanese, the short, simple sentences created by those self-imposed limitations possessed “a distinctive rhythm”.

Over the past 35 years, Murakami’s unadorned style has underpinned what are often wildly inventive stories. The dynamic has transformed him from a cult novelist to a literary phenomenon in Japan, where he is a reluctant superstar, and internationally. For a relatively late starter – he was 30 when his first book was published – he has been incredibly productive, with 15 novels and several nonfiction collections under his belt thus far. Often, as in novels such as A Wild Sheep Chase (1989) and The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle (1997), he draws on elements of fantasy, science fiction and traditional Japanese mythology, while also creating characters that appear as ordinary and unassuming as himself apart from their eccentricities and neuroses and the odd parallel worlds they find themselves suddenly inhabiting.

The results have offended purists in his native Japan and abroad, and Murakami has been called, frequently negatively, a writer of magic realism. He touches here on the mixed critical reception his writing has received, but shrugs it off in characteristic fashion. “Some people really like them, and others don’t. It takes all kinds.” That easygoing, everyman attitude characterises much of the writing here.

For all its examples of inspired creative idiosyncrasy, Novelist As a Vocation is in many ways a very matter-of-fact delineation of the novelist’s calling. In it, Murakami lays bare his disciplined approach and personal rituals. He writes for four or five hours a day on a computer in one sitting, stopping when he has completed between 10 and 11 pages, even if he is on a creative roll. He always travels to somewhere outside Japan to write his novels in order to avoid his native country’s myriad distractions, and the bit he enjoys most is the endless “tinkering” that follows completion of a final draft. We learn, too, that he is essentially an outsider – “I have never been comfortable in groups or in any kind of collective action with others” – albeit a happy, well-balanced one. If it were not for his “innate ability” to write fiction, he insists, he would “have lived out an ordinary nondescript life in a totally ordinary way”. That he has not done just that continues to be a source of amazement to him.

Ultimately, as with his earlier nonfiction book, What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (competing in marathons and deep listening to jazz, classical and rock are his other passions), Novelist As a Vocation is a series of intriguing glimpses inside the singular mind of Murakami. He approaches running and writing instinctively and intuitively, slowly burnishing his skills with a mixture of discipline and doggedness. “As I run,” he writes, “I feel that’s not all there is to it. There’s something more important deeper down in running. But it’s not at all clear to me what that something is…” Writing novels in which characters “naturally emerge from the flow of the story” is also a way of engaging with, and trusting in, that something more important that lies deeper down in the unconscious. For Murakami, it has paid dividends.

  • Novelist As a Vocation by Haruki Murakami is published by Harvill Secker (£18.99). To support the Guardian and Observer order your copy at Delivery charges may apply


Sean O’Hagan

The GuardianTramp

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