3 December 2020

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running

Do you know the (self-centred) feeling you get when reading a book gives the impression it has been written for you because you relate to little anecdotes disseminated here and there? To be fair, that’s often the impression I have when reading any book, but I had that feeling again when reading What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a short, autobiographical book (170 pages) by Haruki Murakami published in 2007. Murakami’s humbleness and self-deprecating humour definitely made him break into my circle of virtual / imaginary friends. I’ll make space for him next to Kundera and Camus.

Haruki Murakami in 2018, (c) Murdo Macleod / The Guardian

Many years ago, I had enjoyed Murakami’s multi-volume strange, dystopian novel called 1Q84 and the collection of short stories (aptly?!) named Men Without Women (see my excerpts). In What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, he draws interesting parallels between the creative art of writing and his interest in running (he runs one marathon each year – I’m wondering if he still does today, considering that he’s now almost 72 years old), for instance in how he sees writing and running as not necessarily being competitive forms, unless it’s about competing to “attains the standards you’ve set for yourself”. Or that writing requires talent, obviously, but also focus and endurance, both of which can be “sharpened through training”.

Here are the excerpts I selected from that book, in particular:

On the importance and risks of solitude: “In certain areas of my life, I actively seek out solitude. Especially for someone in my line of work, solitude is, more or less, an inevitable circumstance. Sometimes, however, this sense of isolation, like acid spilling out of a bottle, can unconsciously eat away at a person’s heart and dissolve it.”

On finding reasons to stay motivated: “If I used being busy as an excuse not to run, I’d never run again. I have only a few reasons to keep on running, and a truckload of them to quit. All I can do is keep those few reasons nicely polished.”

On the “advantages” of growing older: “As you age you learn even to be happy with what you have. That’s one of the few good points of growing older.”

On his own socially-withdrawn character: “My own individual, stubborn, uncooperative, often self-centered nature that still doubts itself – that, when troubles occur, tries to find something funny, or something nearly funny, about the situation. I’ve carried this character around like an old suitcase, down a long, dusty path.”

Haruki Murakami, (c) Patrick Fraser / Corbis Outline

As for the additional narcissistic appropriations that made me smile:

On knee pain: Murakami suddenly feels similar pain as I did: “When was the last time I gave my knees any serious thought? As I was pondering this, I started to feel a little remorseful.” – it’s a little ironic I would read a book about running when I am certainly not allowed to run for the time being, and running is probably what caused my own knee problem.

On Jesus’s age: “At any rate, that’s how I started running. Thirty-three – that’s how old I was then. Still young enough, though no longer a young man. The age that Jesus Christ died.” – I had made the similar (sarcastic) comment when I survived my first collapsed lung (a.k.a. pneumothorax): “at least I made it till the same age Jesus died”. It’s the type of comment which reveals having read up on the history of religions (Murakami is known to incorporate references from multiple religions) – assuming the figure of Jesus as commonly depicted did actually exist as opposed to being the superimposition of multiple historical messiahs (let’s not get into that debate, shall we).

On seeing water: “Seeing a lot of water like that every day is probably an important thing for human beings.” – perhaps I shouldn’t delay too much living even closer to the water. And I also miss the sun on my skin. Says the guy stuck in meetings and suffering from sunset at 4.30pm.

On the habit of taking notes: “As I read these notes ten years later, all the thoughts and feelings I had that day come back in quite sharp focus.” – I do possess dozens, if not hundreds, of incomplete story drafts but I live with the uneasy feeling that I simply don’t remember experiences with the same acuity unless I pen them down. I’m still hoping the photos I have taken will enhance those memories, but I know some details (emotional, humourous, colourful) will be lost forever. It’s painful. Perhaps I should adopt the same method I already use at work: to take notes of everything, and when it’s about personal notes, accept that I don’t have to instantly transform them into publishable stories. In fact, systematically capturing every day’s humourous details could also help with improving my stand-up comedy script.

On experiences gathered through a job: “Thanks to this, though, I met all kinds of offbeat people and had some unusual encounters. Before I began writing, I dutifully, even enthusiastically, absorbed a variety of experiences. For the most part I think I enjoyed these and all the stimuli that they brought.” – this would be true in the world without lockdowns though… hopefully soon!

The fact that he has translated works by writers like Scott Fitzgerald, Salinger and Raymond Carver (whose collection of short stories What We Talk About When We Talk About Love inspired Marukumi’s own book) into Japanese is probably the reason why Japanese critics consider his writing as “un-Japanese”, whatever that means. His own works obviously got translated into English and French, otherwise I wouldn’t have discovered his books. As Oliver Burkeman relates in this article (which also provides some insights into Murakami’s writing inspiration and style, seeing himself as a “story watcher”, not a “storyteller”):

“He enjoys reading his own work in English translation, because it’s like reading a brand new novel. “It takes a year or two to translate these big books,” he says. “So by the time I read the translation, I’ve forgotten everything.” He mimes excitedly turning the pages: “What’s going to happen? And then the translator calls me: ‘Hi, Haruki, how did you like my translation?’ And I reply: ‘This is a great story! I like it very much!’””

Hahaha! I sometimes arrogantly say the same thing when I read old articles I wrote and watch some of the photos I have forgotten I had taken. If only I had half of Murakami’s talent!

Haruki Murakami in 2002, (c) Interfoto / Alamy Stock Photo

PS: a first version of this post appeared in my December 2020 newsletter.