Norwegian wood – Haruki Murakami

Read September 2015

Norwegian Wood is the story, told in the first person, of Toru, a university student whose best friend killed himself at high school. In some ways Toru is struggling to cope with it; he isolates himself from others, but largely goes on with his admittedly unorthodox student life. He meets his dead friend’s former girlfriend, Naoko, by chance and they strike up a relationship. She is battling with depression, ends up in a retreat, which he visits, and eventually commits suicide. At the same time he strikes up a relationship with another girl, Midori, also dealing with difficulties but full of life, and the novel centres its latter stages on his choice between them.

It focuses nicely on the fragility of life, looking sympathetically at the way in which people who have no obvious dire problems – financial difficulties, for example – can nevertheless struggle with day-to-day life. The idiosyncrasies and complexities of living are brought out well. With suicide and emotional problems such a strong element, the novel is sad. But, interestingly, the way it deals with the issues is very sensitive, drawing out the everyday-ness of the sadness, which kind of affirms life in all its complexity, if that makes sense. And alongside the melancholia, Toru is discovering independence, freedom, sex, drink and protest.

It manages to show the fragility and the difficulties of life by using characters that are adolescent outsiders, who feel they have a different view on life (like Holden in Catcher in the Rye in some ways, though with more to deal with and less self-obsessed). Toru finds it hard to make friends, to connect; he is absorbed in music, books and walking through Tokyo. And even those who appear successful and ‘normal’ have more going on inside them. Kizuki is the successful high school kid who kills himself, Nagasawa is a successful student with great prospects and a beautiful girlfriend who won’t stop sleeping around …..

And in terms of writing, the whole thing is written in a paired down, nearly hard boiled, style. It gives the book a male feel (and it’s very much written from a male perspective) but also seems to render the sadness and fragility less important, as a significant part – but only part – of the complexity of life.

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Yep. This is how to start an essay.

Foucault disconcerts. In a number of ways perhaps. But the way I want to examine is this.

This is how the Canadian political philosopher, Charles Taylor, starts his 1996 essay, Freedom and Truth.

I read it in the early noughties and it’s stuck with me as the most compelling opening to what it is actually a hard, specialist academic paper.

The opening draws you in. He doesn’t need to say it. He could just say, in this paper I will examine. But he instead pushes the reader to discover which particular element of Foucault’s disconcerting work will be under analysis.

And it’s clever, too, because in fact the essay is a fairly conventional critique of Foucault’s unconventional way of writing  about history and philosophy. This opener makes you think that this will be a sympathetic reading of Foucault – in a Foucault-esque style – before Taylor lays bare the extent of his criticisms.

And, more than anything, as an opening, it’s playful. It plays with sentence structure. Particularly academic sentence structure. And makes you feel that what will follow will be novel, interesting, and maybe even fun.