Versus: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

Versus: Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami

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Holly Steell: After weeks of seeing Norwegian Wood being read by hordes of engrossed commuters on the tube, I convinced Sean that this was the book we should be reading for our versus and off we went.

Norwegian Wood is primarily about nostalgia and sexuality in the rapidly changing world of 1960s Tokyo. Its protagonist Toru Watanabe is a young drama student at a private university who after an opportune meeting with Naoko, the ex-girlfriend of his best friend, Kizuki, who killed himself at seventeen, embarks on a series of complex relationships that ultimately allow him to finally fully mourn the death of his friend.

Naoko, also a first year university student, is haunted by her memories of Kizuki, his suicide and that also of her sister. The reasons for their suicides are never truly explained, but put down to a rather vague inability to face the world after school. A few months into her degree Naoko finds she cannot cope with the world and her confusing feelings for Watanabe, she flees Tokyo to attend an alternative retreat for those struggling with mental illness.

In her absence Watanabe meets and befriends Midori, also a drama student, and begins spending his previously lonely Sundays with her. As his friendship with Midori deepens, Watanabe continues to pursue Naoko, visiting her and planning a future with her once ‘she’s well’.

I loved Norwegian Wood, and finished it within days. What I enjoyed most about it was Watanabe’s complete puzzlement at the actions and motives of Naoko and Midori, while battling his own ennui and loss.

Sean O’Faolain: It’s quite difficult for me to do this as I rather liked the book. I thought that some of the evocations of the act of remembering early on were wonderful; Watanabe being on that plane and being transported back to a field with his first love in 1969 by hearing a song. It conveyed how real and immediate the past can be, as though it is less 2D photograph than 3D stage which you can step back into. I found that very powerful.

That said there were issues, which is just as well for a Versus piece. The relationship between Watanabe and Naoko was a bit too familiar. The routine of some ostensibly straight laced guy falling for a kooky but doomed damsel when really he only wants to protect her whiffed of Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

I was also a little worn down by the characters fondness for talking about themselves at great length. Sure, kids that age do find themselves fascinating, but they spent more time discussing why they did things than they spent doing them. It came across, at times, like a literary episode of Dawson’s Creek. My favourite character in the book was Nagasawa, Watanabe’s effortlessly slick and amoral mate. He was a bastard to be sure, but he demonstrated a lack of self-absorption which was quite refreshing given the other characters.

I enjoyed the book but more for its rumination on the act of remembering than for what was actually remembered.

Holly Steell: Naoko and Watanabe’s relationship was a little too familiar at times, but I found the element of Kizuki in the mix redeeming enough for me to still really enjoy it. Naoko and Watanabe have a relationship based purely on nostalgia, both seemingly more in love with the past trio relationship they once had at school with Kizuki, than the one that could exist between them if Naoko recovered.

One element I did find odd was Naoko’s lack of desire for Kizuki despite her intense love and passion for him; was this a symptom of her illness or something else? I’m not sure, but throughout the novel she seems at odds with her sexuality, appearing unmoved by desire herself, and yet generous with Kizuki and Watanabe. She is sexually mute, and most worryingly this is never really addressed or answered, resulting in a sense of unease for me whenever she appeared on the page, particularly during intimate moments.

There is a considerable amount of time spent with characters talking about themselves, but I think this was a necessary evil, because what makes this novel powerful and wonderful to read is the sense of longing that so many characters have. Whether it be for the mutual love Hatsumi desperately wants from Nagasawa or the strength to re-enter the world that Reiko wishes for, and it would have been difficult for this to be properly expressed without a confessional tendency throughout the novel. I think that Murakami explores this too common feeling with great depth and delicacy, and I for one enjoyed it.

Sean O’Faolain: You can contrast the lack of desire between Kizuki and Naoko to the rampant horniness of Midori. She seemed so sex obsessed, and in a very male way with the fixations on masturbating and visiting porno theatres, that I struggled with her. Maybe I just don’t meet the right girls or perhaps, as someone said to me, a character like Midori could easily exist in the culture that gave us the worn knicker vending machine, but I just couldn’t buy her as anything other than the wish fulfilment of a middle aged writer.

This relates to your point about nostalgia. The book is steeped in it and, as far as it is an extended memory, it is about it. As you say, with Naoko and Watanabe nostalgia for Kizuki is even present within the nostalgia. And, also as you say, there’s the longing which is, perhaps, the essence of nostalgia, the desire to step back into a moment. Naoko and Watanabe are trying to keep Kizuki alive with their relationship.

But again, it’s the act of remembering. The struggle to remember with purity, what actually was, uncoloured by the meantime, which I think was behind Naoko and Watanabe’s relationship, was also behind Watanabe’s promise to remember Naoko exactly as she was. That struggle to keep something alive in memories reminded me of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind.

And I think the sadness of the book is that that is impossible. The purity of the moment does die and is dying all the time. We might remember but that memory moves with us and changes with us becoming all the time a less pure representation of what actually was because we view the past through the prism of the present. Yes, the past remains immediate, that 3D stage, but even a stage is a construction after the event. And that, I think, is what Norwegian Wood is about; the sadness of things slipping out of reach. A couple of stylistic issues aside, its mood is wonderfully powerful.

About the Author

Holly Steell
Holly has an MA in English literature, works for a charity and despite her name was not born at Christmas. She likes eighteenth century novels, spicy food and is one of the founding editors of Middlebrow Magazine.