Jul. 30, 2008 - Issue #667: Unrest Fest
HOPSCOTCH - Kafka on the track
The irreverence of this statement is hardly lost on me, yet the truth is it strikes me as an utterly solid idea. Anyone who truly engages in a creative act, however reliant on the imagination, however ostensibly sedentary, knows perfectly well that to create is physically demanding. I’d even propose that the more restraining the activity, the more strenuous the physical discipline needed to counterbalance it. By this logic, if making films requires walking, something as contained as writing requires an activity more aerobically demanding. But then, I’m totally biased. I’m one of those people: a running writer.
To say the least, I’ve never been athletic, but, to the surprise of many of my friends, running seems to suit me. It’s basically free, keeps me outdoors (where I’m often happiest), allows me to wander and daydream, to meditate or, just as importantly, wipe the slate blank and think of nothing. It’s also a form of preparation, of focusing, of testing one’s endurance, something you need a lot of when you’re sitting alone in a room with this arguably rather strange task ahead of you. (With any luck it’ll also, you know, keep me from getting fat.)
Writing and running both being essentially solitary acts, I only realized how relatively common running writers were when I found them by accident, like my dear friend Saskatoon novelist Shelley Leedahl, who, to my astonishment, I caught diligently doing her daily morning run in the staggering, sticky heat of Mérida, Mexico, where we met during an artist residency. I then discovered some writers who actually wrote about running, like Joyce Carol Oates in her memorable 1999 essay for the New York Times. And now, most satisfying of all, I’ve been able to read Haruki Murakami’s new memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running (Bond Street Books, $27.95), its title a re-working of Raymond Carver’s most well-known story collection, which Murakami translated into Japanese.
Even if you didn’t know Murakami was a runner, if you’ve read a few of his novels you probably wouldn’t be too surprised. In Kafka on the Shore, to draw out an obvious example, Murakami’s titular protagonist experiences a transcendental state after hiking at an increasingly rigorous pace through wilderness while listening to John Coltrane’s rendition of “My Favorite Things” (Murakami’s as obsessed with jazz as he is with running). This sort of transcendence is described in Murakami’s trademark everyman’s prose, when he recalls running the final stretch of an ultramarathon. It was, he writes, “like my body had passed through a stone wall ... I don’t know about the logic or the process or the method involved—I was simply convinced of the reality that I’d passed through.”
Most of the time, however, the experience of running chronicled in What I Talk About is of a perfectly banal sort—and I mean that in a good way. Murakami not being a competitive sort, or by his own confession even a sociable sort, treasures running as a way to meet his own private goals: 36 miles a week, six miles a day, six days a week is the routine he describes from his desk, which at various points is located in either Massachusetts, Hawaii or Hokkaido. He runs at least one marathon a year and, perhaps more difficult to comprehend since he doesn’t seem to like cycling, has also tried to squeeze in an annual triathlon to boot. He talks about fun incidentals, like what music he listens to (mostly rock, from Beach Boys to Beck), and shares anecdotes about running in exotic places and under diverse, sometimes humourous conditions. He’s frank about facing the realities of aging—he’s now approaching 60—and he reveals a keen eye for the eccentricities of running culture, even inventing a term for something most long-term long-distance runners probably know well: “runner’s blues.”
But I suspect that the tread running through What I Talk About that will appeal to the most readers, especially those who write, run or both, is Murakami’s conveyance of the relationship between running and writing, both of which, not coincidentally, he took up around the age of 30. Analogies between running and writing allow Murakami to weigh the relative merits of self-destructive versus healthy behaviour—exercise junky he may be, but Murakami also loves beer and Dunkin’ Donuts—of talent and discipline, of pacing versus pushing one’s limits. He also offers some interesting techniques for both activities, such as quitting for the day when you still have some juice left in you, a sort of necessary reserve to use tomorrow.
At one point Murakami also mentions how the act of writing fiction releases “a kind of toxin that lies deep in all humanity.” As with that stone wall I mentioned earlier, he writes of this mysterious toxin without ever breaking his average guy, down-to-earth tone, as though it were the most acceptable notion in the world. This matter-of-fact treatment of the mysterious if of course something Murakami fans adore about his work, and even in non-fiction, it’s hard to imagine a Murakami book without a splash of it. V
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