February Book Club - Norwegian Wood

SarasaSarasa Shipmate
February's Book Group pick is Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murukami. The discussion will be led by @Cassia.

I knew nothing about this book until I went searching for a link to post so that anyone interested had an idea what it is about. I'm now very much looking forward to reading it, as it seems an ideal pick for this time of year (well this time of year in the Northern Hemisphere).

Comments

  • Got mine yesterday, so I'm in.
  • I am happy to be facilitating the discussion this month. The first Murukami I read was The Windup Bird which I read with another online book club. Here is Murukami's wiki page https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haruki_Murakami

    Listening to The Beatle's song might set the mood for your reading.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SiJiuhnDfck


  • Thanks for taking this on, and the links, Caissa. Looking forward to reading the book, and hearing the song, for the first time (I'm a musical ignoramus!)
  • ClimacusClimacus Shipmate
    edited February 2019
    To be honest, given I'm one of those sad sacks who at nearly 42 has never had a relationship (don't feel sorry...my choice) I was a bit worried about engaging with this book despite my enthusiasm above.

    I should not have been. 6 chapters in and I'm loving it. 6 chapters in because I did not want to stop, despite the fact I was trundling through the stunning NZ countryside on a train and the views kept calling. Thank you Ship's book club!
  • I'm most of the way through at the moment. Let me just say that it's an interesting read, and leave it at that for now...
  • I'm a chapter or two in and like @Andras finding it interesting, but I'm not fully engaged in it yet. Glad you are @Climacus, I love it when a book takes over my everyday life like that.
    The variety of books we read and our different opinions on them is why I like the Ship of Fools book group so much.
  • This is my second time reading the book. I read about the first third on the weekend. Here is a link to the lyrics for " Norwegian Wood."

    https://songmeanings.com/songs/view/881/
  • This is the official trailer for the movie made from the book.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kYBgsyBwYso
  • Thanks for the link to the trailer @Cassia. I'm now wondering if it would be worth watching after I've finished the book, it got quite mixed reviews.
  • CaissaCaissa Shipmate
    edited February 2019
    Minor correction: It's Caissa not Cassia.
  • Sorry @Caissa. I'm not very good at proof-reading.
  • Specific books, music and musicians are mentioned throughout the book. In one scene the protagonist reads Beneath the Wheel by Herman Hesse. This is a link to a review of that book https://thebookhooligan.wordpress.com/2012/11/25/book-review-beneath-the-wheel-by-herman-hesse/
  • Just finished reading it. I'll be sure to borrow some more books by Murakami. And thanks Jay Rubin for the translation.

    Caissa's post above leads me to comment I was quite ignorant of many of the authors mentioned. And the music artists. Had heard of some, but did not know much. I plan to rectify that.
  • Finished it last night.

    Lord, now I'm really depressed!
  • ClimacusClimacus Shipmate
    edited February 2019
    Do you know, I rather like intense and sad stories. Even with movies, I prefer non-Western ones, even the Chinese ones where everyone dies or ends up miserable, to Hollywood's happy endings. Perhaps that says more about me.
  • I finished it last night, and I'm not sure what I made of it. Looking forward to the discussion
  • I finished on Friday. When should I post some questions?
  • The usual time is about the twentieth, so tomorrow. I'm looking forward to discussing this book, lots to talk about.
  • Indeed!
  • 1 When Watanabe arrives in Hamburg and hears the song "Norwegian Wood," memories of a scene with Naoko from eighteen years before come back to him. He feels these memories as "kicks" and says they were "longer and harder than usual. Which is why I am writing this book. To think. To understand. . . . I have to write things down to feel I fully understand them" [p. 5]. Why does this particular song have such a powerful effect on Watanabe? What does he understand--or fail to understand--about it by the end of the novel? In what ways does the process of writing help in understanding?

    2. Many readers and critics have observed that Norwegian Wood is Murakami's most autobiographical book. While we can never know exactly to what degree a work of fiction reflects the lived experience of its author, what qualities of the novel feel autobiographical rather than purely fictional? Do these qualities enhance your enjoyment of the book?
    3.

    4. Throughout the novel, Watanabe is powerfully drawn to both Naoko and Midori. How are these women different from one another? How would you describe the different kinds of love they offer Watanabe? Why do you think he finally chooses Midori? Has he made the right choice?

    4. What is unusual about the asylum where Reiko and Naoko are staying? What methods of healing are employed there? How do the asylum and the principles on which it is run illuminate the concerns about being "normal" that nearly all the characters in the novel express?

    5. After Kizuki and Naoko have both committed suicide, Watanabe writes: "I had learned one thing from Kizuki's death, and I believed that I had made it part of myself in the form of a philosophy: 'Death is not the opposite of life but an innate part of life'" [p. 273]. What do you think he means? Is this view of life and death resigned or affirmative? How would such a philosophy change one's approach to life?

    6. The events of the novel take place in the fictional past. What can you infer about Watanabe's present condition from the way he tells this story? Do you imagine that he and Midori have remained together?

    The questions are taken from this book guide. Additional questions can be found here: https://www.readinggroupguides.com/reviews/norwegian-wood/guide

  • Self-absorbed young man has sex with vulnerable girls. Well, that's part of my take on it. But I do have more to say when others have joined in.
  • I am a huge jazz fan with more than a thousand albums. John Coltrane is managed a few times in the novel. Here is a link to his Blue Train album.
    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fEqrnR7_yT8

  • That is quite a collection! I need to get back into jazz. I found Ella, Thelonious Monk, Coltrane and Ellington and pretty much stopped there.
    Caissa wrote: »
    2. Many readers and critics have observed that Norwegian Wood is Murakami's most autobiographical book. While we can never know exactly to what degree a work of fiction reflects the lived experience of its author, what qualities of the novel feel autobiographical rather than purely fictional? Do these qualities enhance your enjoyment of the book?
    While authors can investigate a city and a time and report it accurately, I found the writing pulled me in wholesale and in fact made me believe in the characters and the places to such an extent in a way few novels have. I was truly drawn in and when 11pm rolled around each night I put the book down with great reluctance.

    I can't say I identified with Watanabe and his actions personally (with my mental health issues I identified with Naoko more), but I was drawn into his world and found myself desperately hoping all would go well with him.
    Caissa wrote: »
    3. Throughout the novel, Watanabe is powerfully drawn to both Naoko and Midori. ... Why do you think he finally chooses Midori? Has he made the right choice?
    For me, yes. I think the spectre of Kizuki was present in his relationship with Naoko. I felt it. I can't give concrete evidence, or a particular passage, so perhaps I am imposing thoughts from my own head as I read.

    I felt Midori's attitude and approach to life, which I confess had me laughing out loud at times -- especially with some of her direct comments around sex! -- had a kind of inexorable pull of Watanabe. I also felt, despite their closeness, Watanabe and Naoko seemed to be moving through different worlds; and despite Watanabe wanting to, and expressing his desire to, care for Naoko no matter what she was going through, I just felt Midori and him fitted better together as lovers.
    Caissa wrote: »
    4. What is unusual about the asylum where Reiko and Naoko are staying? What methods of healing are employed there? How do the asylum and the principles on which it is run illuminate the concerns about being "normal" that nearly all the characters in the novel express?
    Where to begin? A place without trained medics and where the patients help themselves? I have spent a bit of time in psychiatric institutions and I will say the concept intrigued me. I found myself wondering how I would go in a place like that and would I find a friend and mentor like Reiko? Would I become truly 'normal' there, living as the characters did in a way in which they focussed on themselves and their well-being, or is the 'outside' world the true normality?
    Caissa wrote: »
    5. After Kizuki and Naoko have both committed suicide, Watanabe writes: "I had learned one thing from Kizuki's death, and I believed that I had made it part of myself in the form of a philosophy: 'Death is not the opposite of life but an innate part of life'" [p. 273]. What do you think he means? Is this view of life and death resigned or affirmative? How would such a philosophy change one's approach to life?
    I pondered this quote for a while. So much so I stopped reading, and re-read.

    I see this as affirmative. It may be macabre, but I have always seen death as the one certainty when you are born. That is not to say I do not fear it, but I think it gives me a healthy view of making the most of every moment. I do not always succeed, but, and I think my Christian beliefs play a part here too, I try and make each encounter with another human count and I try and live in the moment where possible -- as that moment will soon become the past and will never happen again.

    Thank you again Caissa for the suggestion of this book which I loved, and for the questions.
  • So many good questions, I'm not sure I can do all of them justice. A couple of thoughts, more to follow.

    I thought using Norwegian Wood as a device to trigger Watanabe's memories was interesting. According to the Wikipedia article about the book the word used to translate 'wood' into Japanese is one usually used for forest. This Guardian piece picks up on that and on the theme of winter. I'm not quite sure that resonated with me, but where I think the song and the book are similar in the way people in relationships can somehow not quite connect. However, on reflection, I can see thatNaoko seems frozen in time and is finding it difficult to reach out to anyone, hence the parallel walking. Watanabe is doing a similar thing to Midori. The sixties were in theory a time of great sexual liberation, but although it seems to work for people like Nagasawa it is very damaging to most of the other characters, specially the women.

    The clinic seemed to be very odd and very unregulated. I wasn't at all sure that Reiko was the right room mate for Naoko and how much of a reliable narrator she was. If you take the winter simile from the Guardian piece she was going off to the frozen north to remain frozen.

    The number of suicides worried me. I kept on waiting for the next one to happen, and had fears for Midori. It almost felt like Murakami was stuck for ways to kill of his characters.

  • Time for a Thelonious Monk interlude.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KshrtLXBdl8
  • Has anyone else read the book?
  • 1 When Watanabe arrives in Hamburg and hears the song "Norwegian Wood," memories of a scene with Naoko from eighteen years before come back to him. He feels these memories as "kicks" and says they were "longer and harder than usual. Which is why I am writing this book. To think. To understand. . . . I have to write things down to feel I fully understand them" [p. 5]. Why does this particular song have such a powerful effect on Watanabe? What does he understand--or fail to understand--about it by the end of the novel? In what ways does the process of writing help in understanding?

    Elie Wiesel wrote: I write as much to understand as to be understood. That seems to be Watanabe's reason for writing. Norwegian Wood effects him for a variety reasons. First it was a favourite song of Naoko which Midori often played. Second, although the lyrics could relate to all of his female relationships in the book, I think it most applies to his relationship with Midori.

    2. Many readers and critics have observed that Norwegian Wood is Murakami's most autobiographical book. While we can never know exactly to what degree a work of fiction reflects the lived experience of its author, what qualities of the novel feel autobiographical rather than purely fictional? Do these qualities enhance your enjoyment of the book?

    Murakami has stated that the only autobiographical aspects of the book are that he came of age and went to university in the time period that he has set the novel. He claims to have been very different than Watanabe.

    3. Throughout the novel, Watanabe is powerfully drawn to both Naoko and Midori. How are these women different from one another? How would you describe the different kinds of love they offer Watanabe? Why do you think he finally chooses Midori? Has he made the right choice?

    He and Naoko are drawn together by shared grief. I am not sure Naoko offers any love that is healthy for either of them. Midori begins the relationship with Watanabe deceitfully, lying about the location of her father. That seems at odds with her blunt discussion and attitude towards sex.

    4. What is unusual about the asylum where Reiko and Naoko are staying? What methods of healing are employed there? How do the asylum and the principles on which it is run illuminate the concerns about being "normal" that nearly all the characters in the novel express?

    It seems to have been a case of patient heal thyself. providing space and time for individuals to process their issues. It seemed to avoid as much as possible medicalizing the spectrum of mental health. "Normal" becomes, as it usually is, the norms of the external society.

    5. After Kizuki and Naoko have both committed suicide, Watanabe writes: "I had learned one thing from Kizuki's death, and I believed that I had made it part of myself in the form of a philosophy: 'Death is not the opposite of life but an innate part of life'" [p. 273]. What do you think he means? Is this view of life and death resigned or affirmative? How would such a philosophy change one's approach to life?

    In the midst of life, death. He seems to believe that part of life is living with the aftermath of the death of others. We experience many deaths as our life unfolds. Are resigned and affirmative necessarily opposites? We begin to die the minute we are born.

    6. The events of the novel take place in the fictional past. What can you infer about Watanabe's present condition from the way he tells this story? Do you imagine that he and Midori have remained together?

    He says to the stewardess that he is kind on blue. That could simply be his memories of Naoko and Reiko. It is really hard to determine from the last paragraph of the book whether or not his discussion with Midori was going to be successful or not.
  • Caissa wrote: »
    6. The events of the novel take place in the fictional past. What can you infer about Watanabe's present condition from the way he tells this story? Do you imagine that he and Midori have remained together?

    He says to the stewardess that he is kind on blue. That could simply be his memories of Naoko and Reiko. It is really hard to determine from the last paragraph of the book whether or not his discussion with Midori was going to be successful or not.
    I thought that they probably would stay together, but it would be a very rocky relationship. Watanabe seemed a bit clueless about all the signals Midori was sending him that said she fancied him, and she seemed to be getting a bit fed up with his obtuseness from time to time, the episode when he doesn't comment on the new hairstyle. I wondered if the trip to Hamburg coincided with a downturn in their relationship and whether he was off to see Nagasawa, who said they'd meet again as is quite likely to be working in an embassy somewhere like Germany.
    I've been thinking about Nagasawa's girlfriend Hatsumi committing sucicide. She seems an intelligent thoughtful woman who doesn't need a man (why tell us she married?) Marriage to someone else or suicide aren't the only options when you discover your boyfriend is a sh*t.
  • One last musical selection courtesy of Miles and Trane.

    https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FEPFH-gz3wE
  • ClimacusClimacus Shipmate
    Love this. I find it so melancholy, yet paradoxically it gives me hope. And that saxophone...

    Thanks for sharing.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    I've been wondering what it is about the book that troubles me, and I think I've found the answer at last.

    There are plenty of rather nasty protagonists in literature - I instance Becky Sharp and George MacDonald Fraser’s Flashman - but although I'd steer well clear of these characters in real life, they actually are attractive on the page; we care about them even as we deplore them, and that’s quite a trick for an author to pull off.

    Watanabe just isn't attractive even on the page. He’s a self-absorbed twerp. Do I care about him? Not really, no.
  • SarasaSarasa Shipmate
    The novel seems to be semi-autobiographical, so maybe Murukami was trying to give us an un-varnished portrait of what he was like as a young man. There wasn't much that I would have found attractive in Watanabe, so I wonder what Midori saw in him.
    The thing I liked least about Watanabe was his attitude towards Storm trooper (who apparently was translated as Kamikazi in the first translation into English). I'm sure he was an annoying person it lots of ways but the way Watanabe tried to make friends at his expense I found distasteful. No wonder he found somewhere else to live. Was the firefly stormtrooper gave Watanabe significant.? I'm sure it was supposed to be symbolic, but I'm not sure of what.
  • MaramaMarama Shipmate
    I share the unease that several people have commented on - which is why I have hesitated to comment. I'm not sure if it is a comment about Japanese culture but the suicide rate seems horrendous (and a bit unbelievable), the level of disengagement from others, from study, from family is stark.

    I was a student at around the same period, and the novel certainly doesn't tally with my memories - which are mostly positive and certainly more engaged. Just a small example - Watanabe and Midori are studying the history of drama, but no one mentions student dramatics, plays, theatre as a living thing. Sure, relationships during the student years can be fraught - but half the characters dead!! Is this a comment on the Japanese defeat in the war? It's nowhere mentioned, but I wondered.
  • AndrasAndras Shipmate
    Japanese culture - much like the ancient Romans - does not share the common Western view of suicide as a mark of failure or disgrace. According to the BBC about 25,000 people - mostly men - took their own lives there last year, over 70 a day. The novel simply reflects this.

    But it makes for grim reading!
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