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Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami

 
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Posted May 7, 2016 by

Norwegian Wood – Haruki Murakami – 1987

Posted by Sterling on 14/4/2011, 21:51:06, in reply to “Re: Norwegian Wood”

Virtually all the referents in the book Posted by Steven on 15/4/2011, 18:30:24, in reply to “Re: Norwegian Wood”

I finished it this afternoon. I liked it quite a bit, especially once I quit expecting it to be like the other Murakami novels I had read. Still there were similarities: cats, wells, music, and scotch. The cultural references by specific brand name (e.g. “she lit a Marlboro” rather than just “she lit a cigarette”) are also typical.

The fact that most of the products and music mentioned in the book were Western may have been a commentary on American cultural imperialism, but I doubt it. I think it just reflected the time and the lifestyle and preferences of that age group.

As far as I know I’ve never heard the song “Norwegian Wood,” so the title doesn’t mean anything to me.

One Japanese cultural reference throughout the novel: miso soup. I’ve never had any, but now I’m curious to try some.

There is an official Haruki Murakami web site in English: http://www.randomhouse.com/features/murakami. There is info about each book and some nice cat graphics. It also has links to clips of the music featured in his books (even page number references), but my antiquated computer won’t play them. I’ll post the reading group guide to Norwegian Wood separately.

In addition to his own writings, Murakami has published Japanese translations of many English works, most notably The Great Gatsby and The Catcher in the Rye, which explains the frequent references to those books in the novel.

Getting, finally, to the novel itself, one thought I had is that Naoko and Midori represent a yin and yang of femininity. One is withdrawn, submissive, insecure and naive, the other is outgoing, aggressive, cocky and worldly. They attract Watanabe in opposite ways, which is why he is able to love them both at the same time.

are American, or at least Western. But imagine how differently this reads if you’re Japanese, rather than living in North America. I have read that Murakami’s generation (what we would call baby boomers) embraced American cultural values as a direct rejection of Japanese militarism. Storm Trooper and the flag raising are presented as objects of derision. In Japan, shoji screens and futons with wooden pillows are mundane. The Great Gatsby and rock ‘n’ roll are the exotics.norwegian

Murakami worked in a record store (like Toru), and he went on to open a jazz club in Tokyo. Western culture is obviously of deep interest to him. Kafka on the Shore feels much more explicitly Japanese than Norwegian Wood, but even it has guest appearances by Colonel Sanders and Johnnie Walker!

~

Posted by Sterling on 15/4/2011, 20:18:24, in reply to “Re: Norwegian Wood”

 

: The fact that most of the products and music mentioned

: in the book were Western may have been a commentary on

: American cultural imperialism, but I doubt it. I think

: it just reflected the time and the lifestyle and

: preferences of that age group.

What I read, and I have no idea if it’s true, is that an identification and love for American culture was seen by Murakami’s generation as a rejection of the Japanese militarism of the previous (WWII) generation. Quite the opposite of American cultural imperialism. A rejection of Japanese aggressive patriotism may also be observed in the mockery of Storm Trooper and the pair raising the flag.

: As far as I know I’ve never heard the song

: “Norwegian Wood,” so the title doesn’t mean

: anything to me.

 

Good lord! You grew up in America without ever hearing the Beatles?!?! Wow.

 

: Getting, finally, to the novel itself, one thought I

: had is that Naoko and Midori represent a yin and yang

: of femininity. One is withdrawn, submissive, insecure

: and naive, the other is outgoing, aggressive, cocky

: and worldly. They attract Watanabe in opposite ways,

: which is why he is able to love them both at the same

: time.

 

Absolutely. I thought much the same thing.

~

Posted by Steven on 15/4/2011, 21:02:51, in reply to “Re: Norwegian Wood”

: Good lord! You grew up in America without ever

: hearing the Beatles?!?! Wow.

I’m sure I’ve heard some of their music, but not much. I might recognize the tunes from having heard them in restaurants and such, but I wouldn’t know what they were. My father’s religion frowned on most forms of popular entertainment and social activity, so through my teens I was exposed only to hymns and classical music. I tried listening to rock music when I was older, but never cared for it.

~

Posted by Steven on 15/4/2011, 18:34:51, in reply to “Re: Norwegian Wood”

Norwegian Wood, Reading Group Guide

About this Guide:

The questions, discussion topics, and suggested reading list that follow are intended to enhance your group’s reading of Haruki Murakami’s Norwegian Wood. We hope they will lead to a richer understanding of this remarkable novel.

Questions for Discussion:

  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?
  1. 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?
  1. After Watanabe sleeps with Naoko, he says that “her cry was the saddest sound of orgasm I had ever heard” [p. 40]. Just before she commits suicide, Naoko tells Reiko: “I just don’t want anybody going inside me again. I just don’t want to be violated like that again—by anybody” [p. 284]. In what sense did Watanabe “violate” her? Do you feel this experience directly relates to her suicide? Was it, as Watanabe still asks himself nearly twenty years later, “the right thing to do”?
  1. 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?
  1. The events Norwegian Wood relates take place in the late sixties, a period of widespread student unrest. The university Watanabe attends is frequently beset with protests and strikes and, in Watanabe’s view, pompous “revolutionary” speeches filled with meaningless cliches. “The true enemy of this bunch,” Watanabe thinks, “was not State Power but Lack of Imagination” [p. 57]. At first, he identifies with the student protesters but then grows cynical. What qualities of Watanabe’s character make this cynicism inevitable? What is Midori’s reaction to student activism?
  1. How would you describe Watanabe’s friend Nagasawa? What is his view of life, of the right way to live? Why is Watanabe drawn to him? In what important ways—particularly in their treatment of women—are they different? How does Murakami use the character of Nagasawa to define Watanabe more sharply?
  1. The Great Gatsby is Watanabe’s favorite book, one that he rereads often. Why do you think he identifies so strongly with Fitzgerald’s novel? What does this identification reveal about his character and his worldview?
  1. In many ways, Norwegian Wood is a novel about young people struggling to find themselves and survive their various troubles. Kizuki, Hatsumi, Naoko’s sister, and Naoko herself fail in this struggle and commit suicide. How do their deaths affect those they leave behind? In what ways does Kizuki’s suicide both deepen and tragically limit Watanabe’s relationship with Naoko?
  1. Murakami’s prose rises at times to an incandescent lyricism. The description of Watanabe embracing Naoko is one such instance: “From shoulder to back to hips, I slid my hand again and again, driving the line and the softness of her body into my brain. After we had been in this gentle embrace for a while, Naoko touched her lips to my forehead and slipped out of bed. I could see her pale blue gown flash in the darkness like a fish” [p. 163]. Where else do you find this poetic richness in Norwegian Wood? What does such writing add to the novel? What does it tell us about Watanabe’s sensibility?
  1. At the center of the novel, Reiko tells the long and painful story of how her life was ruined by a sexual relationship with a young and pathologically dishonest female student. How does this story within the story illuminate other relationships in the novel?
  1. 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?
  1. Naoko attributes Kizuki’s suicide and her own depression to the fact that they shared such an idyllic childhood together and eventually, as adults, had to pay the price for that early happiness. “We didn’t pay when we should have, so now the bills are due” [p. 128]. Do you think this is an accurate way of understanding what’s happened to them? What alternative explanations would you propose?
  1. 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?
  1. What makes Midori such an engaging and forceful character? How is she different from everyone else in the novel? What kind of love does she demand from Watanabe? Is she being selfish in her demands or simply asking for what everyone wants but is afraid to pursue?
  1. Norwegian Wood appears to end on a happy note with Watanabe calling Midori and telling her: “All I want in the world is you. . . . I want the two of us to begin everything from the beginning” [p. 293]. But when Midori asks where he is, Watanabe is plunged into a kind of existential confusion. How do you interpret the novel’s final mysterious sentence: “Again and again, I called out for Midori from the dead center of this place that was no place.” Is there anything positive in Watanabe’s not knowing “where he is”? What is the significance of his being at the “dead center” of no place, wishing for a new beginning?
  1. 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?

~

Posted by Sterling on 15/4/2011, 20:08:47, in reply to “Re: Norwegian Wood”

In the Wikipedia, it is claimed that the standard translation of the song title Norwegian Wood into Japanese has the sense of “wood” as “forest” rather than the material. This despite the fact that the lyrics of the song clearly specify the latter. It is suggested that Murakami is making a word play since several important scenes take place in the forest. Using the mistranslation of the Japanese title of the song as a sly joke is, of course, not possible to translate back. If correct, perhaps the title is more clever in Japanese than it is in English.

~

Let’s consider the song in question:

I once had a girl,

Or should I say, she once had me.

There are multiple meaning of the word “had” in this sentence. I once “had” a girl has a sexual connotation, but she once “had” me suggests a con game or trick, as in “I’ve been had!”

She showed me her room.

“Isn’t it good? Norwegian wood.”

In remarkably compressed fashion, Lennon characterizes the girl as pretentious. Most wood exported from Norway is cheap pine. Her room features cheap pine, and she describes it as “Norwegian wood.”

She asked me to stay and she told me to sit anywhere.

So I looked around and I noticed there wasn’t a chair.

She appears to be seducing him. She asks him to stay, and apparently they will both have to get on the floor.

I sat on a rug, biding my time, drinking her wine.

We talked until two, and then she said, “It’s time for bed.”

He’s playing it cool. He doesn’t want to come on too strong, too fast. She, however, appears to blatantly ask him to sleep with her.

She told me she worked in the morning and started to laugh,

I told her I didn’t and crawled off to sleep in the bath.

This is where he has been “had.” She has led him on. He thinks he’s going to sleep with her, but she rejects him. Not only does she reject him, she thinks it’s funny and mocks him. Since there’s no furniture, the best he can do is to sleep in the bath.

And when I awoke, I was alone. This bird had flown.

“Bird” was, of course, British slang for “girl.” Nice little play on words with “flown.”

So, I lit a fire, isn’t it good, Norwegian wood.

This is the only really cryptic line in the song. Paul McCartney claimed that Lennon meant that he burned her house down in revenge. Perhaps. He certainly is burning some of that cheap pine she is so proud of. Isn’t it good?

This remarkably bitter song is set to a lilting, wistful, delicate melody played principally on a sitar. The contrast between melody and lyric is so great that one can listen to the song many times before it occurs to one to consider that he’s burning the “Norwegian wood.”

I can’t articulate a direct connection, but I feel that the relationship of the two characters in the song mirrors Watanabe’s relationship with both girls at one time or another in the novel. He doesn’t take revenge, of course. Unless the novel itself is his revenge.

~

Posted by Steven on 16/4/2011, 8:31:02, in reply to “Re: Norwegian Wood”

Wow, Naoko is going to pieces with guilt because her sexual inaccessibility caused Kizuki’s suicide and THIS is her favorite song?! She was deliberately torturing herself by listening to it.

I was thinking about how the two girls compare and contrast: Both are surrounded by death from mental causes. In Naoko’s case it is suicide from depression, in Midori’s it is death from brain tumor. But Naoko, her sister and boyfriend yearn towards death, while Midori and her parents fight against it. And both girls are sources of sexual frustration to Watanabe. The result is sort of a micro-summary of coming of age: unfulfilled sexual tension while being pulled in opposite directions by the passions of vitality and self-destruction. In the end, life wins and he chooses Midori.

~

Posted by guillermo maynez on 17/4/2011, 13:27:57, in reply to “Re: Norwegian Wood”

Well, I liked “Norwegian Wood” a good deal. It is a strange book, and the fact of suicide, for me, defines the whole feeling and tone of the novel. Some way or another, Watanabe is surrounded by people who commit suicide.

I am not at all surprised by Western music and literature dominating the cultural environment. It may be hard to understand by Americans or Europeans, but for people living in the decades following WWII, national cultures were seen by many youths as something from the past. I did not grow up listening to traditional Mexican music, but rock and pop. My parents did not turn up ranchero music, but Beethoven and Brahms. I did not read “Pedro Paramo” or Carlos Fuentes, but Dumas, Verne, Twain and so on.

That, about the cultural environment. But what interested me most was Watanabe’s existential search. It was clear, right from the start, that “The Catcher in the Rye” was an influence. One of the questions of the reading group’s guide asks why and how Watanabe related to “The Great Gatsby”. I still have to think more about it. Gatsby is a naive person disguised as a man of the world, Watanabe is a naive person really lost in the forest of human relationships.

Naoko is clearly a sick person, a feeble mind further disturbed by death and insecurity. Midori has had a hard life, but is brave and hopeful. I hope Watanabe had stayed with her, but from the feeling he projects on the first pages, when he’s arriving in Berlin, I get the foreboding that he is alone.

These are just random thoughts, I hope I can structure them later.

~

Posted by Rizwan on 20/4/2011, 13:16:27, in reply to “Re: Norwegian Wood”

Very nice explanation of the song and its relation to the book, Sterling. I, too, am a big fan of the Beatles, and I think Lennon in particular was a genius and could be quite the poet. In fact, I think he published some of his poetry in a book during his life.

No doubt Lale is right too, though. Some of their songs, in particular in the Sgt. Pepper/White Album period, were drug-inspired hallucinations and relatively nonsensical. “Revolution 9” comes to mind, though that’s admittedly the most extreme example. “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” is the most famous example, though oddly enough Lennon insisted that this was not about LSD as so many insist, but was instead about a picture his son Julian drew in nursery school of his friend Lucy…in the sky…with diamonds. Julian Lennon later, as an adult, backed this story up.

~

Posted by Lale on 22/4/2011, 17:18:07, in reply to “Re: Norwegian Wood”

I loved this analysis, Sterling, but I am not sure if John, Paul and the others had actually thought any of this. This very smart explanation may be what the Beatles really thought/planned/wanted-to-say at the time or it may be that they are being given credit for more than what they have done.

I have a book by John Lennon, it is not poetry or fiction or memoir or anything. It is just, as it is called on the cover, “writings.” It is called Skywriting by Word of Mouth – and other writings, including the Ballad of John and Yoko.

This book meant nothing to me. As far as I am concerned it is just one English word after another forming sequences that are incoherent; gibberish. Or maybe it’s great art. I don’t know.

I love the songs though  😀

Lale

~

Posted by Sterling on 23/4/2011, 12:00:29, in reply to “Re: Norwegian Wood”

Thanks, Lale. I’m glad you liked my analysis. Personally, I think that John Lennon is the “smart” one, not me. But I’ll accept the compliment.

Rizwan, in psychology we call it “overdetermined” when there is more than one cause contributing to an outcome. I’ll bet he looked at little Julian’s picture and said something like, ” This is great! It looks like the lad was on an acid trip!” Some of the details may have come from Julian’s childish drawing, but come on, Lucy Sky Diamonds? Too much of a coincidence.

Anyway, I love the music, too. I’ll remember the song “Norwegian Wood” a lot longer than I’ll remember the novel!

I recommend Kafka on the Shore highly, though. I first read it because I was intrigued that a literary novel had won the World Fantasy Award. Very enjoyable magic realist work. I look forward to reading The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, which I understand is considered Murakami’s “big” novel.

~

Posted by Joffre on 26/4/2011, 10:33:42, in reply to “Re: Norwegian Wood”

I don’t listen to much music now, but I did once like The Beatles very much.

Somehow I had missed the song Norwegian Wood. I enjoyed Sterlings interpretation, and I don’t really doubt that they had much of that in mind as they wrote the song. That doesn’t make it great literature or anything. I’m no judge of literature, esp. poetry or song lyrics if they are a seperate category as they probably are.

I’ve seen the song Eleanor Rigby included in literature text books, and according to wikipedia, it has been included with the lieder (art songs) in some reference books on classical music. I’m suspicious of it’s status as poetry, but perhaps it is. I guess nobody is saying it bears comparison with Shakespeare or Dickinson or whomever. And I know nothing at all about music.

Finally, there is some stuff that is studied as literature that compares to the most senseless songs of The Beatles. There is the automatic writing of the surrealists. Perhaps one might even mention Finnegan’s Wake. It appears on the surface to be just a lot of nonsense. There is always the question: is this just something of passing interest or is it something of lasting value, or is it a new idea that could be developed into something of real interest or value later?

~

Posted by Sterling on 23/4/2011, 12:20:50, in reply to “Re: Norwegian Wood”

Speaking of Lennon’s book, there is a potentially interesting discussion. What is the relationship of song lyrics to poetry? Personally, I think that lyrics should be half the experience. If the lyrics can really stand alone as independent poems, they may be considered as a partial failure as lyrics, which I think should require the music to complete them.

I think that this has always been so. We don’t know what ancient Greek music sounded like, so we can’t really appreciate how much better the poetry may have sounded with accompaniment. The same with medieval troubadours. Consider, for example, the songs in Shakespeare’s plays as compared to his sonnets. The “lyrics” stand up much less well, I think, because they require the music.

I don’t want to try to hijack our discussion away from literature into music, but let me consider some modern examples. Leonard Cohen is an actual poet and a personal favorite. His lyrics can often stand alone, but his music alone is sub-par. I don’t want to re-open the Beatles subject, but a song like “I Am the Walrus,” which I absolutely agree is mostly gibberish, feels (to me) full of humor, mystery, and nuance with the music. Similarly, Bob Dylan does not generally read very well, but many of his lyrics are breath-taking in context (Visions of Johanna, for example). Of course, Dylan showed with Chronicles that he is an interesting writer, although not nearly as memorable as he is as a lyricist.

 

                                                     


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