What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami

3 June 2010
Foreword; Chapters 1-3
I wanted to read this because it’s a book about running, which I like, by a professional writer, which I wish I was. Now, a third of the way through, I’m mostly disappointed. It’s a translation from the Japanese, and I couldn’t help wondering whether Japanese has a word for ‘I’, or whether the crashingly egoistic impression given by most of the book so far is owing to a quirk of European languages. At random (I promise), page… 26: there are 27 ‘I’s and seven or eight ‘me/my’s. That’s almost exactly one ‘I’ per line. Ok, it’s memoir, he’s going to mention himself occasionally. But, as it happens, page 26 is about the bar he and his wife ran in the 1970s, and there isn’t a single ‘we’ on the page, although on the previous page it sounds as though they ran it together. Maybe a better title would be What I Talk About When I Talk About Me, which would only increase its FPSP count (first-person singular pronoun) by 50%.

I won’t write much, because all I’ll do is complain. It’s about how a high-achieving, successful man finds that running helps him to do what he does. As far as I can tell, he’s ultra-westernised: he lives on the east coast of the US, spending his summers in Hawaii; if he wasn’t Japanese you’d characterise everything in his story as the American Dream in operation. Like all (all?) successful men, he likes to tell us how lucky he’s been – but one of the pieces of luck is ‘the fact that I work hard’ (also from page 26)…. At school, inevitably, he didn’t work so hard, unless he was interested. But once he got interested, wow, you should have seen him.

Sorry, sorry. I’ll stick to the running. His normal regimen is to run six miles a day, six days per week. If he’s in training for a marathon – he runs one per year – he ups the weekly total from 36 miles to 50, as he indicates in a table at the start of Chapter 3. This is more than I run – three times a week, totalling around 20 miles – but he goes a lot slower. He writes about how, before deciding to be a runner at age 33 (I was 29), he was fat and practically a chain-smoker (I wasn’t). (I’ll shut up about me.) He runs in the morning, but when people remark on how well-disciplined he is, he bites back the pride and pretends he’s just lucky: other people have to spend all that shitty time commuting, but he doesn’t, no sirree Bob.

He describes his first marathon in the early 1980s. In fact, it was a stupidly hot run along the original Athens/Marathon route, done on his own in conjunction with a magazine-sponsored trip. So, his first long-distance run is tied in with his own celebrity – but to ignore that for a minute, it’s actually quite interesting. He says he always hates it after the 22-mile point. Up to then he feels it’s going to be plain sailing, but after that, misery. Always. (Me: no. 18-22, in the only marathon I’ve run, was horrible; 22 onwards was good.)

Anything else? Not really… I’ll carry on and see what he has to say about running in general.

[My own ‘I’ count so far: 19, in a space roughly twice as long as a typical page in Murakami’s book. So if we take his ‘I’-rate as 100, I’m on about 35.]

4 June
Chapters 4-6
This is better. He writes about running more, and how he sees it as relating to the disciplines of writing. He uses one as an analogy of the other: he lets us know he’s neither a great writer nor a great runner, so in order to do either of them he has to work hard. Strangely, he never describes the writing process beyond the chore of sitting at his desk for a set number of hours every morning (after his run), or the chore of drafting and redrafting…. And he argues that for him and, he suspects, for most writers, being in good physical condition is important. Sure, writers can get by while they’re young without thinking about keeping fit, just as young runners can. He notices the young Harvard students pounding along as if they could do it forever, because they’re young enough, and contrasts his own plodding progress. The same goes for writing. He suspects that writers who don’t keep fit beyond middle age burn out, unless they are among that tiny few who can be great writers almost without effort.

I don’t know whether he’s right or not, although I prefer it when he confines his thoughts to his own experience. For him, the discipline of physical exercise is as important as the discipline of sitting down methodically every day to write. And I really prefer it when he writes about the running rather than the writing… but then, I don’t know his work.

There are more insights into how different his regime is from my own – although we both run from a city called Cambridge along a river, and I’m the same age now as he was when he wrote this. His description of Massachusetts summers and winters makes me realise how temperate it is in England. He doesn’t mention temperatures, but for months of the year runners have to cover every part of themselves carefully or risk something approaching frostbite. Here, I only needed full-length running leggings three times during the hardest winter in 30 years. He mentions unbearable days in summer. Here, well, occasionally it’s a bit too hot to go out in the middle of the day.

His physical condition isn’t like mine either. He describes having to warm up slowly into a run, and how sluggish his leg-muscles often are. I don’t find this. On the other hand, his heart-rate is 10-15 beats per minute slower than mine…. But then, I don’t run as often as he does and, let’s face it, I’m nothing like as dedicated as he is. My favourite chapter so far describes the one time he ran a 62-mile super-marathon, something I never intend to do. He captures exactly the strange mixture of exhaustion, misery and elation that you only get in a long-distance run – something I’ve only put myself through once. He also describes how the experience, ten years before he is writing this memoir/running journal, had a profound effect on him. Only now does he feel he’s getting over the ‘runner’s blues’ – a mixture of physical exhaustion, which wears off, combined with a kind of long-term confusion about whether any of it has any point. He wonders about a male menopause, and maybe he’s right to do so.

This high achiever wouldn’t be impressed by what I do. It’s clear from these middle chapters that he sets himself tough goals and does what he can to reach them. I was snooty about how much pride and self-centredness there was in the earlier chapters but, well, maybe he’s got something to be proud about. Only one thing still bothers me: his long-suffering wife, the one he hardly ever mentions. I’m sure he loves her (actually, I’m not sure at all – he might be on wife No. 5 for all I know) but he never stops to mention what it might be like for her while he goes gallivanting off on his latest big thing. Some people naturally put themselves first, I suppose.

[I-rate in this section: about 30]

[Later]
Chapters 7-9 and Afterword
I got to like this book better as it went on. At one point in the Afterword Murakami writes: ‘I didn’t want to write too much about myself, but if I didn’t… this book would have been pointless.’ Fair enough – but I suspect he realised how egocentric he could sometimes sound, and tried to explain it. And in the short list of thanks at the end – he jokes, unfunnily, that there are too many people to thank – still no mention of his wife. However, as I said, I liked it better. Murakami seems less certain of himself as he goes on, portraying himself as a man who can only keep going if he puts a huge amount into everything. He doesn’t sound smug about it… rueful, almost. Like with his record collection (didn’t you just know he’d be a collector?), he almost apologises for how obsessive it must sound. Well, yeh.

In these chapters, written after the New York marathon he’s been preparing for, he begins to come to terms with the fact that he’s getting a bit old for all this. It isn’t going to stop him, obviously, but New York wasn’t good, and when he tries the tactic of training less instead of more (just in case that had been the problem), Boston is just as bad. Ah well, tomorrow is another day – and meanwhile he has his triathlons to keep him busy. Jesus. He packs up after his stint in Cambridge, Mass – that’s when we find out about the LPs – jets home to Tokyo, writes about a triathlon 200-odd miles north of there, starts another chapter in Honolulu where he has another year’s placement…. What was I saying about achievers? And did I feel more and more inadequate as I read on? Well, yes…

…until he started to write about the debate about global warming. Like most Americans or honorary Americans, he’s neutral on it – unlike his carbon footprint – and I began to feel less bad about my own closeted lifestyle. The lifestyle this memoir describes is dependent on an incredible cost – you know, the one most Americans don’t like talking about. But… does it make me feel better, really? Nah. Just because he’s smug and/or thoughtlessly self-centred doesn’t make me envy his determination any the less. He gets things done.

The set-piece chapter in this section, to go with the super-marathon in the middle section, is the experience of getting himself to a decent standard to do triathlons. He goes at his swimming technique with his usual focus – it takes nearly four years – and in the end he’s ready for the present-tense account of his most recent event. Reader, it’s misery. And it’s glorious, and thrilling, and reminds him of what it is to be alive. Well, that sounds as if it’s worth settling for. Bring it on. (And yes, it did make me want to keep us with at least as much running as I do now. But triathlons? Forget it.)

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One Response to What I Talk About When I Talk About Running – Haruki Murakami

  1. Mandy Len says:

    I’m just writing a bit about Murakami and wanted to know if anyone shared my criticisms of “What I Talk about”. I arrived here by searching for the words “Murakami” and “smug.” For me, this nails it: “He runs in the morning, but when people remark on how well-disciplined he is, he bites back the pride and pretends he’s just lucky: other people have to spend all that shitty time commuting, but he doesn’t, no sirree Bob.”

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