Rev. of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami

Issue #109
Fall 2009

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, a memoir by Haruki Murakami (Knopf): This plain-speaking, suggestive memoir by the prolific and internationally acclaimed novelist Murakami is part runner’s diary, part writer’s handbook, part spiritual meditation. "Writing honestly about running and writing honestly about myself are nearly the same thing," he states. His example is bracing. He not only runs marathons on a regular basis, but also triathlons and ultra marathons. He runs a sixty-two mile ultra in Japan. He runs the Iron Man in Hawaii. He runs seven Boston Marathons and four New Yorks. He publishes twelve books of fiction and one of non-fiction. He translates Raymond Carver and F. Scott Fitzgerald into Japanese. He maintains a long marriage. Murakami is a remarkable man, whose signal characteristics in both running and writing are, as he puts it, talent, focus, and endurance: "[Talent for a novelist] is more of a prerequisite than a necessary quality… The next most important quality is… focus—the ability to concentrate all your limited talents on whatever’s critical at the moment… After focus… is endurance… Fortunately [focus and endurance] are different from talent, since they can be acquired and sharpened through training."

When the writer Andre Dubus was hit by a car and lost his legs, he wrote in Notes From a Moveable Chair: "I realized why writing and physical exercise have been so deeply pleasurable for me despite or because of the effort they demand: while doing both of those, if I am concentrating, I am one with the man I normally am not and, achieving or receiving that, I am one with people and truths I will never know when I am my normal self again."

Murakami also writes of transcendence, a kind of "no mind." While running the ultra, he tells himself that he’s not human; he is a machine. "If I were a living person of blood and flesh I would have collapsed from the pain. There definitely was a being called me there. And accompanying that is a consciousness of the self. But at that point, I had to force myself to think that those were convenient forms and nothing more." At the forty-seventh mile, he felt that he had passed through a stone wall. "All I had to do was go with the flow and I’d get there automatically… some sort of power would naturally push me forward." Or again (about struggling through a triathlon): "It’s precisely because of the pain, precisely because we want to overcome that pain, that we can get the feeling, through this process, of really being alive… Your quality of experience is based not on standards such as time or ranking, but on finally awakening to an awareness of the fluidity within action itself."

He writes of health as well: "Writing novels is an unhealthy type of work. When we set off to write a novel, when we use writing to create a story, like it or not, a kind of toxin that lies deep down in all humanity rises to the surface." He might well be thinking of such writers as F. Scott Fitzgerald, William Faulkner, William Styron, Richard Yates, and Raymond Carver, who suffered madness, depression, and alcoholism as hazards of dealing with their visions. Novelists, he says, must "develop autoimmune systems of our own that can resist the dangerous (sometimes lethal) toxin that resides within… To deal with something unhealthy, a person needs to be as healthy as possible."

A lover of solitude, who gave up managing a jazz bar in order to write, he writes of the spiritual affinity between both writers and triathletes: "[We] are unusual people. Think about it for a minute. Most of the participants have jobs and families, and on top of taking care of these, they swim and bike and run, training very hard, as part of their ordinary routine… [The] competitive aspect is less important than the sense of a triathlon as a sort of ceremony by which we can affirm this shared bond."

Just as in running, he lets "the exhilaration I feel at the end of each run carry over to the next day"; when writing a novel, he stops "every day right at the point where I feel I can write more." In running, he speaks of raising the bar, gradually, to "elevate" himself; while in "in the novelist’s profession… What’s crucial is whether your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself…" Running teaches him how to use "a frustrating experience…to improve myself."He learns measure: how far he can push himself; how much rest is too much; how far he can "take something and still keep it decent and consistent." "Most of what I know about writing, I’ve learned through running every day," he concludes.

He does not say much about his wife. They married when he was twenty-two. "After I closed the bar and began my life as a novelist, the first thing we—and by we, I mean my wife and I—did was completely revamp our lifestyle." She has a snack and fresh clothes ready for him at mile thirty-four of the ultra. After his poor performance in the Boston Marathon, she asks, "What in the world happened… You’re still pretty strong, and I know you train enough." He jokes that one of his anxieties before attempting the triathlon was: "Maybe my wife, waiting for me at the finish line was going to have discovered some awful secrets about me (I suddenly felt like there might actually be some)"; and then at the actual finish: "Instead, she greeted me with a smile. Thank goodness." He seems to take her own "unusualness" for granted, as she is widowed twice over by his obsessions, yet lovingly supportive. But perhaps that is another story. —DeWitt Henry is the founding editor of Ploughshares . His latest book is Safe Suicide: Narratives, Essays, and Meditations.