Norwegian Wood Group Read: Week One ( Chapters 1-5 )

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Norwegian Wood Group Read: Week One ( Chapters 1-5 )

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Apr 25, 2010, 1:24 pm

This will begin Saturday May 1st! Let's have a great time!

Apr 26, 2010, 11:32 am

So, I haven't done this before. We'll be able to discuss anything in chapters 1-5 without anybody worrying about spoilers, right?

Apr 26, 2010, 12:11 pm


Apr 27, 2010, 8:57 am

#2 The way we generally do this is by creating two threads, one with spoilers and one without any, so no worries :)

Apr 27, 2010, 1:23 pm

I am surprised by all the sex in this book. I thought that the Japanese were very conservative in life style. I wonder if this book represents a "younger new generation" of Japanese much like the group of Americans in their early 20's back in the 1980's. Sexually liberated and somewhat dissipated as well. So far it seems to me that is the tone of this book.

Apr 28, 2010, 2:55 pm

I did a little reading about Murakami last night and found out that some people think that Norwegian Wood is an autobiographical novel. Murakami attended a university back in the 1960's. He says that this book is his homage to those wonderful years. I guess I managed to pick up on all that rebellion, liberation, and dissipation early on in my reading.

May 1, 2010, 11:37 am

Ah ha! I have thefted my sister's copy - score! Now I just need to find the time to actually read it...

May 1, 2010, 6:08 pm

Bekka- See all those positive LT vibes worked! We are quite magical! But watch that thefting!

" Once the plane was on the ground, soft music began to flow from the ceiling speakers: a sweet orchestral cover version of the Beatles' Norwegian Wood. The melody never failed to send a shudder through me, but this time it hit me harder than ever."

I love the clarity of his prose! Like a very fine ale!

May 1, 2010, 6:50 pm

>8 msf59:: Ah, love those lines, and that's about as far as I've gotten so far today!

May 1, 2010, 11:37 pm

#8: I pulled up a video on Youtube of Norwegian Wood when I saw that paragraph.

May 2, 2010, 12:06 pm

#8 I say thefting... I will give it back when I'm done :) Plus I leant her my copy of Blind Assasin to take on hols with her - all's fair!

May 2, 2010, 2:24 pm

#10 Same here! I started it today after finishing Dance Dance Dance and couldn't put down this one either until I got to the end of Chapter II! Norwegian Wood definitely has a more engaging start than the other works of his I have read, just wish he would pull it through.

May 3, 2010, 5:31 am

Okay, okay, I'm trying to juggle everything so I can start reading, quick! Maybe on my day off... aaaargh!

May 3, 2010, 5:38 am

I have read the first couple of chapters and must say that the style is very different from the previous Murakami I have read with the possible exception of What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

May 3, 2010, 6:24 am

Ok, so I am addicted. I have finished the 5 chapters scheduled for Week 1 and have managed to put the book away, hopefully for the rest of the week.

May 3, 2010, 10:18 am

****SPOILERS galore ahead****

I stayed up late last night reading. It was hard to stop with the cliffhanger about Toru's upcoming visit to Naoko in the sanatorium. As an aside, just typing the Japanese names is strange to me. I think I'll just call them Tom and Nancy in my head!

This is my first Murakami read, and I must say I am surprised by the conventional writing. I expected a lot more quirkiness in both style and characters. I've been loving the music and book references. I clearly see the Gatsby in Toru's rich friend Nagasawa. I also find it interesting that Toru is so immersed in The Magic Mountain, a book about a TB sanatorium. Btw, Mann's tome was a strange choice to be lugging around for his "night on the town."

I'm assuming that the sanatorium in NW is for mental illness. That was a strange letter Naoko wrote about her "deformities." I would think "problems" or even "psychoses" might have been a better word choice. Deformities, to me, connotes something more physical than a mental disorder. Kizuku's suicide has had some far-reaching effects. I wonder if N's mental state was normal before this event. Toru was rather odd before he lost his best friend, but he blames him for robbing him of part of his adolescence.

I'm enjoying Midori as a character; she's like a breath of fresh air. The best line for me was when she and Toru were leaving the so-called political demonstrationin the classroom and Toru was thinking: "The true enemy of this bunch was not State Power but Lack of Imagination." (Pg.57) Murakami has no trouble with his imagination, and I look forward to reading the rest of the book.

May 3, 2010, 1:07 pm

The setting for this book is the year 1968 - 1970. Given that time frame the idea that mental illness is a deformity rings true. Mental illness still has a stigma attached to it, but it was even more so previously. It is very clear in the book that Naoko sees herself as lacking. As abnormal.

Being a westerner and probably raised with all kinds of preconceived notions about Japanese culture, I find the topic of suicide, as discussed in this book, to be very interesting. In Japanese history, suicide is seen as an honorable way out of some of life's tricky situations. If that is true, it is not clear to me what the author is trying to say about suicide. It is clear that the suicide of Kizuke had a great effect on both Toru and Naoko. So far it isn't clear to me exactly what that effect is and if the author is trying to give the reader, and the Japanese, a message about suicide.

I have read another Murakami book Kafka on the Shore and all of the references to music are typical of that book as well as this one.

Edited: May 3, 2010, 5:31 pm

I'm really enjoying this book so far and found it really hard to stop at the end of Ch 5!

#16 I read the sanatorium as being for mental illness and deformities as psychological or mental deformities rather than physical (although deformities is not the word I would choose to use myself!).

I love the language and the way Murakami writes! I spent some time wondering how talented the translator must also be to get this to come out in a completely different language.

ETA: Typos - doh!

May 3, 2010, 5:32 pm

Translating is a real talent and undervalued by readers. In discussions with friends in the publishing business I have been told that it is the costs of translating books that deters them from publishing more books written in other languages. Not only do you have to pay the the author you have to pay a translator. For this reason the publisher wants the assurance that the book will be a big seller. The break through books were the works of Allende and Garcia-Marquez. These were best sellers and showed that American readers would read translated books if the translations were high quality. Murakami has now entered into this elite rank as well. His last two books were best sellers.

I think that reading translated books provides a window into a culture that is not there otherwise so it is important for readers to read translated books.

May 3, 2010, 5:41 pm

#19 Thanks! This is why I love doing group reads - I learn so much from everyone else!

May 3, 2010, 5:56 pm

Great Essays by Nobel Prize Winners had an interesting essay in it by Boris Pasternak about translating Shakespeare into Russian and trying to capture all the nuances of the language. It definitely gave me a greater appreciation of the translator's art.

Edited: May 3, 2010, 9:39 pm

It looks like everyone is enjoying it so far and for all you speed-readers, here's Week 2: right here

May 4, 2010, 12:33 pm

I was intrigued by a reference to a tree at the beginning of chapter 2. I'll spoil things now and say that this tree is mentioned several times in the book. It is the Zelkova Tree. In chapter 2 a "towering zelkova tree stood just inside the front gate. People said it was at least a hundred and fifty years old. Standing at its base, you could look up and see nothing of the sky through its dense cover of green leaves." pg. 12 in my copy. What kind of tree was this, as I had never heard of this species.

Wikipedia to the rescue. Zelkova is a genus of six species of deciduous trees in the elm family Ulmaceae, native to southern Europe, and southwest and eastern Asia. They vary in size from shrubs (Z. sicula) to large trees up to 35 m tall (Z. carpinifolia). The leaves are alternate, with serrated margins, and (unlike the related elms) a symmetrical base to the leaf blade. The fruit is a dry, nut-like drupe, produced singly in the leaf axils.

Specifaclly the tree would have been the Japanese Zelkova. Zelkova serrata is a medium sized deciduous tree usually growing to 30 meters (100 ft) tall. This tree is characterized by a short trunk dividing into many upright and erect spreading stems forming a broad, round topped head. The tree grows rapidly when young though the growth rate slows to medium upon middle age and maturity.

In summer, this tree has alternately arranged deciduous leaves. The leaves themselves are simple and ovate to oblong-ovate with serrated or crenate margins, to which the tree owes its species name “Serrata”. The leaves are acuminate or apiculate, rounded or subcordate at the base and contain about 8-14 pairs of veins. The leaves are rough on top and glabrous or nearly glabrous on the underside. They are green to dark green in spring and throughout the summer, though they change color in the autumn to a various assortment of yellows, oranges and reds.

To identify Zelkova serrata, one would look for a short main trunk, low branching and a vase shaped habit. Its twigs are slender with small, dark conical buds in a zigzag pattern. The branches are usually glabrous. The bark is grayish white to grayish brown and either smooth with lenticels or exfoliating in patches to reveal orange inner bark. Branchlets are brownish purple to brown.

I don't want to bore you non-tree lovers but I was captivated as soon as I read this. I come from a part of the U. S. where the Dutch Elm Disease has pretty much killed off the Elm Trees. These trees were the quintessential main street tree in the U. S. They grew tall and had so much shade. Watching them die out has been really sad for us tree lovers. I was encouraged to read that the Japanese Zelkova is considered an excellent replacement for the American Elm because it is highly resistant to Dutch Elm Disease. On the down side the Japanese Zelkova is not very cold tolerant. Wouldn't grow well in Kansas.

The wood from this tree is highly prized in Japan because it is a hard wood used for furniture and building. It is also a very good bonsai tree. Funny that Murakami should mention it.

Edited: May 4, 2010, 1:37 pm

I just finished Chapter 5. I don't usually read contemporary literature, but there is just something about Murakami! I agree that this is different from the other book of his that I read, The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle, but still compelling.

What I am wondering about are the map references. There is Storm Trooper who wants to make maps. Plus his geographic posters, the canal, Golden Gate Bridge, and iceberg. Naoko takes Toru on the big arc walk and wonders why they reached the particular destination. Midori writes inserts for maps and draws a map to the bookshop. Naoko mails a map to Ami Hostel.

Interesting discussion about suicide. I had not thought about the cultural differences in viewing it. Also interesting about the tree. I had wondered about it, but did not look it up.

Looking forward to the next part of the book!

May 4, 2010, 2:49 pm

I just learned that the oldest known Japanese Zelkova is named Noma Keyaki. It is 1,000 years old and 25 meters in height. Its trunk has a circumference of 11.5 meters.

Great point about the maps, and one that I missed in the reading. As you said - this is a very different book from the previous Murakami I read Kafka on the Shore.

May 4, 2010, 7:34 pm

Benita- Interesting info on the Zelkova tree! Thanks! I never heard of it!

BJ- Good point on the maps! I didn't notice it!

I'm just a few pages short of finishing Chapter 5. I'm quite entranced. And like Donna mentioned, I also like Midori's character. I enjoyed the moment when Toru is observing Midori prepare lunch. "From the back, she looked like an Indian percussionist- ringing a bell, tapping a block, striking a water buffalo bone, each movement precise and economical, with perfect balance. I watched in awe."

May 4, 2010, 8:29 pm

I felt like Watanabe either attracted 2 kinds of people or his descriptions fell into 2 kinds - the charismatic types who chose him (against expectations) and those with some oddities as a result of wounds - like Midori and Naoko and even his roommate.

I did enjoy Midori - what a story she has and yes, the imagery of her cooking was so descriptive and fun!

May 6, 2010, 3:16 am

I finally got my copy yesterday and just started chapter 4. This is my second Murakami after Kafka on the Shore and I found this one much easier to get into, more straightforward, with just one main character. There are similarities between Kafka and Watanabe.

Since I read the title Norwegian Wood I can't stop the song in my head. It was one of the first English songs I learned by heart, because I liked this simple little melody. I was quite young and had to translate the text with the help of a dictionary and I couldn' believe the ending. I thought that Naoko's birthday night might be a reference to the song, but then it ended quite differently (with sex) though similar (she disappeared).

Your reflections about translations are interesting. I found that when I read foreign books in most cases I actually prefer the English versions over the German ones, because English is the richer language, perfect for literature in my opinion. I'd assume it is easier to translate foreign books into English than vice versa.

May 6, 2010, 6:08 am

Don't sell German short. English may be a language with a plethora of words but that doesn't mean that there is a plethora of meaning as well. For instance the German word angst. That is also an English word. Why? I suspect that it is because the German word describes something for which there isn't an exact English word. To remedy that situation the English users just borrowed the better German word.

I read somewhere that English has a little over 100,000 words in its lexicon. The average English speaker uses only 10,000 of those words. That still seems like alot of words to me.

Translating must be a hard job. Getting the grammar correct is only half of the job. There is also the subtle nuances of meaning that are often missed because the exact word-for-word translation might not be the exact meaning.

May 6, 2010, 6:59 am

I think that compared to German a greater part of English has been kept alive, maybe because it is spoken everywhere in the world. When I read Goethe or even Thomas Mann and compare this to contemporary German literature I realize how much has been forgotten of a formerly great literary language.
Basically it's all there, but sadly it's out of use. Or if it is used it sounds terribly artificial and constructed (often this effect is intended). This 'modern' limited vocabulary is then the basis for the translations, often with the result that those texts 'sound' dull and one-dimensional.

I re-read some English books which I had earlier read in their German translation and mostly I found that much was lost on the way. There are certainly exceptions. There was an interesting article about the translation of Infinite Jest into German, which took almost 6 years. I read the German version and it's obvious how much effort was put into it.

One thing I haven't tried yet is reading the English translation of a great German book.

May 6, 2010, 8:39 pm

So - to delve into this translation thing some more.

How do I know that what I am reading in my English translation is what Murakami really wrote? Some of the people earlier in this thread have be enthralled by the writing style of Murakami. How do I know that this is what Murakami really wrote and not just a good translation? Or the translators talents transposed into the authors work?

May 7, 2010, 6:57 am

Benita- Interesting question! Hey as long as it works for me, I'm okay with it. In Murakami's running memoir he mentioned that he also translated books in Japanese. I think mostly classics and I remember him commenting on the fact of how painstaking it was.

May 7, 2010, 7:42 am

In my edition (Vintage Books) it says that the translation by Jay Rubin was the first English one authorized by Murakami himself for publication outside Japan. So in this case this might be something of a quality seal.

But if a book has not just a very simple one-dimensional plot, a translation can only ever be an approximation. In case of a book where the literary style plays an important role and the plot is complex with many layers and subtle notes, a translation must be a really hard balancing act.

And you are right Benita, it is always possible that a translator might put too much of himself, of his own interpretation and style into the translation. I've never really thought about this aspect. I don't know if there exists something like a 4-eyes-principle.

May 7, 2010, 8:13 pm

Any thoughts on Naoko's letter? Starting Chapter 6 tomorrow!

Edited: May 8, 2010, 11:47 pm

OK, I don't have my book with me, and just want to get some comments in before I start Chapter Six, so this is going to be a bit stream-of-consciousness. The first question I had for myself was, "Is there really a well? Or was this just Naoko's way of describing her depression and suicidal thoughts? I thought it was it was great as the latter, but then Watanable described the stones around the edge, so I'm wondering and looking forward to getting this question resolved.

Somebody said earlier (I'm too lazy to go back and look) that everyone was wounded in this book. I was thinking about that when Midori came into the picture. She added some vitality which I really appreciated, though she supposedy felt wounded too. (I wasn't bored by the story, but Watanabe and Naoko are both so depressed!) Midori gave a little more credibility and information as to why Watanabe attracted these charismatic types, by commenting directly on how he supposedly spoke and acted that made him appealing to others (wish I had my book here to quote). I, myself, couldn't hear anything in his speech, or "see" anything in his actions that made this convincing. I wondered if Watanabe came across differently to someone who was Japanese and/or read this in Japanese.

Which leads me to my next thought. Does anybody else think this book really suffers in translation? It's got to be more beautiful in Japanese. So much of it just plods along in the most mundane way. Either that, or it's just too subtle for me. And, even though I feel sympathetic towards Watanabe, I have to admit that he isn't the most interesting or likable character.

The story picked up for me when Watanabe got to the hospital and we got to experience Reiko. I wonder if this book's theme is much more dramatic in Japanese culture because both she and Naoko are talking so openly about mental illness. I especially liked their comments about how there are people with "deformities" both inside and outside the hospital, but at least the people there knew what their issues were and were trying to address them. This seemed such an important statement about Japanese culture. I know in this country, a lot has changed (or maybe it's just that I've changed?) in the last 30 years regarding people's attitudes about mental health treatment, along with the causes of various mental illnesses. I didn't look to see when this book was written, but Reiko's story seemed to reflect the tendency (that I've read in other books) of Japanese people trying to hide/keep secret "deformities" of all types, and to see them as "shaming" their family. And, conversely, not feeling at all uncomfortable about "researching" other people's family so as to avoid getting tainted by others' shame.

I'm enjoying the story much more, but there is still a stiltedness (carefulness?) and/or politeness in people's talk that makes this book a bit dull for me.

May 9, 2010, 8:40 am

I am so happy to have you guys around!! I too was wondering about how an author feels about his or her book and the translated versions. Wondering if I am really getting the message or story the author wanted to impart. I think this is only about the 3rd or 4th book that I have read that was originally written in another language and then translated. I'm finding it flows smoothly enough to keep me reading , but I too am finding it a bit dull.
The Ami Hostel just sounds like a retreat. How does staying at a retreat help someone with mental illness? Unless it is meant to be a permanent stay?

May 9, 2010, 9:45 am

The Ami Hostel reminds me of Star Trek. In 1 episode of the TV show Captain Kirk, Spock and Bones land on a planet with beautiful women and an unseen entity. I've made it to page 150. I don't care for Reiko. I'm starting to think she has ulterior motives.

Edited: May 9, 2010, 11:02 am

Bonnie- Thanks for your interesting thoughts! I'm wondering about the well also! I'm not finding it dull at all. I think this is Murakami's style and it fits perfectly with his story-telling.

Tammy- There is a 2nd thread for chapter 6 and 7. The link is in msg #22.

May 9, 2010, 11:52 am

The talk about translations is interesting. I don't worry too much about whether or not it is true to the original because I know I'll never read it in Japanese. It is what it is!

I don't find it dull, just kind of the song in the title and the whole period of the sixties. That was a surreal decade for me. I went from high school to college to marriage and motherhood with offbeat, dreamy lyrics from the Beatles and Rolling Stones in my head. No need for drugs.

I never "got" what the Norwegian Wood lyrics were trying to tell me, and the only tie-in to the book that I can see is the fanciful imaginative tone of the song and the line, "This bird had flown," that describes how Naoko leaves so suddenly. Nevertheless, I am intrigued by this book so far.

May 10, 2010, 12:24 am

Donna, I also felt like it was just kind of surreal like the late 60s, early 70s. There were some similar themes in the other book by Murakami that I read, but this book is easier to follow. I need to check out the next part!

May 10, 2010, 6:46 pm

I too had my questions about the "hospital." I don't think there is much of theraputic value going on there. Reiko also bothers me. What is her game? She acts more like a therapist than a patient.

I think the well is metaphorical. Watanabe says that neither he nor Naoko knew where the well was located but that it was somewhere around and they had to watch for it. Perhaps I am convinced that this well is a metaphor because I read Kafka on the Shore and this type of metaphor is frequent in that book.

May 11, 2010, 2:21 am

There was also a well in The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle. Interesting.

May 11, 2010, 12:12 pm

Thinking about Reiko, I guess even in real life, sometimes even if we really don't want to, we are looking for older, wiser individuals to assure us that we are not alone and that things will be ok.

May 12, 2010, 11:57 am

And for all of Reiko's openness and seeming cheerfulness and wisdom, did you notice that she had a ten-year-old daughter who is growing up without her? Life at the hospital is very simple and controlled. Real life isn't.

May 13, 2010, 3:04 am

A week behind but I finally caught up to the end of chapter 5.

This is so different to the other Murakami I have read - The Wind up Bird Chronicles, despite having many similar themes. This feels like a much younger more straight forward read (at the moment anyway!).

In some ways I kind of feel that makes it a let down after the absolute complexity of Wind up Bird, but mostly I'm enjoying the simpler narrative. Someone above in the thread said that Watanabe and Naoko were really depressed - undeniable, yet they both remind me of myself in my first year of uni. I was deeply unhappy and this is hitting a lot of reminiscent chords for me. I think someone also said (sorry - in a hurry so not checking!) that they felt it plods. I was thinking the opposite - I find it flows very smoothly at a walking pace. Walking being so important so far I'm wondering if this is relevant.

Thats another thing that strikes a ntoe in the start of this book. When I lived in Southampton (UK) I used to walk all over the city, often in the middle of the night with a house mate and then later for days at a time when my husband and I first got together. I think Murakami evokes this wodnerfully - the feeling of walking with someone and either talking about things that don't matter or not talking at all and it not mattering where you are walking too.

Wow that got away from me a bit there - sorry!

Edited: May 13, 2010, 1:25 pm

I agree that the walking aimlessly and young or new love is described perfectly by Murakami. The conversation can be about everything and nothing at all. He nailed that. I also agree that this book is not as complex as the other Murakami that I read. Kafka on the Shore I didn't think about the fact that since it is his first book it would probably be the less polished of his work. Thanks for pointing that out.

May 14, 2010, 9:25 am

#46 Norwegian Wood is Murakami's 5th book, his first one being Hear the Wind Sing. While I haven't read his first book, I did read his second one, Pinball, 1973 and it is more complex than Norwegian Wood. Though I must say, this rather simplistic book of his has its own charm.