What a strange little book! I guess it’s not surprising that Haruki Murakami’s notion of a memoir is not quite that of the rest of us. This is not because it has any of the, shall we call it, weirdness you find in his novels, but because in its 180 pages, What I talk about when I talk about running talks quite a bit about – yes – running.
The book was written over a period covering August 2005 to October 2006, and the chapters read largely like diary entries. In the foreword he says:
Somerset Maugham once wrote that in each shave lies a philosophy. I couldn’t agree more. No matter how mundane some action might appear, keep at it long enough and it becomes a contemplative, even meditative act.
So, what does this book tell us about Murakami? He is not competitive, he is not particularly comfortable socially and in fact enjoys being alone, he is tenacious, he is highly self-motivated … and he is modest. We learn all of this through his attitude to running. Early in the book he draws some parallels between his life as a runner and as a writer, but by the end of the book his focus is almost solely on running (and triathlons). He says that running marathons and writing novels are similar in that the point is not whether you win or lose, but whether “your writing attains the standards you’ve set for yourself”. The book describes in some detail the standards he sets for himself as a runner and how he goes about (or not as the case maybe!) achieving them.
I enjoyed the book, but I must admit that I was really hoping for more insight into why he writes the sorts of books he does. Fairly early in the book he writes of his years of owning/running a jazz bar in Tokyo. He says:
Thanks to this…I met all kinds of offbeat people and had some unusual encounters. Before I began writing, I dutifully, even enthusiastically, absorbed a variety of experiences.
Aha, I thought, we are getting to the meat of things but, in fact, he doesn’t expand on this. Regarding his writing goals, he very simply says that his “duty as a novelist” is to ensure that each work is “an improvement over the last”. Regarding writing as a profession he says you need three things: talent, focus and endurance. You need these same things for long-distance running too.
While running is clearly in his bones and he plans to run long distances for as long as he can, he does say at the end “the main goal of exercising is to maintain, and improve, my physical condition in order to keep on writing novels”. Oh, and his philosophy? It seems to be this:
Exerting yourself to the fullest within your individual limits: that’s the essence of running, and a metaphor for life – and for me, for writing as well.
I’m glad I read the book – Murakami seems like a decent, gentle man with some thoughtful things to say about life – but I really don’t think it gave me any real insights into his work. It really is mostly about running!
What I talk about when I talk about running
Vintage Books, 2009