Haruki Murakami and F Pencils

One thing I discovered after moving to Canada is that works by the Japanese writer Haruki Murakami are not as widely published in the English-speaking world as in Korea. Westerners know him primarily as a novelist, but the fact is that he has written a LOT of other books, including essays and travel writing. Personally I find that he can be a bit repetitive in his novels, and he is not quite my favorite author (although I like two of his novels very much), but I can recommend his essays unreservedly.

Murakami first started writing at a time when Western pop culture was still new and fascinating, and he combined his familiarity with it with lighthearted, witty observations of everyday life, when Literature was still supposed to be heavy and didactic. He was decidedly cool. There was no one who could describe the ennui of a spring afternoon, or preparing pasta with anchovies, quite the way Murakami could. The cover illustrations might give you an idea of how whimsical and fun the essays are.

 

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Murakami had a longtime collaborator in the illustrator Mizumaru Anzai, and the books they produced together are the best of the lot, from the mid-80’s and early 90’s. The books at the back are more recent.

Now, there is a precious essay on pencils in one of these books, entitled “The Pencil in a Sailor Suit”, which I don’t think Western readers know all that well. Murakami has had his characters handle various writing instruments in his novels, and he has also done a series of ads for Parker fountain pens in the past too, but here he discusses his actual preferences as a writer. And the point is that he uses F pencils for work. He sharpens a dozen of them in the morning, stands them in a whiskey glass, and takes them out one by one.

The essay goes like this: while in conversation with a magazine editor of his acquaintance, they start discussing stationery. When Murakami states that he only uses F pencils, the editor comments, “But F pencils always remind you of a high school girl in a sailor suit, don’t you think so?” And Murakami is left for days pondering why this should be.

[Note: “sailor suit” refers to high school uniforms for girls with wide rectangular collars tied in a knot at the front. Boys wear somber black suits based on Prussian military uniforms. If you are a manga fan or have watched Japanese movies you will know what I mean.]

Murakami tries to forget this association and resorts to other pencils, but his imagination runs amok – wouldn’t the HB pencil then be a high-school boy in uniform? And H pencils remind you of Sting, of the rock band Police. Since he cannot use anything harder than a 2H or darker than a B for work, he is stuck with these three options, and, thrown by these human associations, he finds himself going over the galleys with a ballpoint pen instead of his usual pencil.
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This collection of essays was published in 1986, so I don’t know if his work habits have changed since then, or whether he prefers a different grade of pencil now. Maybe, now that he’s been a famous writer for many decades, people from all over the world give him rare and precious F grade pencils. How fascinating would such a collection be!

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14 thoughts on “Haruki Murakami and F Pencils

    1. Unfortunately no… I don’t think any of his early essays were translated. But the piece is really short (four pocket-edition-sized pages) and even a full translation will not yield much more than the summary above! So you will be disappointed if you actually buy the whole book for that one essay.

      I would love to know why Western publishers aren’t as interested in Murakami’s nonfiction. Maybe they are too outdated, and maybe their appeal is limited compared to his novels. Also you have to keep in mind that Japanese often suffers in translation, because it can seem bland and repetitive. But I wish more people could know this lighter side of him too.

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    2. Thank you for these details. It is interesting to hear that Japanese often suffers in translation – I have read some reviews of Murakami’s which have been translated into German and noticed the criticism “repetitive” more than once. Do you know which aspect of Japanese causes this?

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      1. It’s interesting that German reviews describe the writing as such. I find the criteria for good writing in English (and by inference German, too, I suppose, it being a sister language) are different from Asian languages – good English sentences are supposed to be clear, vivid and concise, and English is particularly unforgiving of repetitions, errors in order and logic, and ambiguity. In Japanese, people tend to express themselves in a more roundabout way, and it is acceptable to lay out one’s thought processes step by step, whereas in a Western language much of that process would be abbreviated to spare the readers the boredom. The English title of one of Murakami’s recent books gives you an idea: “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running”. One of the clunkiest titles I’ve ever seen, but it works fine in Japanese :)

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  1. Not so long ago I have read that in Japanese arts the process is at the centre while Western art focusses on the result; maybe there is a connection. – “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running” doesn’t sound clunky to me at all, at least not in view of the fact that (at least according to an accepted theory) a message can have four parts – the information, a request, a self-expression and the hierarchy between speaker and listener. However, I don’t know if the English title was meant that way.

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    1. Hmm, I was taught to try not to repeat words in the same sentence, or even the same paragraph… And the title contains three words in repetition, in the same sequence! I have the impression (just as a reader) that the editors at Murakami’s English publisher did not have the heart to suggest a change of title to such a famous author… But that may be just me ;).

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      1. Hi. Thank you for the information about the essay. I find Haruki-san’s imagination intriguing.

        Regarding the title of What I Talk about when I Talk about Running, most likely it is an allusion to Raymond Carver’s What We Talk about when We Talk about Love. It is known that Haruki-san was a friend of Carver; he even stated that Carver was one of his biggest influences.

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      2. You are right!! I do remember there was a short story collection title of that name by Carver, but as I had never been a loyal reader of his, it completely escaped my mind at the time of writing, Thank you for the correction – so it wasn’t a matter of language at all.

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    1. 카버 팬이 아니라 첨에 못 알아봤는데, 이 문장이 은근 여기저기서 많이 등장하더라고요^^

      그나저나 같이 뉴요커 읽으신다니 반갑네요! 저는 죽을 때까지 읽을 잡지이긴 한데요 요즘은 너무 정보원이 한정되다 보니 (이것 포함해서 구독하는 신문, 잡지가 딱 세 개입니다) 놓치는 게 있지 않나 하는 불안감이 있습니다. 꾸준히 읽을 만한 비슷한 성향의 저널 뭐 추천해 주실 만한 거 없나요?

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