According to the note by translator Jay Rubin, Norwegian Wood is the novel that turned Haruki Murakami from a respected japanese novelist into a global literary superstar. It’s easy to see why. Norwegian Wood is an adolescent wet dream. An extremely well-written and very sensitive one, but full of the same maudlin excess that dominates Rilke’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.
There’s a lot more sex in Norwegian Wood, of course than in Werther, and drugs, too, and I haven’t read Werther in decades, so my authority on the subject is suspect. Nevertheless, the teen age desperation over unattainable love, the wandering, maundering devastating and consuming melancholy runs in a straight line from the courtly love poems of Chaucer through Rilke, right down to the present day. Doesn’t mean it’s not fascinating and entertaining reading. Just means it’s in a tradition that most who hooked up with it in the 80’s probably wouldn’t have appreciated when they took up this post-modern hip volume. The English-speaking world didn’t get a crack at it till 2000, but it’s still a winner.
The narrator, Toru, is thirty-seven when the story opens, a he lands on an airliner, a recording of the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” piques his memory and melancholy and we are launched on a flashback to his days as a quiet and serious young college student in Tokyo. Toru is devoted to Naoko, a beautiful and introspective young woman, but their mutual passion is marked by the tragic death of their best friend years before. Toru begins to adapt to campus life and the loneliness and isolation he faces there, but Naoko finds the pressures and responsibilities of life unbearable. Mental and emotional disorders force her to seek asylum in a sort of Magic Mountain retreat. As Nakao retreats further into her own world, Toru finds himself reaching out to others and is drawn to a fiercely independent and sexually liberated young woman named Midori.
Literarily, Toru is an interesting character. He’s a passive sort of chap who is friends with all sorts of people because he is such a good listener, one who allows people to exercise their personalities and opinions around him without judgment or restraint. Thus, his type O personality can absorb and appreciate the colorful antics of a Midori as well as the plaintive wistfulness of Naoko. When he’s deprived of the affections or attentions of one or the other of his women for a while, he goes into deep depression. Normally responsible and hard-working, he retreats from the world, isolates, neglects his obligations and his relationships. His regular even-temper plummets to despair.
In the end, he does come of age, but he seems wounded to me. Perhaps congenitally so. Each of the women could be said to represent extremes in his personality, and he is unable to choose, to commit. And unable to have both, he can really have neither. That’s his tragedy, if tragedy it be. A great read, even for mature and well-ordered adults like me.