Monday, November 28, 2011

What am I reading? 1Q84

Inspired by The Guardian's list of the best books of 2011 (the first of many such round-ups, I expect) I thought I'd kick off an occasional series of posts on (surprise, surprise) what I'm reading.

I briefly had a blog back in the day in which I decided I would read one book by everyone who's ever won a Nobel Prize, after realising I had read hardly any of the laureates. Looking at the blog now, I see I managed to get through 16 books, which is more than I thought. I actually have no memory at all of most of them (this is a general problem for me, that I forget books I've read, and even some I've studied, quite easily). If you'd asked me, I would have said I'd never read any Anatole France, despite him being a favourite of the French board of street names. But apparently I read him, and I didn't like him - "Pointless, that's the best summary of The Amethyst Ring by Anatole France, pointless from start to finish". I think the only book of the lot that really stayed with me was The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass, which is a masterpiece. But I see that I read that just before starting the 'project' anyway!

But anyway, while the constraints of reading a whole bunch of obscure Swedish writers and people chosen as much for their political beliefs as their writing wore me down (actually, I come across of a bit of a philistine in the blog - apparently I wanted to punch Jose Echegaray, 1904's winner, in the face ha ha), I thought it would be quite fun to blog about books that I had chosen to read of my own volition. So after that lengthy introduction, here goes.

I'm still ploughing through the 900+ page epic that is Haruki Murakami's latest, 1Q84. It's been quite a while since I read any Murakami, but I am definitely a fan. As I said to my mum a while back, it's now seemingly become obligatory to like Murakami. He's the perfect "I have pretensions to literariness, yet I like to think I'm a bit alternative" go-to guy. Not that I'm trying to say I was on the bleeding edge of Murakami appreciation and now I'm too cool for school.

I think I first read Murakami - Kafka on the Shore - when I was in Moscow in 2006, so I think I hardly "discovered" him. I have vivid memories of picking up that first book, with its white cover with a picture of a cat on it. I used to buy a lot of books at the big Dom Knigi (House of Books) on Novy Arbat, but I think I might have bought this one at the English book shop in Kitai Gorod. I ended up with a whole shelf of them in my bedroom, all of them abandoned when I left Moscow precipitously shortly afterwards. I used to read a lot - and spend a fortune on books I was later to discard - when I was in Prague and Moscow. The joys of having (some) time on my hands and no TV (or Russian/Czech only) and no computer.

In Prague I used to go to Shakespeare & Synove (Shakespeare and Sons) a lot. (I imagine it's probably something of an homage to Paris's famous Shakespeare & Co.) Shakespeare & Synove was a wonderful place to hang out - used and new books in the back (and they'd buy your old ones back too) and a coffee shop where you could install yourself by the fire with a hot chocolate and read for hours without being bothered. A rarity indeed in Prague, where generally a waiter will swoop within two seconds of you finishing your drink and ask if you want something else. At the time, I was unemployed, waiting to go to Moscow, and spent a month living in a hostel dorm room before spending a couple of weeks sleeping on the concrete floor of my friends' basement apartment (in one of their bedrooms, in fact), with only a folded blanket between me and the floor, and another thin blanket to sleep under. I used to wake up aching all over when my friend's alarm went off at about 6 am. The good part was that I was authorised to climb into her bed for a few more hours' sleep once she left! There was no spare key, so once I decided to leave the apartment for the day, I was out on my own until whatever time they made it back from long days teaching. I saw a lot of Prague, but it was getting cold by that stage (beginning of November, I think), and I'd been in Prague for a couple of months already, and so I spent a lot of time trying to drink hot chocolates as slowly as I possibly could in cafes or even sitting on the floor outside their apartment waiting for them to get back.

Very different to how I've been reading 1Q84 - on my Kindle, with no real sense of the weightiness of such a book, the pages left unread diminishing with every day; on the bus, in my lunchbreaks, or perched on the stationary bike at the gym. I found that Vol. 1 and 2 (sold separately from Vol. 3 in the UK, where my Kindle is registered) zipped by quite quickly. Even though I'd read some spoilers in articles and interviews before it came out, it did a good job of drawing you into its world and allowing some of the connections between characters to only gradually dawn upon you. There are definitely parts where it's genuinely gripping and you can't wait to see what happens next. But it's quite unevenly paced. Vol. 3, in particular, seems to be dragging somewhat in comparison, although there still is a desire to know how it all turns out. Somehow the surreal elements of the book seem a bit lacking in purpose. One feels that exactly the same essential plot could have been achieved without any of the Little People and air chrysalises etc. They don't really seem to be *doing* much in the book, and yet they're not so out there that you really go "wow, what the hell?" Or maybe that's just because we're all used to this sort of magical realism guff by now?

There is a good story there though, and I'm still looking forward to see what happens at the end (which I have heard is disappointing...) If anything, though, it's made me want to go back and re-read some of those books I read back in Moscow and see if I can recapture the magic.

PS Next time I will try to get down to business a bit faster...


  1. I'm glad I didn't know about the concrete floor.

  2. so you left prague becauuse it was getting cold in november...... and went for the balmy climate of moscow???

  3. No? It was (relatively) warm in Moscow anyway

  4. Didn't murakami's first novel come out in the 70's? So you probably didn't discover him after all ;-)
    I remember your Nobel blog, I used to laugh about how you hated pretty much all of them!! xxx

  5. Ha, yeah I looked it up after I wrote this. I think maybe the 70s in Japan and early 80s in English. But I think even in Japan I've heard he didn't hit it big until Norwegian Wood, which was later. But definitely not as late as 2006!


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