'Gatsby' the gold standard for Japanese author Haruki Murakami

by Tadashi Yamauchi

The Yomiuri Shimbun

24 December 2006


TOKYO, Dec. 16—Haruki Murakami has described F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby as “the most important novel in my life” and one that he wished “to translate when I reach 60.”

The 57-year-old novelist, who was awarded the Franz Kafka International Literary Prize in October, has actually accomplished his mission ahead of schedule, having recently published his own translation of the novel.

No other contemporary Japanese novelist has translated as many books as Murakami. His list of translations includes books by John Irving, Truman Capote, Tim O’Brien and J.D. Salinger as well as the complete works of Raymond Carver. The Great Gatsby is the latest addition to this list.

In an e-mail interview with The Yomiuri Shimbun, Murakami was asked how he felt now that he had accomplished this goal.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: What’s the significance of producing a newly translated version of The Great Gatsby 80 years after it was first published?

Murakami: When we say a classic novel is worth reading as a contemporary story, it means that the characters’ ways of thinking and behavior are contemporary enough for us in today’s world. In other words, it’s worth imagining each scene and asking ourselves, “Why does this character say such a thing?” or “Why does he do that?” And that’s exactly what I did when I translated this novel.

Such a novel is rare. Of course, Tale of Genji, Shakespeare’s plays and the Greek tragedies still continue to throw up such questions.

To make us think about the meaning and origin of each scene as if they’re happening in our own lives—that’s one of the criteria of good, contemporary stories. Do they have any effect on readers? Well, that depends on each reader.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: Is there any common ground between Fitzgerald’s world and today’s Japan?

Murakami: One of Fitzgerald’s themes is maturity—individual maturity and society’s maturity. He was in his 20s in the 1920s, a very special time for American society. His youth and society’s youth closely corresponded to each other and synchronized in a way. America was enjoying an unprecedented economic boom, and the young Fitzgerald was enjoying fame.

The novel Gatsby was born almost by itself in the innocent fever of such times. But despite that fact, the novel itself is not innocent at all. Fitzgerald apparently captured a dark side of the noisy and tumultuous boom time.

Fitzgerald, through Nick, has a nagging sense that something is wrong. He also pursues the possibility of maturity as the story develops. However, the pursuit is swallowed by the lure of the good times and lost without bearing fruit.

Then comes the 1930s, the age of the Great Depression. It’s a dark age in contrast to the flashy ‘20s. Fitzgerald matured as a writer as America did as a society. Both became introspective, and they had to mature in their own ways.

I think those years may correspond to Japan’s bubble economy, its bursting and the “lost decade” that followed. I believe that Japanese society has matured to a new level by going through this stage (or that’s what I want to believe). For this reason, now is precisely the right time for Japanese to read Gatsby, which in a way will seem very realistic to them.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: You have said you’re drawn to Fitzgerald “by fate.” Could you explain this comment?

Murakami: It’s really difficult to explain in words, but it’s easier to understand when you think about it as an encounter between two people rather than an encounter between a person and a novel.

We meet a lot of people in our lives, and there are fateful encounters among them. Such encounters can sometimes change your life completely.

Such encounters can often open up new doors and close others. You sometimes feel your whole being has completely changed from how it was beforehand.

My encounter with The Great Gatsby was of that nature.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: Having become a novelist and translated the novel, do you now see it in another way?

Murakami: It renewed my interest in the complexity and sophistication of this novel. Every single line and every single act has deep meaning and all are connected to one another organically.

Usually when I keep reading the same novel over a period of decades, some parts become somewhat transparent. But that’s not the case with this novel. Instead of getting clearer, everything seems to get deeper and deeper. After finishing the translation, I honestly felt that I had seen it in a new light.

We’re so busy pursuing speed and efficiency in our daily lives that we have a tendency to forget our deeper values. We tend to get lazy when we need to remain patient and keep our eyes on something that we can only start to see with time.

In that sense, Gatsby is a sort of anchor for me. And it will remain so.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: Are there any of your novels that you might have not written if you hadn’t read Gatsby?

Murakami: I don’t know. But the point of view of my novels might have been different from what it is.

Fitzgerald splits his own point of view into three characters in this novel: protagonist Gatsby, narrator Nick and rival Tom. The portrayal of the three characters is astonishing. This is what any novel should convey.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: Do any of your novels correspond to Gatsby?

Murakami: No. I may write one in the future, though. I’ve yet to come across anyone who has the same opinion as me about the novel. So this novel has meant or implied a sort of secret or loneliness for me for a long time.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: You wrote in The Scott Fitzgerald Book that he’s a model novelist. What do you mean, exactly? You also point out in Murakami Asahido: Haiho that his private life was “not really normal.” Your life is the opposite, isn’t it?

Murakami: You can’t apply rules or standards to the private lives of those people known as geniuses. You can only apply them to nongeniuses. The only thing that warrants comment when it comes to geniuses is the product of their genius.

A genius is allowed to live any kind of life and do any kind of bad thing (from an artistic point of view, of course). It doesn’t matter if he ruins his life or dies young as long as he leaves a wonderful body of work for future generations. That’s what geniuses exist for.

Fitzgerald made use of his talent and left behind some wonderful works. I’ve been fascinated by their natural and noble character. It’s a model for me as a novelist and continues to be.

Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately) I’m not a genius, so I can’t live without taking control of various aspects of my personal life.

The Yomiuri Shimbun: You have passed the age of 44, at which Fitzgerald died. Have any other model novelists emerged for you?

Murakami: It doesn’t matter if I pass the age of his death, Fitzgerald’s novels are and will continue to be models for me.

But if you ask me about my goal, I’d have to say it’s (19th-century Russian novelist Fyodor) Dostoyevsky. This may be too ambitious, but I guess it’s better to set yourself high goals.

Nobody has gone beyond the deep and comprehensive scope of the stories he created in his later years.

Just like Jay Gatsby gazed at a green light far away on the other side of the river, I will continue to gaze at a similar universe of narratives.

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