The two writers met in person only once, but it provided a lifetime of inspiration; most recently shown in Murakami’s new collection “Men Without Women.”
Haruki Murakami met Northwest short-story writer Raymond Carver for the first and only time in the summer of 1984. Murakami was 35 and had been writing for six years; his first great novel, “A Wild Sheep Chase,” came out in 1982 but none of his work had been published in English. He was known to Carver only as the enthusiastic translator who had been bringing his stories out in Japan at an impressive clip.
Carver was curious enough to interrupt his writing schedule for a social visit — something he generally avoided — and he was flattered that Murakami had come all the way from Japan to Port Angeles to meet him.
“Ray was eager, almost childlike with delight, to meet Murakami, to see who he was and why Ray’s writing had brought them together on the planet,” Tess Gallagher, Carver’s widow, wrote after the meeting.
Carver didn’t know it, but Murakami was on a pilgrimage. When Murakami read Carver’s “So Much Water So Close to Home” in 1982, he was hit by a thunderbolt. To Murakami, this was genius, “an entirely new kind of fiction,” realistic but penetrating and profound in a way that he believed “goes beyond simple realism.” Murakami read another Carver story, “Where I’m Calling From,” in The New Yorker, and began collecting and translating everything of Carver’s he could find.
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Murakami is self-taught, a jazz-club owner who started writing fiction after an epiphany at a baseball game. He sticks to his own path and follows it without hesitation. In Carver’s fiction, he found a map to guide him.
“Raymond Carver was without question the most valuable teacher I ever had and also the greatest literary comrade,” Murakami wrote in “A Literary Comrade,” an essay published after Carver’s death. “The novels I write tend, I believe, in a very different direction from the fiction Ray has written. But if he had never existed, or I had never encountered his writings, the books I write, especially my short fiction, would probably assume a very different form.”
Carver’s literary path zigzagged through the Northwest. Born in Clatskanie, Oregon, to a sawmill worker and a waitress, Carver grew up in Yakima, got married at 19, and joined his father in the mill. He bounced around for the next 20 years, drinking, taking classes, squeezing out time to write on the weekends. His stories were about working people struggling to connect, falling down and getting up.
Murakami and his wife, Yoko, visited Carver and Gallagher at Sky House, a wide-windowed home on the Strait of Juan de Fuca. Murakami was struck by Carver’s “massive physical size,” and noted “the way he sat on the sofa with his body crunched up as if to say he had never intended to get so big, and he had an embarrassed expression on his face.”
Both men were shy. Carver was a mumbler, uneasy around strangers, and a tape Murakami made sounded “like little more than a badly done wiretap.” They connected, though, and Carver paid close attention to his guest. Carver was in the warm flush of fame, good years after so much alcohol and heartbreak. “What We Talk About When We Talk About Love” (1981) was his breakout book and “Cathedral” (1983), his masterpiece, the best stories of his generation, the best ever by a Northwest writer.
Smoked salmon and black tea were served. Carver’s mind, as it often did, wandered away for a moment that he captured in “The Projectile,” a poem he dedicated to Murakami:
We sipped tea. Politely musing
on possible reasons for the success
of my books in your country. Slipped
into talk of pain and humiliation
you find occurring, and recurring,
in my stories. And that element
of sheer chance. How all this translates
in terms of sales.
Murakami probably was thinking of “So Much Water So Close to Home,” the story of men who find a woman’s body on a fishing trip and continue to fish for two days before contacting the police. Carver was thinking of a moment when he was 16 and his eardrum was broken by a snowball, a memory that came roaring back 30 years later and left just as quickly.
The Murakamis stayed for two hours. All went well, and Carver promised to return the visit on a trip to Japan. Murakami was thrilled and ordered an extra-large bed so his new American friend would be comfortable in his home.
It never happened. Carver thought his years of hard drinking would kill him but the cigarettes got there first, lung cancer that spread to his brain and brought him down in 1988, at 50. Gallagher gave Murakami a pair of Carver’s shoes, a sign of respect from one writer to another.
Murakami is an international sensation, the author of two dozen books that are translated everywhere. “Men Without Women,” his new short-story collection (Knopf, 228 pp., $25.95), has Carver’s influence on every page. An actor knows his more-famous wife had affairs and after her death he befriends one of her lovers. A housewife delivers groceries to a shut-in and tells him stories after passionless sex. A doctor spends a lifetime keeping love at arm’s length and forgets its power. “Men Without Women” is the title of a 1927 short-story collection by Ernest Hemingway, but it’s Carver that Murakami is thinking of when he writes that “Dreams are the kind of things you can — when you need to — borrow and lend out.”
At their one meeting, Murakami never asked Carver about translation and never told Carver he was a writer.
“I guess I should have done that,” Murakami told the Harvard Crimson 20 years later, “but I didn’t know he would die so young.”