The Best Place to Read John Updike by Haruki Murakami

(I once attempted to translate all of Murakami's untranslated essays - originally published only in Japanese and Chinese - into English. This is one of them.)

I think of John Updike whenever summer comes around, and reading John Updike reminds me of the summer of 1968. Our minds are filled with many of these chain reactions. They might be small, insignificant things, but I feel that these are precisely the things that make up our views of life and the world in general.

In the summer of 1968, I went to college in Tokyo. I hated carrying huge luggages around, so I’d sent the necessities ahead of me. I had left my house with only some cigarettes, a lighter and a copy of John Updike’s “Music School” in the pockets of my coat. I think it was a paperback edition published by either Bantam or Dell. The cover design was delightful, fresh and old-fashioned. I met my girlfriend for dinner, said our goodbyes, and then I was on the train, heading away into the distance.

Leaving my house and setting off for Tokyo with only a copy of Updike’s short story collection in my pocket might seem, in retrospect, a little too careless, but let’s not talk about that anymore. I reached Tokyo before the night fell and headed for my new apartment in Meijiro. For some reason the luggage that was supposed to be there had not yet arrived. I didn’t have my ashtray, blanket, coffee cup, and my flask for boiling water with me, so you can imagine what a pathetic situation I was in. When you do things carelessly, problems are bound to arise.

The room was very empty. There was a table with a single drawer on it and a metal-framed bed. That was all. There was a mattress on the bed that made your heart grow heavy the moment you set your eyes on it. I sat on the mattress and tested it, and it was as hard as a loaf of french bread that has been around for at least a week or so.

It was a cloudy and quiet summer day, and dusk was setting in. I opened the window, only to hear music drifting out of a radio somewhere in the distance. The radio was playing Iron Butterfly’s “In A Gadda-Da-Vida”. Although all these happened fourteen years ago, I still remember even the smallest details with a sharp clarity.

There was nothing in particular that I had to do then, and I hadn’t the energy to do anything as well. Frustrated, I went to the nearest cake shop and bought a Coke (of course it was the bottled one, please imagine the glass bottle for a moment) and some biscuits, and then I lay on the stiff mattress and continued reading what was left of Updike’s book. The sun was starting to set in the west and the house was beginning to grow dark, so I turned on the lights on the ceiling. One of the light tubes kept making all these small “jizz, jizz” noises.

When I finished reading Updike at around eight-thirty, about five centimetres of cigarette butts had accumulated at the bottom of my Coke bottle. I put the book beside my pillow and stared at the ceiling for an hour or so. In this big city, I had neither a blanket, or a shaver, or someone I could call on the telephone, or somewhere I should go. I was totally alone and abandoned at this place, but it was not such a bad feeling afterall.

If you should ask me what I think is the best place to read, my answer would definitely be, “April, 1968, in that empty room, on that very stiff mattress”. Somewhere which allows every sentence, every single word to melt steadfastly into your heart — that, to me, is a true "study". It wouldn’t be so bad to have Eames’ leisure chair, Mobilia’s light, and Georg Phillipp Telemann streaming out of a pair of AR speakers as well, but that is another matter altogether. I feel that if you were to read John Updike, then it is necessary to find the best place to read John Updike. Similarly, if you were to read John Cheever, then it is equally necessary to find the best place to read John Cheever. It is only right.

note: This article was originally published in “The Happy End of Elephant Factory”.


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