A 26-Hour Playlist Featuring Music from Haruki Murakami’s Latest Novel, Killing Commendatore

We know well the role music plays in the work of prolific Japanese novelist Haruki Murakami. We’ve previously featured his passion for jazz, his first love. He began as a jazz club owner in Tokyo, and he has written two collections of essays titled Portrait in Jazz and Portrait in Jazz 2. But Murakami is no less a fan of classical music and rock and roll—all three forms intertwine in his novels and stories, providing recurring motifs, soundtracks, and backdrops. Music is more than thematic; it defines his literary style, as he told listeners on “Murakami Radio,” his stint as a DJ on Tokyo FM.

“Rather than learning storytelling technique from someone,” the novelist explained, “I’ve taken a musical approach, while being very conscious about rhythms, harmony and improvisation.” Perhaps this approach explains the wonderfully evocative quality of his prose.

Reading his books, “you feel sad without knowing why,” writes Charles Finch at The Independent, in a review of Murakami’s latest, Killing Commendatore, “and yet, within that sadness glows a small ember of happiness, because to feel sad is at least to feel honestly.” We could say something similar about the feelings evoked by an aria, a blues, or a Dylan song—music helps us access emotions for which we don’t have ready words.

Murakami translates that “ineffable yearning” into writing. “The obscurely lonely domestic images that run through his novels—rain, swimming, pasta, jazz, a particular sort of warm, impersonal sex—root that yearning in the truth of everyday life.” His newest novel brings in a third art, painting; its protagonist, seeking to reinvent his life and work, comes to discover an important message through a series of magical events. It’s familiar territory for Murakami, but don’t ask him to explain any of it. As he told Sarah Lyall at The New York Times, “I cannot explain anything at all… you just have to accept the form. A book is a metaphor.”

Better to get him talking about music, which he is happy to do, moving smoothly between styles with the same imaginative leaps he makes on the page. Above, some fine soul has put together a playlist (listen to it on Spotify here) for Killing Commendatore and it is classic Murakami, a collection of music from Sheryl Crow, Puccini, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Mozart, Thelonious Monk, Verdi, Dylan, The Doors, Beethoven, Bruce Springsteen, Roberta Flack, The Beatles, The Beach Boys, and more. How do all of these artists fit together? Like the strange happenings in Murakami’s world, you have to stop trying to make sense of things and just go with it.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Haruki Murakami Became a DJ on a Japanese Radio Station for One Night: Hear the Music He Played for Delighted Listeners

In his native Japan, Haruki Murakami has published not just fiction but all sorts of essays dealing with a variety of subjects, from travel to music to writing itself. One collection of these pieces came out under the title Murakami Radio, a possible inspiration for a broadcast of the same name this past summer on Tokyo FM. For its 55-minute duration, Murakami took the DJ's seat and spun records (or rather, files from several of his music-filled iPods) from his famously vast personal library, including The Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA," Joey Ramone's version of "What a Wonderful World," Eric Burdon and The Animals' "Sky Pilot," and Daryl Hall and John Oates' version of "Love Train." You can listen to all his selections in the Youtube Playlist above.

"It has been my hobby to collect records and CDs since my childhood, and thanks to that, my house is inundated with such things," wrote Murakami in a message posted by Tokyo FM. "However, I have often felt a sense of guilt toward the world while listening to such amazing music and having a good time alone. I thought it may be good to share such good times with other people while chatting over a glass of wine or a cup of coffee."

He also chatted a bit himself between songs, answering listener questions and explaining the relationship between the music he loves and the books he writes“Rather than learning storytelling technique from someone, I’ve taken a musical approach, while being very conscious about rhythms, harmony and improvisation," he said on-air. "It’s like writing as I dance, even though I don’t actually dance.”

For many of Murakami's fans, Murakami Radio (full recordings of which do exist on the internet) marks the first time they've ever heard his actual voice, and it turns out to have a thing or two in common with his authorial one: take, for instance, his use of boku, the informal personal pronoun favored by most of his narrators. With the broadcast initially announced as a one-off, it might also have seemed like the last chance to hear Murakami speak, but the official Murakami Radio site recently announced two more editions. The next one, scheduled for October 19th, will deal with not just music but another of Murakami's passions, running. Anyone who's read Murakami's 1979 debut novel Hear the Wind Sing will remember the talkative Saturday-night radio DJ who makes occasional appearances in the text — and may wonder if, nearly 40 years later, Murakami channels him again when he gets behind the microphone himself.

via The Vinyl Factory

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities, language, and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

Why Should You Read Don Quixote?: An Animated Video Makes the Case

In “one of the strangest stories in modern film,” Monty Python alumnus and critically-lauded director Terry Gilliam strove for three decades to make his take on Don Quixote, an ordeal that inspired two documentaries and that did not end in triumph even when the film premiered to acclaim at Cannes this year after its long gestation. Just a few weeks afterward, Gilliam lost the rights to the film in a lawsuit with its former producer. Nonetheless, for all of the serious setbacks on the road to its completion, Gilliam’s The Man Who Killed Don Quixote has still mostly fared better than the protagonist of Cervantes’ novel.

But the delusional knight-errant and his much-put-upon squire’s ridiculous and inevitable failures are what constitute the novel’s enduring appeal. Published in two volumes in 1605 and 1615, The Ingenious Nobleman Sir Quixote of La Mancha has become the best-selling novel of all time, and by the accounts of its most illustrious admirers, the matrix of all modern fiction. “The novelist need answer to no one but Cervantes,” says Milan Kundera. Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes called Don Quixote “the first modern novel, perhaps the most eternal novel ever written and certainly the fountainhead of European and American fiction.”

Such effusive praise for Cervantes is near-universal, but like Gilliam’s film, and the fictional knight's quest, the Spanish writer’s epic adventure came to him late in life, when he was almost sixty, having “spent most of his life as a struggling poet and playwright,” says Ilan Stavans in the TED-Ed video above. He succeeded after a long, undistinguished career with a book that satirized the chivalric romances which “dominated European culture” at the time.

Cervantes’ brilliant idea—conjuring a character who actually believed these stories—gave us the great parodic epic and, in its second volume, a brilliant work of pre-post-modern metafiction in which the characters Quixote meets have already read about his exploits in the first book. The mad hidalgo Don Quixote, unlike the stock figures in popular romances, actually develops and matures as a character, a unique feature of fiction at the time and one reason Cervantes’ book is called the “first modern novel.”

Other foundational features of the novel include the relationship of Quixote and Sancho Panza, a fictional study in contrasts that may be the origin of so many iconic duos since—from Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson to Batman and Robin and the Odd Couple. The novel’s commercial success was immediate and global—again marking it as a product of modernity. Pirated copies circulated where it had been banned in the Americas. Asserting his proprietary rights over the character while also meeting reader demand, he wrote and published volume two to preempt spurious sequels.

The TED-Ed video is part of a “Why you should read X” series trumpeting the value of great works of literature. These efforts will, hopefully, inspire many people to pick up the books of Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Edgar Allan Poe, Virginia Woolf, and more. But ultimately, great works of literature should speak for themselves. Why should you read Don Quixote? Well, yes, because it is the foundation of modern fiction. But the real answer to the question lies between the novel's covers. Pick up Don Quixote (I like Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation), and find out for yourself.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Flannery O’Connor Renders Her Verdict on Ayn Rand’s Fiction: It’s As “Low As You Can Get”

For all the grotesque humor of her stories and novels, Flannery O’Connor took the writing of fiction as seriously as it is possible to do. Even at the age of 18, she saw the task as a divine calling, writing in her journal, “I feel that God has made my life empty in this respect so that I may fill it some wonderful way.” Intense self-doubt also made her fear that she would fail in her mission, a too-familiar feeling for every creative writer: “I may grovel the rest of my life in a stew of effort, of misguided hope.”

In acquiring the needed confidence to push through fear, O’Connor also acquired a theory of fiction—a serious and demanding one that left no room for frivolous entertainments or propaganda. “I know well enough that very few people who are interested in writing are interested in writing well,” she told a student audience in her lecture “The Nature and Aim of Fiction” (collected in Mystery and Manners).

Writing well, for O’Connor, meant pursuing “the habit of art,” a phrase she took from French Catholic philosopher Jacques Maritain. While she admits that Art is “a word that immediately scares people off, as being a little too grand,” her definition is simple enough, if vague: “something that is valuable in itself and that works in itself.” When she gets into the meat of these ideas, we see why she could be so harsh a critic of fellow writers in her many letters to friends and acquaintances.

In one particularly harsh assessment in a May, 1960 letter to playwright Maryat Lee, O’Connor wrote, “I hope you don’t have friends who recommend Ayn Rand to you. The fiction of Ayn Rand is as low as you can get re fiction. I hope you picked it up off the floor of the subway and threw it in the nearest garbage pail. She makes Mickey Spillane look like Dostoevsky.”

The reference to Spillane is interesting. Rand corresponded with the crime novelist and admired his work, seeming “greatly pleased,” William Thomas writes at the Randian Atlas Society, by his “sense of life,” if not “enamored of his skill in conveying it.” Surely Rand’s hyper-individualistic, purely materialist “sense of life” repelled O’Connor, but her objections to Rand's fiction would have certainly—if not primarily—extended to the writing itself.

In her lecture, O’Connor elaborates on her definition of the art of fiction by telling her audience what it is not:

I find that most people know what a story is until they sit down to write one. Then they find themselves writing a sketch with an essay woven through it, or an essay with a sketch woven through it, or an editorial with a character in it, or a case history with a moral, or some other mongrel thing.

Rand’s fiction presents readers with speechifying heroes who serve as one-dimensional exponents of Objectivism, and cardboard villains acting as straw caricatures of the democratic or socialist philosophies she loathed. Books like Atlas Shrugged embody all the marks of amateurism, according to O’Connor, of writers who “are conscious of problems, not of people, of questions and issues, not of the texture of existence, of case histories and everything that has a sociological smack, instead of with all those concrete details of life that make actual the mystery of our position on earth.”

For O’Connor, the habit of art requires keen observation of complex human behavior, compassion for human failings, a genuine openness to paradox and the unknown, and a preference for idiosyncratic specificity over grand abstractions and stereotypes—qualities Rand simply did not possess. Perhaps most importantly, however, as O'Connor told her student audience in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction,” the writer’s “moral sense must coincide with his dramatic sense.” One imagines O’Connor felt that Rand's moral sense could only produce profoundly impoverished drama.

Read more of O'Connor's letters, full of her informal literary criticism, in the collection The Habit of Being: The Letters of Flannery O'Connor.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

What Makes Edgar Allan Poe So Great? An Animated Video Explains

His gloomy, haunted visage adorns the covers of collected works, publications of whose like he would never see in his lifetime. Edgar Allan Poe died in penury and near-obscurity, and might have been forgotten had his work not been turned into sensationalized, abridged, adaptations posthumously, a fate he might not have wished on his most hated literary rival.

But Poe survived caricature to become known as one of the greatest of American writers in any genre. A pioneer of psychological horror and science fiction, founder of the detective story, poet of loss and mourning, and incisive literary critic whose principles informed his own work so closely that we can use essays like his 1846 “The Philosophy of Composition” as keys to unlock the formal properties of his stories and narrative poems.

In the short TED-Ed video above, scripted by Poe scholar Scott Peeples of the College of Charleston, we are introduced to many of the qualities of form and style that make Poe distinctive, and that made him stand out among a crowd of popular horror writers of the time. There are his principles, elaborated in his essay, which state that one should be able to read a story in one sitting, and that every word in the story must count.

These rules produced what Poe called the “Unity of Effect,” which “goes far beyond fear. Poe’s stories use violence and horror to explore the paradoxes and mysteries of love, grief, and guilt, while resisting simple interpretations or clear moral messages. And while they often hint at supernatural elements, the true darkness they explore is the human mind.”

This observation leads to an analysis of Poe’s unreliable narrators, particularly in stories like The Tell-Tale Heart. But there is another aspect to Poe—one which makes his unreliable voices so compelling. Even when the stories seem incredible, the events bizarre, the narrators maniacal, we believe them wholeheartedly. And this has much to do with the framing conventions Poe uses to draw readers in and implicate them, forcing them to identify with the stories’ tellers.

For example, “Ms. Found in a Bottle,” the very first story in Poe’s posthumous collection, Tales of Mystery and Imagination, opens with an epigraph from French librettist Quinault’s opera Atys, an adaption of one of Ovid's stories. The lines translate to “He who has but a moment to live has no longer anything to dissemble.”

We are invited into a confidence through the doorway of this device—a classical, and neoclassical, reference to truth-telling, a sober, learned literary stamp of authority. As the nameless narrator introduces himself, he makes sure to place himself in another ancient tradition, Pyrrhonism, a skeptical philosophy concerned with epistemology, or how it is we can know what we know.

The narrator assures us that “no person could be less liable than myself to be led away from the severe precincts of truth by the ignes fatui of superstition.” Though we may doubt this bold assertion, and the person making it, we might also be convinced of our own unshakeable rationality and skepticism. These are the moves, to put it plainly, of stage magicians, mountebanks, and confidence men, and Poe was one of the greatest of them all.

He flatters his readers’ intelligence, draws them close enough to see his hands moving, then picks their comfortable assumptions from their pockets. Poe understood what many of his peers did not: readers love to be conned by a juicy yarn, but it must be really good—it must show us something we did not see before, and that we could, perhaps, only look at it indirectly, through a pleasing act of aesthetic (self) deception.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

R. Crumb Illustrates Jean-Paul Sartre’s Nausea: Existentialism Meets Underground Comics

Sartre’s novel Nausea introduced his philosophical view as a form of illness to a WWII readership. “Nausea is existence revealing itself—and experience is not pleasant to see,” he wrote in his own summary of his first book, published in 1938. The novel’s dramatization of Historian Roquentin' s crisis presents a case of existential sickness as mostly involuntary.

Though published before his many Marxist books and essays, Nausea connects the malaise to a certain class experience. “I have no troubles,” thinks Roquentin in Robert Crumb’s short adaptation of the book above, “I have money like a capitalist, no boss, no wife, no children; I exist, that’s all…. And that trouble is so vague, so metaphysical that I am ashamed of it.” Nausea, in one sense, is bourgeoise alienation, while Roquentin’s conversation partner, the Self-Taught Man, confesses a naïve humanist idealism.

The characters alone, some critics suggest, imbue the book with a subtle parody. As he listens to the Self-Taught Man’s troubles and ruminates on his own, Crumb’s Roquentin grows more Sartre-like. Significantly, the Self-Taught Man takes on a Crumb-like demeanor and aspect. Their dialogue moves briskly, the scene resembling My Dinner with Andre with less banter and more neurosis. Sartre’s tone lends itself well to Crumb’s obsessive, tightly-composed panels.

Crumb’s literary interpretations have gravitated toward other anxious writers like Charles Bukowski and Franz Kafka, as well as the murder and incest of the book of Genesis. The underground comics legend is right at home with Sartrean dread and despair. Crumb became famous for Fritz the Cat, an animated film version of his raunchy hipster, what many called his grossly sexist and racist sex fantasies, and the drawing and slogan “Keep on Truckin’.” He was a figure of 60s and 70s counterculture, but that’s never where he belonged.

Crumb was a Sartrean protagonist , even when he “often portrayed himself in his work as naked... and priapic.” In an an interview with Crumb The Guardian describes him:

his words are depressive and lugubrious, and yet he appears mellow, laughing easily through his existential nausea. The most terrible stories amuse him as much as they pain him. He tells me how a best friend killed himself by swallowing four bottles of paper correction fluid, and he chortles. He talks of his own despair, and giggles. He admits that he could never have imagined a life quite so fulfilled—with Aline, and his beloved daughter Sophie, also a cartoonist, and success and money—and says he's still miserable as hell, and laughs.

He is a little Roquentin, a little bit Sartre, a little bit Self-Taught man, applying to his reading of literature and philosophy an LSD-assisted, sex-positive, and unavoidably controversial and depressive sensibility. See the full Crumb-illustrated Nausea here.

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Josh Jones is a writer and musician based in Durham, NC. Follow him at @jdmagness

Umberto Eco Explains Why We Make Lists

Creative Commons image by Rob Bogaerts, via the National Archives in Holland

We hate lists, which have told us what to do since at least the days Leonardo da Vinci, and which now, as "listicles," constitute one of the lowest strata of internet content. But we also love lists: a great many of us click on those listicles, after all, and one might argue that the list, as a form, represents the beginning of written texts. "The list is the origin of culture," said Umberto Eco in a 2009 Der Spiegel interview about the exhibition on the history of the list he curated at the Louvre. "It's part of the history of art and literature. What does culture want? To make infinity comprehensible. It also wants to create order  — not always, but often."

How, as mere human beings, do we impose order when we gaze up into infinity, down into the abyss — pick your metaphor of the sublimely, incomprehensibly vast? We do it, Eco thought, "through lists, through catalogs, through collections in museums and through encyclopedias and dictionaries." The breadth as well as depth of the knowledge he accumulated throughout his 84 years — which itself could seem sublimely and incomprehensibly vast, as anyone who has read one of his list-filled novels knows — placed him well to explain the origins, functions, and importance of the list. In the Spiegel interview he names Don Giovanni's 2,063 lovers, the contents of Leopold Bloom's drawers, and the many ships and generals specified in the Iliad as just a few of the classic lists and enumerations of Western culture.

Eco's research into and/or obsession with lists produced not just the exhibition at the Louvre but also a book, The Infinity of Lists: An Illustrated Essay. Did it also lead him to any other answers about why, whether in the Middle Ages with its "very clear image of the universe," the Renaissance and Baroque eras with their "worldview based on astronomy," the "postmodern age" in which we live today, or any other time, "the list has prevailed over and over again?" Ultimately, we make lists whenever we experience a "deficiency of language," such as when lovers describe one another ("Your eyes are so beautiful, and so is your mouth, and your collarbone") or when we remember the "very discouraging, humiliating limit" of death. Making lists of things that seem infinite is "a way of escaping thoughts about death. We like lists because we don't want to die."

Having died in 2016 himself, Eco left behind an immense personal library (his walkthrough of which we've previously featured here on Open Culture). "It might actually be 50,000 books," he said to the Spiegel interviewer, but he refused to put them on a list and find out for sure: "When my secretary wanted to catalogue them, I asked her not to. My interests change constantly, and so does my library." If he were to try to list his interests, he would have had to keep scrapping the list and drawing up a new one; more than providing abundant material for his writing, this constant and lifelong circulation of fascinations (he mentioned first loving Chopin at 16, and again in his seventies) confirmed his engagement with the infinite world around him: "If you interact with things in your life, everything is constantly changing. And if nothing changes, you're an idiot."

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Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall writes and broadcasts on cities and culture. His projects include the book The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles and the video series The City in Cinema. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on Facebook.

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