Day 4/30 - this bird has flown


A song can be a poem set to music. Hence the word "lyrics" (words of a song) is akin to the word "lyric" (used to describe some poems). And so today's "poem" is actually Beatles' song, "Norwegian Wood (This Bird has Flown):


I once had a girl
Or should I say she once had me
She showed me her room
Isn't it good Norwegian wood? 
 
She asked me to stay
And she told me to sit anywhere
So I looked around
And I noticed there wasn't a chair 
 
I sat on a rug biding my time 
Drinking her wine
We talked until two and then she said
"It's time for bed"
 
She told me she worked
In the morning and started to laugh
I told her I didn't
And crawled off to sleep in the bath
 
And when I awoke I was alone
This bird had flown
So I lit a fire 
Isn't it good Norwegian wood?

John Lennon described this song as him writing about his extramarital affairs. And in this case, "Norwegian Wood" is from the perspective of a guy who didn't manage to bed the girl. The first "Isn't it good Norwegian Wood?" is a comment by the woman to the man, and we are meant to then judge her tackiness (since it is supposedly a fake wood used to make trendy but cheap wall panelling and furniture, think Taobao knockoffs). Later, it becomes the spurned lover's sarcastic and vengeful refrain, as he lights a fire and...burns up the wood/her flat?!

If you are not a Beatles fan, but you are a lit student, then chances are you know of this song because of Haruki Murakami's novel of the same name. And if you didn't read Lennon's backstory for the lyrics, you would have thought this was a sad little song, and like me, associate it with the sad, wistful, elegiac Murakami story of an unrequited and troubled love (he did have sex with the girl though).

Murakami’s fiction seems especially apt for a world living through Covid. After al, his characters are mostly loners so they already behave like they are in lockdown! In fact, in 1Q84, the character spends half the book locked in her own flat and other characters are in various stages of "imprisonment"! But more than that, his characters have all survived trauma of some kind in their lives - and COVID can be traumatic to many around the world who have lost loved ones, jobs, freedom, health... Most of the trauma his characters cope with is buried deep (sexual abuse, suicide of a loved one, growing up in a crazy cult!) but I always admired Murakami for being able to link it to a larger societal trauma in Japan (the Kobe earthquake, Japan's WW2 atrocities, rightwing political fanaticism, terrorism, criminal networks...)

When I was much younger I read Norwegian Wood as an emo coming-of-age novel. It was enjoyable but I have always been more drawn to his other titles like Wind Up Bird Chronicle and Dance Dance Dance. Later I introduced Murakami to J. And he really became a fan, such that most of the Murakami books on my shelf today were at his initiation. As I was packing up the bookshelves last weekend, I chanced upon this set of drawings he made, inspired by Murakami's After the Quake, part of his birthday present to me in 2002! Yes, it's a strange birthday present. The drawings were kept in a special edition box-set Norwegian Wood.

And so I started re-reading the novel that weekend. Perhaps this is my fourth time re-reading the book. Given what had happened with J, it was difficult at first. But this time, I better appreciate the work not only as a coming-of-age story, but I appreciate that the act of self-violence at the heart of the book continues to resonate through the characters' lives. And this question of violence - physical or emotional - that one enacts onto oneself or strangers is something asked in this novel. Or when one character describes being in a deep dark well, I now better appreciate it for the inexplicable darkness that someone suffering from a deep depression is in. 

The same way a Murakami reader would listen to the Beatles' song and associate it with the novel instead of John Lennon's idea of a cheap, tacky love affair, what we get from reading a book or a poem also depends on our own life experience. At different times of our lives, we bring different things with us when we read a poem or book,  we therefore take different things away. It is like any relationship. A sordid one. A sad one. That grand love affair. Or the everyday hello-love you-goodnight.



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