First Person Singular Review (4) With the Beatles

May 5, 2021 By mk

*This article includes possible spoiler

“With the Beatles” begins with a monologue by a man who has reached old age. As well as accepting that he is becoming an old man, the protagonist describes getting old as “the death of a dream” and talks about when dreams were alive.

Generally, such a story tend to degenerate into something very dull and depressing, but Murakami manages to sublimate it and lead readers into the protagonist’s world.

The protagonist remembers a girl carrying a Beatles LP in her arms with great care when he was a high school student in 1964. He met her only once at school and, strangely enough, never saw her again, but in that first and last encounter, she rang a little bell deep in his ears.

All I could hear was a bell ringing faintly, deep in my ears. As if someone were desperately trying to send me a vital message.

In the Japanese edition of the cover, there is a small Beatles image icon in the upper right bush.

After a while, “I” had a small, attractive girlfriend. “I” knew she was a good girl, and “I” loved her, but “my” bell never rang. What drew him to her was something very different, “a much more urgent impulse”.

It’s hard for me to say this now, but she never rang that special bell inside my ears. I listened as hard as I could, but never once did it ring. Sadly. The girl I knew in Tokyo was the one who did it for me.

“I” felt that her sister recognized something in “me” and hated “me”.

When she looked at me, it was as though she were ignoring the outside (granted, it wasn’t much to look at anyway) and could see right through me, down to the depths of my being. I may have felt that way because I really did have shame and guilt in my heart.

“I” met her brother, who had a disease of memory lapses. He asked “me” to read “Spinning Wheel”, written by Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927).

“It’s a pretty neurotic, depressing story, though,” I said.
“Sometimes I like to hear that kind of story. Like, to fight evil with evil.”

After “I” read it, he praised “my reading”.

“Unless you really grasp the content, you can’t read like you did. The last part was especially good.”

Before committing suicide, Akutagawa wrote the last part of the book, “Won’t someone be good enough to strangle me as I sleep?” And the girlfriend’s brother praised “my” reading as something in “me” that could certainly grasp what Akutagawa had written.

If what “I” had was a definite evil, there was a way to do something about it. But since it wasn’t, there was nothing “I” could do about it. If “I” had consulted a doctor or a counsellor, they would have told “me” that such vague evilness is something that everyone has and that “I” was too concerned about it. “I” knew something in “me”, as my girlfriend’s brother was unconsciously aware. It was a kind of “original sin”, but it was not something to be shared with anyone; it just existed within “me”. It was wicked and close to inexplicable despair.

In recent years, Akutagawa has become an anime character, as an imaginary member of the port mafia.

Finally, Murakami suddenly posed a question. Only this line of the story is not made by “I” but by the author himself. As the story seems obviously based on the author’s memory, readers tend to confuse “I” with Murakami himself. As if to deliberately add to this confusion, the author’s persona appears.

[Question: What elements in the lives of these two were symbolically suggested by their meeting again and their conversation?]

This corresponds to what “I” mumbled when “I” was reading the supplementary text before talking to “my” girlfriend’s brother. In other words, there is no correct answer.

With meaningless questions, it’s hard (or impossible) to determine logically if an answer is correct or not.

A possible ”relatively unreasonable but not necessarily wrong” answer would be: ”My ex-girlfriend’s brother came along and informed “me” of the karma of being a writer, of expressing something that had come into “me” in the form of literature.

“Well, you were really great at reading aloud,” he said. “It might be a burden to you for me to tell you this, but I think Sayoko always liked you best of all.”

And the brother of the ex-girlfriend gave the protagonist a heavy burden before he reached the same stage of life as Akutagawa.

I think what makes me feel sad about the girls I knew growing old is that it forces me to admit, all over again, that my youthful dreams are gone forever. The death of a dream can be, in a way, sadder than that of a living being. Sometimes it all seems so unfair.

At 71, the author is aware that he is getting older, but he knows what he has to do.

“With the Beatles” reminds a novel written in 1906 by Soseki Natsume (1867-1916). Murakami was known to have respected Natsume, the author of “I am a Cat”. As Murakami depicted life in Tokyo from the 1960s onwards, Natsume portrayed life in the 1900s with elements of love, friendship, marriage and death.

In Natsume’s “The Field Poppy (Gubijinso: 虞美人草, 1906)”, Ono, a young researcher working towards his doctorate, is torn between an energetic woman and an introverted woman. The latter woman’s father (not a brother) told Ono’s friend: ” My daughter is not his toy: ….. She’s my precious daughter. Ask him if he wants to be a doctor after killing a girl.” In the end, Ono said “Please forgive me” to an energetic Fujio and told her that he would marry Sayoko, an introverted woman supported by her father, and Fujio committed suicide.

In “With the Beatles”, the protagonist did not choose Sayoko. However, his brother did not criticise him for this but simply said: Sayoko always liked you best of all, as Reiko just wrote, “I do feel sorry that you and Naoko could not see things through to a happy ending” in Norwegian wood (Ch.10). 

And deep down in the heart of Murakami’s protagonist, there remains a bitterness.

Soseki Natsume

”First Person Singular” was published by Bungei Shunju, one of Japan’s most influential publishing houses. Bungei Shunju was founded by Kan Kikuchi (1888-1948), a close friend of Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927), and when Akutagawa committed suicide and died in 1927 after writing “Spinning Gears”, Kikuchi couldn’t stop crying and left some memorable message;

Anyone who reads Akutagawa’s memoirs will see that his mind was clear and peaceful and that he did not die of a vivid cause: …. I want to mention one of his recent writings.” I forgive all and hope to be forgiven by all”. If anyone in the literary community has more than the slightest sympathy for the deceased, I hope they will understand and accept his feelings.

Eight years after Akutagawa’s death, Kikuchi founded the Akutagawa Prize in 1935. Since then it has been regarded as the highest honour for young writers (Fuka-Eri won the prize in 1Q84).

In 1930, the novelist Kazuo Hirotsu (1891-1968), who was also a translator of Dostoevsky, wrote a novel about life in Tokyo in the 1920s called “Hostess Girl (Jokyu:女給)”. The novel sold well and was made into a film, as it was clearly modelled on a real woman, and the patron was Kan Kikuchi, who was known for his active relationships with women. The novel has the flavour of the jazz age/flappers that Fitzgerald was living with on the other side of the world at the time.

For example, the heroine said in the novel;

“We can say that novelists, judges, politicians and even educators are united in exploiting women for the personal desires of men”. (Hostess Girl, Ch.14, by Kazuo Hirotsu)

In the last part of the story, one of her patrons (not Kikuchi) attempted suicide and the police investigated the heroine for marriage fraud

I was furious and wanted to expose it to the world. So I leaned over a little, put my chin up against the police room. I’d just come out of and walked out with a Charleston step in the corridor of the Metropolitan Police! (She made that gesture.) As I walked from one end of that long corridor to the other, performing the Charleston in a fit of pique, the policemen and detectives in each room poked their heads out and said, “Look at that! (Hostess Girl, Ch.17, by Kazuo Hirotsu)

The heroine’s name was Sayoko, coincidentally the same as the girlfriend in “With the Beatles”, but if the Sayoko in “With the Beatles” had lived like the girl of the same name in 1930, she would have found a different way of life.

In “With the Beatles”, Sayoko’s brother said: “I couldn’t see her as the type to be disillusioned or have some darkness hidden away inside.” But she wasn’t. Moreover, “I” had to bear the burden of being a writer to expose in the form of literature something in “me” that drove her to the end. It made readers feel it was more than fiction.