Careers have arcs. Writers develop and change, as evidenced by "I Explain a Few Things: Selected Poems" (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: 360 pp., $16), a new bilingual anthology of the great Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, and "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" (Vintage: 384 pp., $14.95), a collection of 24 stories spanning more than two decades by Haruki Murakami. Neruda died in 1973 at 69, while Murakami, approaching 60, is happily very much still with us.
The two resemble each other in interesting ways: both world writers, both prodigiously prolific and immensely popular, both looking to American writers for their early inspiration, both translators themselves and the beneficiaries of brilliant and devoted translators who have delivered their work into English.
Neruda believed that fierce individual activism might bring actual effect. He achieved the peak of his fame in the late 1960s and early 1970s, just when Murakami was coming of age as a student in Japan. Murakami often references that time with its "tremendous spark of promise," as he writes in "A Folklore for My Generation: A Pre-History of Late-Stage Capitalism," one of the stories in "Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman." "Heroism and villainy, ecstasy and disillusionment, martyrdom and betrayal . . . you could actually grasp them. They were literally lined up on a shelf, right before our very eyes. . . . Everything was simple and direct."
Murakami looks back without nostalgia but with a yearning for lost clarity. His great subject is the elusiveness of contemporary life, how hard it is to grasp, let alone rely upon, the reality of anything. The stories here abound with lost moments, bungled chances, failed love affairs and narrative devices that act as metaphors for life's randomness and uncertainty: holes in the ground, mirrors with supernatural powers, elevators or the gaps between floors in apartment buildings in which you might vanish.
Even before Sept. 11, Murakami was writing about sudden and unexpected tragedy. Yet he does so in a style so light and exuberant as well as mysterious that we're reminded that even scary things can have wonderful effects. Murakami's work always inspires and enlivens while imparting its unease. Hence its potency. As Neruda wrote, "your love walks / among them, / caressing the clean growth / of humankind on earth."
"Blind Willow, Sleeping Woman" shows Murakami's growth. The easy, seemingly casual voice was in place even when he was starting out, but the approach has shifted, moving from more Kafkaesque abstractions -- as in "Dabchick" (from the early 1980s) -- to the haunted simplicity of "Strange Tales From Tokyo," a sequence of five stories, written in a burst in 2005, that conclude the volume. "You change yourself, or, rather, you have to change yourself or you can't survive," says Kirie, the female high-wire artist in "The Kidney-Shaped Stone That Moves Every Day."
"I Explain a Few Things" offers a similarly dramatic curve, shooting upward with the ecstatic lyricism of Neruda's youth and the legendary "Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair," then bending through the anger of "Residence on Earth" before eliding into the modest and thoughtful poetry of the later years. There are the almost sidelong autobiographical glances of "Isla Negra" and the beautiful "Elemental Odes": "With a single life / I will not learn enough, / with the light of other lives, / many lives will live in my song."
Neruda lived long enough to acquire sadness and maturity. His output was vast, almost oceanic, with crests and troughs, and a multitude of different moods. Reading Murakami, on the other hand, is a little like going to another planet, very similar to our own, but skewed in distinctive and dreamlike ways. Neruda gazed through the telescope of politics, Murakami examines the artifacts of pop culture with his fastidious eye. Neruda befriended Castro, yet wrote beautifully about "handsome and spacious" North America. Likewise, Murakami reveres, and has translated, Chandler and Carver -- the two great Rays.
In the end, of course, we love and remember writers for how they say things, not for what they say. "That time was like never, and like always. / So we go there, where nothing is waiting; / we find everything waiting there," writes Neruda in Sonnet IV of "100 Love Sonnets," a blissful, hopeful beat that finds an echo at the end of Murakami's splendid tale "A Shinagawa Monkey," in which a woman can't remember her own name and struggles to find out why.
"Things might work out," Murakami tells us. "And then again they might not. But at least she had her own name now, a name that was hers, and hers alone." These writers stun us with their insight and a grace that is worn almost casually.
The Short List
"Rogue Male," a novel by Geoffrey Household (NYRB: 224 pp., $14)
A lone gunman takes a potshot at an unnamed dictator (Hitler, presumably), misses, and Household's suspense classic is off and running. The would-be assassin escapes his captors and holes up deep in the Dorset countryside, tracked by a relentless foe in the most fiendish disguise of all -- that of the English country gentleman. In the history of the thriller, "Rogue Male" sits between John Buchan and Robert Ludlum, but Household was better than either one of them, crafting some of the best, and scariest, scenes of pure pursuit ever written.
"The Pillow Book" by Sei Shonagon (Penguin: 416 pp., $16)
Shonagon was a gentlewoman, a lady-in-waiting to the Japanese empress at the end of the 10th century. She was the contemporary and rival of Lady Murasaki, author of the epic novel "Tale of Genji," but a much more intimate, and strictly autobiographical, writer. "The Pillow Book" is a journal in which Shonagon records her observations, her likes and dislikes, the dialogues she hears, the minutest details of the life around her. Written in a spare, fast-moving style, it's a luminous and startlingly contemporary book, which, once discovered, tends to become an addiction. Newly translated by Meredith McKinney.
"Dirty Blonde: The Diaries of Courtney Love" (Faber & Faber: 304 pp., $20)
The scrapbook of a survivor: not a written book per se, but a collection of letters, journal entries, lyric hit and misses, Polaroids, collages and the like. On Meg Ryan's clothes in "The Doors": "She sucks, it sucks," notes Love, unafraid and larger than life, as usual. We get a big sense of her vulnerability and anger, and a perhaps more surprising one of her ambition too. "Hell hath no fury like the master plan," she writes, and after Kurt Cobain's death, scrawled in lipstick: "I can grow a new heart."
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