Kazuo Ishiguro: The Nobel Literature Prize winner who 'mixes Franz Kafka with Jane Austen'

British author Kazuo Ishiguro won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature.
British author Kazuo Ishiguro won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature.PHOTO: EPA-EFE

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - The English novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, known for his spare yet emotionally resonate prose style and his inventive subversion of literary genres, was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday (Oct 5).

Ishiguro, 62, is best known for his novels "The Remains of the Day," about a butler serving an English lord in the years leading up to World War II, and "Never Let Me Go," a melancholy dystopian love story set in a British boarding school. He has obsessively returned to the same themes in his novels, which are often written in the first person, including the fallibility of memory, mortality and the porous nature of time.

"If you mix Jane Austen and Franz Kafka then you have Kazuo Ishiguro in a nutshell, but you have to add a little bit of Marcel Proust into the mix," said Sara Danius, permanent secretary of The Swedish Academy.

"Then you stir, but not too much, then you have his writings." Danius described Ishiguro as "a writer of great integrity." "He doesn't look to the side," she said. "He has developed an aesthetic universe all his own."

Born in 1954 in Nagasaki, Japan, but educated in Britain, Ishiguro is known for, among other things, his lyrical prose, his acute sense of place and for his masterful parsing of the British class system.

Ishigiro was the son of an oceanographer, and moved to Surrey, England, when he was 5 years old, and attended Woking Grammar School, a school that he told The Guardian was "probably the last chance to get a flavour of a bygone English society that was already rapidly fading."

In an interview with The New York Times two years ago, Ishiguro said that he had discovered literature as a young boy when he came upon Sherlock Holmes stories in the local library.

"I was around 9 or 10, and I not only read obsessively about Holmes and Watson, I started to behave like them. I'd go to school and say things like: 'Pray, be seated' or 'That is most singular.' People at the time just put this down to my being Japanese," he said, adding that he was attracted to the world of Conan Doyle because it was "so very cosy." It helped ignite his interest in literature.

After studying English and philosophy at the University of Kent, in Canterbury, he spent a year writing fiction, eventually gaining a master of arts in creative writing under the tutelage of writers such as Malcolm Bardbury and Angela Carter. He has also written lyrics for the American jazz singer Stacey Kent and plays the guitar.

"My friends and I took songwriting very, very seriously," he told The Guardian in an interview. "My hero was and still is Bob Dylan, but also people like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell and that whole generation. We would endlessly discuss the relationship between words and music and how they had to come alive within the context of performance."

Ishiguro stood out early among the literary crowd. In 1983, he was included in Granta's best of young British writers list, joining luminaries such as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie.

His deep understanding of the social conventions and affectations of his adopted homeland were conveyed in his third novel, "Remains of the Day" which won the prestigious Booker prize and depicted a buttoned-up butler, who was later immortalised in a film of the same name starring Anthony Hopkins. Ishiguro later said he had written the book in four weeks at the age of 32.

 
 

Describing the writing process for the book that cemented his literary stardom and labeling the process "the Crash," he wrote in The Guardian: "Throughout the Crash, I wrote freehand, not caring about the style or if something I wrote in the afternoon contradicted something I'd established in the story that morning. The priority was simply to get the ideas surfacing and growing. Awful sentences, hideous dialogue, scenes that went nowhere - I let them remain and plowed on."

He published his first novel, "A Pale View of Hills, about a middle-aged Japanese woman living in England, in 1982, and followed with "An Artist of the Floating World," narrated by an elderly Japanese painter, set in post-World War II Japan. When he wrote "The Remains of the Day," Ishiguro worried that he was repeating himself by writing another first person novel with an unreliable narrator, but critics saw the book as an extreme departure.

"I was afraid that people would say, 'Oh, it's the same book again, about an old guy looking back over his life with regret when it's too late to change thing,'" he said in a 2015 interview with The Times. "Instead, they were saying, 'Your books are always set in Japan; this is a giant leap for you.' I get this with almost every book."

A literary iconoclast, Ishiguro has played with genres like detective fiction, westerns, science fiction and fantasy in his novels. Critics viewed "The Unconsoled," a surreal, dreamlike novel about a pianist in an unnamed European city, as magical realism when it came out in 1995. "When We Were Orphans" was viewed as a detective novel. His 2005 novel, "Never Let Me Go," was regarded as yet another stylistic leap into futuristic science fiction, although it was set in the 1990s.

His most recent novel, "The Buried Giant," defied expectations once again. A fantasy story set in Arthurian Britain, the novel centres on an older couple, Axl and Beatrice, who leave their village in search of their missing son, and encounter an old knight. Though the story was a full blown fantasy, with ogres and a dragon, it was also a parable that explored many of the themes that have preoccupied Ishiguro throughout his career, including the fragile nature of individual and collective memory.

In selecting Ishiguro, the Swedish academy, which has been criticised in the past for using the prize to make a political statement, seemed to be focused on pure literary merit.

The Nobel Prize in literature is given in recognition of a writer's entire body of work rather than a single title. Past winners have included international literary giants like Saul Bellow, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel García Márquez and Toni Morrison. In other years, the academy has selected obscure European writers whose work was not widely read in English, including French novelist J.M.G. Le Clézio (2008), Romanian-German writer Herta Müller (2009), Swedish poet and translator Tomas Transtromer (2011) and French novelist Patrick Modiano (2014).