Creating characters caught between worlds

Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro outside his London home after the announcement that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature last week.
Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro outside his London home after the announcement that he had won the Nobel Prize for Literature last week.PHOTO: REUTERS

Nobel winner Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Japan and raised in England, is alert to life's dislocations

NEW YORK• When Saul Bellow won the Nobel Prize in 1976, he remarked that "the child in me is delighted", but "the adult in me is sceptical".

He found there was a "secret humiliation connected with the prize", he later said, because "some of the very great writers of the century didn't get it".

The child in many readers was delighted, if the adult sceptical, when Bob Dylan took home last year's Nobel in literature. There was further scepticism when it was learnt that Dylan apparently plagiarised some of his acceptance speech from SparkNotes.

This year, there will not be that sort of bickering: Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born in Japan and raised in England, is a safe choice - he has been a blue-chip literary stock for nearly four decades - but a formidable and not uninteresting one.

At a news conference at his London publisher's office last Thursday, Ishiguro, 62, was characteristically self-effacing, saying the award was a genuine shock.

"If I had even a suspicion, I would have washed my hair this morning," he said.

He added that when he thinks of "all the great writers living at this time who haven't won this prize, I feel slightly like an impostor".

Ishiguro, the first writer of Japanese birth to win the Nobel since Kenzaburo Oe in 1994, is an artist of restraint and equipoise. None of his novels is the same as the last, yet he has achieved over the course of his career a remarkable consistency of effect.

He creates worlds that are clear in a sentence-by-sentence way, but in which the big picture recedes against the horizon. His novels are about discovery and revelation, and how slowly they arrive even for the most meticulous observer.

He is best known for his third novel, The Remains Of The Day (1989), which is related from the perspective of Stevens, a punctilious English butler. A teacup of strong Earl Grey, it won the Booker Prize and was made into the indelible 1993 film with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

It escaped no one's notice that an immigrant to England had written the most moving, witty, ironic and British book of its time. Ishiguro's fluid command of Stevens' idiom never faltered.

"The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost," Stevens tells us. "They will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstance tear it off him in the public gaze; he will discard it when, and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone."

Stevens' sangfroid was matched by Ishiguro's own.

Ishiguro - his friends call him Ish - became a public figure in 1989, but to anyone paying attention, he seemed to have arrived fully formed as a writer.

His excellent first two novels, A Pale View Of Hills (1982) and An Artist Of The Floating World (1986), were set in Japan. One turns to A Pale View Of Hills today and realises how resonant it is from its first sentences: "Nikki, the name we finally gave my younger daughter, is not an abbreviation; it was a compromise I reached with her father. For paradoxically it was he who wanted to give her a Japanese name, and I - perhaps out of some selfish desire not to be reminded of the past - insisted on an English one."

The book's tone never slips.

Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, where his father was an oceanographer, in 1954. His family moved to England when he was five. "If I wrote under a pseudonym," he said in a 1990 interview, "and got somebody else to pose for my jacket photographs, I'm sure nobody would think of saying, 'This guy reminds me of that Japanese writer.'"

His dual identity has made him alert to life's dislocations; many of his characters are caught, in different ways, between worlds. There is a sense among his men and women that a single wrong move may be calamitous.

He got at this feeling in Never Let Me Go (2005), when his narrator comments: "It was like when you make a move in chess and just as you take your finger off the piece, you see the mistake you've made, and there's this panic because you don't know yet the scale of the disaster you've left yourself open to."

Several of Ishiguro's novels feature artists as their protagonists, but his work will not be pinned down in terms of genre and setting. His follow-up to The Remains Of The Day was The Unconsoled (1995), an inchoate novel about an ageing and arrogant pianist in an unnamed European town. That novel has its detractors. Book critic James Wood said it "invented its own category of badness".

Even Ishiguro's better novels have slack moments, when a certain flatness of phrase can creep in. When We Were Orphans (2000), about an Englishman who grew up in China, has subversive elements of the detective novel.

His work has grown less predictable with time.

He tinkered again with genre in Never Let Me Go, a slice of dystopian science fiction about children raised so that their organs can be harvested.

His most recent novel, The Buried Giant (2015), set in a mythical British past, was described by one English critic as "Game Of Thrones with a conscience".

What links Ishiguro's disparate novels is his voice, which is abstemious yet oddly lush and possessed of gyroscopic balance.

"If you mix Jane Austen and Franz Kafka, then you have Kazuo Ishiguro - but you have to add a little bit of Marcel Proust into the mix, and then you stir, but not too much, and then you have his writings," said Ms Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, which gives out the Nobel Prize in Literature. His work rarely fails to cast a spell.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 09, 2017, with the headline 'Creating characters caught between worlds'. Print Edition | Subscribe