In an article I wrote more than a decade back, I made mention, among others, of Timothy Mo, Michael Ondaatje, Ben Okri and Kazuo Ishiguro as writers who were emerging on the English literary scene. The critic who provided me this information was right. Further, in his Critical Guide to the British novel 1970-1989, Allan Massie, a novelist in his own right and a noted reviewer and critic of contemporary fiction writes “… Kazuo Ishiguro and Timothy Mo offer evidence of how the English language novel is now enriched from a diversity of cultures. The former is of Japanese extraction, the latter of Chinese, though both of them were educated in England”.
The news that the Swedish Academy has awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature to Kazuo Ishiguro, saying in its citation that he is a writer who in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusionary sense of connection with world came as no surprise to me. Throughout a literary career which started in 1982 with the publication of A Pale View of the Hills, Kazuo Ishiguro has received four Man Booker Prize nominations, winning the award in 1989 for his novel The Remains of the Day. Never Let Me Go was hailed by the Time magazine as the best novel of 2005 and included in its list of the 100 best English language novels from 1923 to 2005.
Strong Childhood Memories
Kazuo Ishiguro was born on November 8, 1954 in the Japanese city of Nagasaki. His father, Shizuo, an oceanographer, moved with his family to England where they settled in Guildford, near London, when the scientist got an offer from the British Government in connection with the exploration of the North Sea Oil fields. Due to circumstances, the family’s temporary stay became permanent and Kazuo Ishiguro, together with his two sisters, were exposed to British culture.
He was educated in what he describes as a typical school where he felt fully integrated and read with delight the novels of classic nineteenth century writers such as Charles Dickens and Charlotte Bronte. He grew up perusing the works of other influential European writers such as Russian dramatist Anton Chekhov, as a boy and a young man but retained certain crucial ties to his native culture. Ishiguro’s vision of Japan was shaped by means of strong childhood memories, Japanese films of the 1950s and the Japanese books that reached home every month, where the family conversed in Japanese. His interest in the films portraying a past Japan that he remembered has remained very strong, and he acknowledges them as a major artistic influence. After his B.A with honours in English and Philosophy from the University of Kent in 1978, Ishiguro decided to start writing. He was twenty-five. He had already abandoned a brief and unsuccessful career as a singer and songwriter when, in 1979, he enrolled in the creative writing programme where the British novelist, Malcom Bradbury, taught courses, and where Ishiguro was awarded his M.A in 1980.
The Novels
His first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982) received the Winifred Holtby Award from the Royal Society of Literature. The novel is set in England, though the essential story returns to devastated Nagasaki shortly after the War; the atomic horror is never plainly mentioned, though it is implied everywhere. This narrator reflects on her widow’s life in an alien England and takes us back to her memories of a summer in Nagasaki when the city is being reconstructed and individual lives remade.
His next work An Artist of the Floating World (1986) won the Whitbread Fiction Prize, another important British literary distinction. The story is entirely set in a Japan Ishiguro had not revisited since childhood. It is a collage of memories and experiences recorded by a Japanese painter whose work has glorified the war after World War II. He learns that the next generation does not blame him only because it considers him irrelevant. The artist, Masuji Ono, has once been an artist of the floating world, catching impressions from life’s underside, pleasurable things that disappear with the morning light, things intangible and transient– Ishiguro, too, is an artist of the floating world of impressions rather than fully revealed plots.
The financial rewards from his second novel, enabled Ishiguro to focus exclusively on his fiction and his film scripts for television. In this field his A Profile of J. Arthur J. Mason (1984)and The Gourmet (1986)were much appreciated.
The Remains of the Daybecame the 1989 winner of the Booker Prize, Great Britain’s most prestigious literary award. In this novel, Kazuo Ishiguro shifted his subject from Japan to class-bound England, making his narrator a respectful British butler, who follows a near Japanese code of reticence, self-effacement and obedience. As he travels across the Britain of 1956 (the year of the Suez invasion) on a late-life journey he, too, has his memories of class-bound England in the Thirties. In his portrayal of this character, Ishiguro reinforces his reputation as a pure novelist. The Central question which occupies Mr Stevens, the narrator is ‘What makes a good butler?’ In the words of Allan Massie, “This may seem an extraordinary question for a young man to pose at the end of the Twentieth century; yet Ishiguro uses it in order to be able to ask the far more important question of how a man’s life is justified.
His other novels include The Unconsoled (1995) which takes place in an unidentified Central European City, When we were Orphans (2000),Never Let me Go (2005) which has a futuristic tone and aspects of science fiction literature.
The novel was adapted for the screen in 2010 and The Buried Giant (2015).With the exception of The Buried Giant all his novels are written in the first person and the narrators often exhibit human failings.
Acceptance of Physical Realities
Kazuo Ishiguro has also written short fiction and lyrics. He has written several songs for jazz singer Stacey Kent with saxophonist Jim Tomlinson.
Ishiguro has remarked that he too aims to contribute to the making of the international novel. In that aim, he undoubtedly belongs with a number of other writers, from V.S Naipaul, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala and Anita Desai to Timothy Mo who have combined British with other forms of fiction to create an international, late-modern fictional voice that is larger than any individual culture.
Graceful, humorous, subtle and enquiring, Ishiguro impresses by his willingness to submerge his own personality and by his fidelity to his material. Each of his novel is perfectly composed. They acquire a strength and authority from their author’s acceptance of physical realities and from the exactness of his perceptions. His desire to craft complex characters whose experience is radically removed from the life of their author had led to a remarkable diverse array of powerful literary characters who have no doubt fascinated an international readership.
To Make of the World a Better Place
He expressed his thoughts on being apprised that he had been awarded the Nobel Prize in the following terms, “It’s a magnificent honour, mainly because it means that I’m in the footsteps of the greatest authors that have lived, so that’s a terrific commendation. The world is in a very uncertain moment and I would hope all the Nobel Prizes would be a force for something positive in the world as it is at the moment”.
Kazuo Ishiguro lives in London with his wife, Laura, and his daughter Naomi. He greatly appreciates Bob Dylan, the previous recipient of the Nobel Prize in Literature. He describes himself as a “serious cinephile”.