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Kazuo Ishiguro: a sense of freedom

10 October 2017

Letter from London | A Nobel award gives the British novelist’s voice as well as his work a new authority

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Rare moral authority: Kazuo Ishiguro speaks to the media at his home in London on 5 October, after being named winner of the 2017 Nobel prize in literature. Neil Hall/EPA

Rare moral authority: Kazuo Ishiguro speaks to the media at his home in London on 5 October, after being named winner of the 2017 Nobel prize in literature. Neil Hall/EPA


“In an age of false news I thought it must be a mistake.” The familiar wry modesty and measured tones of Kazuo Ishiguro’s reaction to news of his Nobel literature award were a reminder (contrary to D.H. Lawrence’s famous injunction) that the teller as well as the tale can invite trust. Over the years of growing acclaim since his short stories and then novels began appearing in the early 1980s, the now sixty-two-year-old Ishiguro’s public persona — equable and lucid in interviews, a convivial presence in a hectic literary world — has been constant.

His provenance, as the Nagasaki-born younger son of Japanese parents who arrived in Guildford, southwest of London, when he was five, gave him initial distinction in that world, as well as providing the themes of his first two novels, A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986). It seemed to matter at a time when the publishing industry was learning to market authors, and authors to become personalities, their points of social and cultural differentiation now a potential new lure.

Like Ian McEwan and Rose Tremain, Ishiguro enrolled as a student at the University of East Anglia’s soon-to-be-famous creative writing course, founded by the novelists Malcolm Bradbury and Angus Wilson. His sparring over technique with Angela Carter bled into lasting comradeship. He featured in the Book Marketing Council’s list of best young British novelists in 1983. A flashy new generation of writers that included Martin Amis and Salman Rushdie solicited reams of copy about their biographies, politics, romances, feuds and — these were the early years of Thatcherism, after all — publishers’ advances.

They were also the years of proto-multiculturalism, albeit in a British, into-the-future-sideways mode that went with the metropolitan mood but against the dominant political grain. Ishiguro had a ready place available within the emerging circuits, which he was able to modify as well as occupy. By his mid twenties, living with his wife Lorna MacDougall, a social worker from Glasgow, playing guitar and composing songs as well as stories, the self-possessed English guy of Japanese origin began to make fertile use of his dual-yet-singular inheritance.

What was interesting about Ishiguro in this formative period is that he quietly declined the persistent invitations to self-exoticise. The Japan of those early novels drew on history’s sweep but was invented, not recollected or researched. (In a 1986 interview, he was “slightly dismayed” by reviewers who saw his books in documentary terms, as a “unique opportunity to get an insider’s view of Japan.”) He spoke its language only with his parents and first returned to the country at the age of thirty-five, eight years after becoming a British citizen. He frequently recalled the normality of his upbringing and the evenness of his transition to a new country.

The bubble years of the 1980s contributed to a Japan boom of sorts, and Ishiguro embodied the ties between the two nations. His background was a natural, if often trite, part of every review and profile. But with deft assurance he averted the enchantments that were by then moving from an accessory to a staple of literary marketing.

In every respect, his third novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), was a breakthrough: for its use of the classically English setting of a country house to explore tensions between calling, heart and public morality; for its enduring success, a Booker prize win reinforced by an effective film adaptation; and for its reception as evidence of Ishiguro’s status as a major and, more subliminally, a British writer, no longer defined mainly with reference to his ancestry. Yet those fixated on otherness or orientalism found it impossible to let go: Ishiguro’s understated and elliptical register in conveying the butler Stevens’s self-deceptions could even be depicted in terms of an imported sensibility or a bridge across the two strands of Ishiguro’s identity.

The definite uplift in his reputation was also a vindication of Faber, his publishers, whose editor Robert McCrum (now literary editor at the Observer) had championed him from the first. And at this point, the resources Ishiguro had ingathered and the space he had established in those early years — including support from his long-term agent, Deborah Rogers — were deployed to striking effect. For his next novel, The Unconsoled (1995), was another kind of breakthrough: the hallucinatory interior narrative of a concert pianist, Ryder, whose imminent performance in a central European city is snared in unceasing small anxieties. The delicate social manners of the earlier works, so often their characters’ shield, were stripped back, exposing the abyss (as the Nobel committee would put it) that always lay beneath.

The 500-page book, twice the length of its predecessor, divided reviewers. Some, noting in its modernist discordance the traces of Robert Musil as well as Franz Kafka, recognised that it was far more a deepening than a departure. Anita Brookner, as astute a critic as a novelist, was one who ventured the word masterpiece. The more conventional narrative of When We Were Orphans (2000) soon accreted the same dreamlike quality. Christopher Banks, the London detective narrator, visiting Shanghai in the late 1930s to investigate his parents’ disappearance, is another who finds the reality around him, this time pervaded by Japan’s military occupation, elusive: “My memory of these moments is no longer very clear.” That is the Ishiguro sentiment, to be found in many variations.

A passage near the end of When We Were Orphans about a character’s “sense of mission and the futility of attempting to evade it,” seems to point forward to Never Let Me Go (2005), whose group portrait of children at an English boarding school melts into the gothic as awareness grows that these are cloned beings raised for the purpose of organ harvesting. Life is reduced to a brief, pitiless interlude. Yet within their cocooned world they inwardly ache towards the light.

Never Let Me Go’s Booker prize nomination and film version cemented its joint status with The Remains of the Day as the novelist’s most accomplished works. But Ishiguro seems immune from any audience expectation to stay in a groove, much like his lifelong hero Bob Dylan (also, to his great pleasure, the current laureate). Thus did The Buried Giant (2015), set in a ravaged Anglo-Saxon landscape where a traumatised couple are searching for their lost son, reconfirm both his imaginative daring and ability to perplex. A haunting theme is the creeping forgetfulness over even the couple’s own earlier lives, amid the larger unspecified calamity that has befallen the realm.

In Axl and Beatrice’s quest, the echoes multiply of the many Ishiguro characters whose private troubles secrete an era of public turmoil. The theme also comes up in his interview with a Nobel media representative after the announcement, where he says the “personal arena in which we have to try and find fulfilment and love… inevitably intersects with a larger world, where politics, or even dystopian universes, can prevail. We live in small worlds and big worlds at the same time and we can’t forget one or the other.”

Ishiguro has rarely spoken as a public intellectual. Of his generation, far more prominent in this respect have been the much missed Angela Carter, along with Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Hanif Kureishi, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie. “I always felt that for novelists, it’s better not to appear on television,” he told a documentary by Japan’s public broadcaster, NHK, in 2010. “I want people to relate to my stories, not to me as a person.”

That makes the views Ishiguro does choose to express all the more telling. In the foreword to a 2016 edition of An Artist of the Floating World, for example, he said the novel was “very much shaped” by the divisive years of Margaret Thatcher’s rule in the early 1980s. Those years, he said, were characterised by “the pressures on people in every walk of life to take sides; the rigid certainties, shading into self-righteousness and sinister aggression, of ardent, often youthful factions; the agonising about the role of the artist in a time of political change. And for me personally: the nagging sense of how difficult it is to see clearly above the dogmatic fervours of one’s day; and the fear that time and history would show that for all one’s good intentions, one had backed a wrong, shameful, even evil cause, and wasted one’s best years and talents to it.”

These very topical reflections, written in January 2016, acquired even greater force with the United Kingdom’s vote to leave the European Union in June. The edition was published on schedule a week later. That weekend he wrote in a Financial Times essay of his anger at the outcome, the dangers of a far-right revival, and the need to “unite a sharply divided, bewildered, anxious, leaderless nation around its essentially decent heart.”

By default, the Nobel award gives such interventions extra significance. Ishiguro clasped this in his early comments, referring to the great uncertainty today about values and leadership in the Western world, and to people feeling unsafe. How his voice, as much as his art, matches this new status will be fascinating to see. So will be the media and political response. At this stage, broadcast and print news coverage is perfunctory, though literary pages feature warm tributes. Ishiguro’s prize has no propulsion as a national-cultural story compared to those of the recent British laureates: V.S. Naipaul (2001), Harold Pinter (2005) and Doris Lessing (2007). No doubt the atomising, decentring impacts of cyber revolution, and the erosion of critical arts journalism, are (related) factors in this. But it also has to do with these one-time pioneers’ vast political hinterland, provoking opinions, and celebrated vendettas. Their local fame was too set, their careers too advanced (Naipaul, the youngest, was sixty-eight), and — pace Ishiguro — their dogmatic fervours too aggravating for the Nobel to make anything new.

This time is different. Ishiguro is way beyond stereotype. True, a man whose heart beats on the left can expect a Daily Mail treatment with meagre praise, as well as a Craig Brown parody in Private Eye following sublime ones of Naipaul and Pinter. But alongside his work and his personal qualities, Ishiguro’s eschewing of petty strife or political idiocy across four decades gives him a rare moral authority.

More widely, the decade following those three awards has shaken the UK’s body politic and its collective psyche. Similar tremors are erupting across the world. Dealing with them is not intrinsically a writer’s job. But by exercising genuine imaginative freedom, a writer can sometimes find the wellspring of a truth that everybody knows but, until that point, has not been able to feel. And that can make something new. At this moment, Kazuo Ishiguro is the best possible shot. ●

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The vote comes at the end: Labor senator Sam Dastyari with his marriage equality cake at the Senate entrance to Parliament House, Canberra, on 10 August. Mick Tsikas/AAP Image

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