Inside Story

Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel performance

The novelist’s week in Stockholm was an experimental opening towards a new public voice

David Hayes 12 December 2017 1656 words

Anything but customary: Kazuo Ishiguro receiving the 2017 Nobel Prize in literature on Sunday. Associated Press

“Suddenly I felt very weary and wished the whole affair to be taken off my hands.” A famous artist visiting a stately European city is garlanded with attention by familiar strangers and required to perform on cue, only for his uneasy vision to cloud and float amid the enveloping politesse. The setting of Kazuo Ishiguro’s dreamlike novel The Unconsoled (1995) might be seen as a wry portent of his role in Stockholm’s extravagant annual Nobel Week twenty-two years later. There, the busy schedule of the 2017 literature prize-winner featured a press conference, a visit to Sweden’s parliament, a public discussion with Malin Ullgren, literature editor of the Dagens Nyheter newspaper, the centrepiece lecture and a shorter banquet speech.

Ishiguro’s trademark decorum seems never to have faltered. The sparse press conference early last week, hosted by the formidable Sara Danius, was notable in featuring questions only from Japanese and Swedish journalists (plus one Chinese). No Anglos were called, or perhaps even present, matching the near-zero coverage — in Britain’s media at least — since the award two months ago. In Japan, it is a major story, and the same is true of the Nobel’s honouring of the anti-nuclear weapons coalition ICAN, which Ishiguro warmly endorsed, noting that his ninety-one-year-old mother is a direct survivor. That Ishiguro, born in Nagasaki and brought up in England from the age of six, is listed as a Japanese author in the Nobel roster adds a further twist, all of which is likely to disturb a blessedly sane author not one whit.

In the conference’s lighter moments he deflected requests to speak in his first language or reveal anything of his next day’s lecture, and recalled the childhood aura around his being Japanese, which his English peers associated with martial arts. (“I played on that — couldn’t get away with it now!”) He told a Swedish journalist alert to a parallel between his situation and The Unconsoled’s Ryder that his subconscious had prefigured this moment two decades ago. More awkwardly, when drawn towards a news story connected to the Swedish Academy, his focus on individual responsibility in cases of sexual harassment had a proprietorial flavour. Was this an early touch of Stockholm syndrome, or merely a sign that the writerly Ishiguro is free of media guile?

The next day’s lecture at the Börssalen, the Academy’s grand hall, turned out to be subtly propulsive. My Twentieth Century Evening — and Other Small Breakthroughs wove five episodes of personal memory and aesthetic insight, rich with musical and filmic allusion, into a riveting tale of the novelist’s evolution. From his singular upbringing, the aspiring creative writer of autumn 1979 had formed an “idea of Japan in my mind,” a place whose literary possibilities were deepened in spring 1983 by a reading of Proust and then expanded in March 1988 by a desire to examine characters’ “moral and political responsibility” in ways that “didn’t assume the centrality of British literature.” A visit to Auschwitz in October 1999 brought awareness of his generation’s “burden of remembering,” while a Howard Hawks film in early 2001 thrust him towards a focus on human relationships, rather than individuals per se, as the core of narrative truth.

A lesson of this voyage, and of the “quiet, private sparks of revelation” that light it, is that stories are about the communication of feeling, and above all interpersonal: “This is the way it feels to me. Can you understand what I’m saying? Does it also feel this way to you?”

How does it feel? At that moment, four-fifths of the way through an enthralling address, I sensed where Ishiguro might be going. Its balladeer technique of incremental repetition had flashed into my own mind the words “performed literature,” title and theme of the Chaucerian scholar Betsy Bowden’s neglected study of Bob Dylan. Ishiguro’s widely shared reverence for the 2016 laureate was surely leading him towards an understated insistence that the writer’s inward truth — whose source, as he had shown, can come unbidden from the world around — may be harder to find in the post-2001 world, with its lies and noise, its perils and seductions.

But — and here Ishiguro’s love of manga and exploratory spirit came into play — the possibilities are also enlarged by that same world’s new freedoms and fusions, its sciences and empathies. The writer, he might say, is doomed to live with and work through this new age of ambiguity. It is, after all, only the latest iteration of the search for those revelatory sparks, or for what Dylan himself once called “the inspiration behind the inspiration.”

My surmise was almost completely wrong. Instead, after asking his two questions, Ishiguro lurched into the present with a more public register and confessional tone. He has recently awakened “to the realisation I’d been living for some years in a bubble,” that “my world — a civilised, stimulating place filled with ironic, liberal-minded people — was in fact much smaller than I’d ever imagined.”

This impels a harsh reassessment of the post-1989 era. Its complacency, waste and malice, from the “disastrous invasion of Iraq” to the “scandalous economic crash and austerity politics,” has contributed to the rise of “tribal nationalisms” and the “buried monster” of racism. These are undermining the seemingly “unstoppable advance [since 1945] of liberal human values,” with all its social gains.

Ishiguro’s Weltschmerz is laced with an existential anxiety and a self-doubt that obliquely echo the predicament of his character Ryder: “So here I am, a man in my sixties, rubbing my eyes and trying to discern the outlines, out there in the mist, to this world I didn’t suspect even existed until yesterday. Can I, a tired author, from an intellectually tired generation, now find the energy to look at this unfamiliar place? Do I have something left that might help to provide perspective, to bring emotional layers to the arguments, fights and wars that will come as societies struggle to adjust to huge changes?”

His answer was a hesitant yes. His optimistic finale — “if you like, my Nobel appeal!” — asked the literary world to diversify its range of voices and open its arms to new genres and forms, and younger generations. The search must go beyond “elite first world cultures,” and narrow or conservative notions of what defines good literature. “In a time of dangerously increasing division, we must listen. Good writing and good reading will break down barriers. We may even find a new idea, a great humane vision, around which to rally.”

At the time, this whole concluding section struck me as banal, and in light of what preceded it both discordant and disheartening. I now also see the courage and force of its humility. Ishiguro wants to use his now unavoidable moral authority to urge a reaching out to those behind, below, beyond, unheard, and in other fields. That noble appeal can be taken up in many ways. The Faber Academy, offering “creative writing courses and manuscript assessments with character,” was on the case in seconds: “Seriously, if you are a writer in your ‘40s, 30s, or 20s,’ watch Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Speech. Because he’s talking to you.”

There was more to come at the impressive Nobel award ceremony on 10 December in the majestic Stockholm Concert Hall. Alongside other laureates, Ishiguro, after a commendation by Sara Danius (“an innovator, always taking risks”), received his medal from King Carl XVI Gustaf. Then came the grand banquet at City Hall, where — ahead of Richard H. Thaler, the economics laureate — he delivered the customary brief speech of thanks. It proved anything but customary.

He began with the memory of a picture book he read as a five-year-old in Nagasaki, sprawled on a tatami mat, his mother behind him. A page-size illustration introduces Ishiguro to the Nobel-Sho (prize) and the story of its dynamite-inventing founder, Alfred Nobel. The idea of the Sho, mother explains, is to promote heiwa (peace or harmony). “This was just fourteen years after our city, Nagasaki, had been devastated by the atomic bomb, and young as I was, I knew heiwa was something important; that without it fearful things might invade my world.”

The Nobel prize’s simplicity is the key to its prestige, Ishiguro suggests. The national pride it raises has to do with “one of us” having made “a significant contribution to our common human endeavour,” in contrast to rivalrous sporting contests. “The emotion aroused is a larger one, a unifying one.”

Ishiguro concludes: “We live today in a time of growing tribal enmities, of communities fracturing into bitterly opposed groups. Like literature, my own field, the Nobel Prize is an idea that, in times like these, helps us to think beyond our dividing walls, that reminds us of what we must struggle for together as human beings. It’s the sort of idea mothers will tell their small children, as they always have, all around the world, to inspire them and to give themselves hope. Am I happy to receive this honour? Yes, I am. I am happy to receive the Nobel Sho, as I instinctively called it when, minutes after receiving my astounding news I telephoned my mother, now ninety-one years old. I more or less grasped its meaning back then in Nagasaki, and I believe I do so now. I stand here awed that I’ve been allowed to become part of its story. Thank you.”

Everything Ishiguro does now will be in the shade of these flabbergasting days. Will he build on the programmatic logic of his Nobel lecture, and embrace a public role? How will his trademark polite deflection fare against the behemoths of suffocation that stalk Nobel laureates? Will the press of memory turn him to memoir, or the Stockholm experience to alchemy? Will his experimental and collaborative instinct take him in fresh directions? Whatever the answers, Kazuo Ishiguro will undoubtedly stay true to himself. ●