Last night I dreamed I woke up this morning to find that the Nobel Prize in Literature had been awarded to a little-known English poet named Thomas Plum. I’d never heard of Plum, neither had most of the world, and the general consensus was that he’d been garlanded for his anti-nuclear activism as much as for his poetry, with his literary obscurity also serving as a corrective to last year’s Bob Dylan excitement. I spent the rest of the dream watching a film Plum had made, a gritty vérité Mike Leigh type narrative about the erotic entanglements of ban-the-bombers.
Well, I got the country right anyway, but imagine my surprise when I actually woke to find the Prize had gone to Kazuo Ishiguro, a writer I admire very much and have written a lot about here at this site. It’s true that I have never written at length about his two most famous novels, The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, nor about his most notorious novel, The Unconsoled, but I have addressed much of the rest of his catalogue beyond those. There is only one of his books I haven’t yet read, When We Were Orphans, which I was saving for the proverbial rainy day, but which now certainly moves up the TBR list. As I’m teaching Never Let Me Go this semester in my Literature and Public Life class, I expect I will also have something to say about that novel, one of my favorites, in this space before the year is out.
I love Ishiguro for the seriousness of his absolute commitment to fiction. An interviewer once asked him if he were uncomfortable writing female narrators given concerns about “cultural appropriation” and the like, and he essentially dismissed the question by placing himself in the tradition of Shakespeare rather than Wordsworth—these were his analogies—drama rather than poetry, where the writer’s entire job is to create a panoply of contending characters distinct from the self and to put forth their quarrel without ever attempting to resolve it for the audience.
Precisely because he does not pose as the public intellectual, instructing the laity on their enlightened political duties, his novels possess the toughness of philosophical and ethical fiber that I associate with the classics. They are models for thinking and feeling, many-roomed fictional houses with endless doors, some hidden, and they can be explored variously, according to readerly aim and sensibility. I admit this makes his novels very teachable—they sometimes seem, like Jane Eyre or Heart of Darkness or The Turn of the Screw, to have been written for those “critical casebook” editions of the classics, which present the literary text followed by a feminist essay, a Marxist essay, a postcolonial essay, and so on.
Ishiguro’s actual politics, as far as I can tell, reflect an almost touching old-fashioned liberalism, which I appreciate in its way, and I assume the Swedes did as well, though I don’t know that it is what his novels express; I went too far in an aside in this post when I wrote that Never Let Me Go was about “what Nietzsche called ‘the worthlessness of compassion,'” but I do think his novels swing between melancholy over and resignation to the vast socio-political inutility of sympathy, empathy, and art itself.
Ishiguro is a postmodern writer in the truest sense, not because he uses stupid typographical tricks or makes obvious “experimental” narrative gestures that were played out a hundred years ago or thinks everything is a joke, but because he understands that we live—we must, as in should—live in the knowledge of what horror modernity’s drive to remake the world has led us. Hence, he never posits in his works a political solution to the difficulties he enumerates, because every modern atrocity itself began as a political solution: what if politics itself, in the Promethean modern sense, is quite simply the problem, and art not a solution but at least a way to keep the world out of trouble? This seems, ultimately, to be what his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, suggests, and it also allies him again to Shakespeare, who took the same path.
Ishiguro is also, I note as we enter this Halloween season, something of a horror novelist. While he works in all genres, from historical realism to science fiction and fantasy, his sensibility seems to bend all genres toward the Gothic, toward, that is, a sense of the present haunted and blighted and blasted by the chilling breath of an ineradicable and evil past. (One of his literary heroes is Charlotte Brontë, and one of his teachers was Angela Carter.) All of his novels have the air of a dream just curdling to nightmare, a pleasant afternoon outing about to be ruined by the slowly growing awareness of something in the peripheral vision rustling behind the trees. For those looking for somewhere to start with Ishiguro in this autumnal month, I might recommend his almost overtly frightening first novel, A Pale View of Hills, alongside his better known boarding-school-and-bioethics neo-Gothic bestseller, Never Let Me Go.
If you are feeling more ambitious, you might take on the only one of his novels that is both long and somewhat difficult to read, The Unconsoled, which literally narrates a nightmare—a celebrated pianist’s restless and ever-shifting anxiety dream about a disastrous trip through the Kafkan psychoscape of Central Europe where he is supposed to perform. The Unconsoled, by the way, is also Ishiguro’s funniest novel, the humor and the horror side by side, as in his modernist masters, not only Kafka but also Dostoevsky.
I don’t admire everything about Ishiguro. His belief that world literary markets require the contemporary writer to compose a blank and translatable prose has something to recommend it—see this essay by Rebecca L. Walkowitz for a brilliant theoretical appreciation of how Ishiguro’s ethics are mimicked in his style, both committed to standing up for the unexceptional and unoriginal—but it can also smack of too-easy capitulation to commerce, and it means his novels never offer the pleasures of intricate or beautiful or polysemous or even just intense prose, the pleasures one gets from a Nabokov or a Morrison or a DeLillo. Ishiguro’s colorless prose may perform an ethic, but, like every ethic, it comes at a cost, and if you don’t like his novels, I suspect this will be the reason why.
Anyway, let me not prolong this congratulations to a novelist whose novels are usually blessedly short in this age of excessive narrative expanse. I offer links to my Ishiguro reviews in hopes that they might interest people wanting to learn more or reflect further about this year’s Nobel laureate: A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World, The Buried Giant. I hope to write more about his works in the coming months.