Kazuo Ishiguro, a Nobel Winner Whose Characters Are Caught Between Worlds

Kazuo Ishiguro, a Nobel Winner Whose Characters Are Caught Between Worlds


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.

Ishiguro 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 an indelible 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’s 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 were 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’s sang-froid 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 realizes 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 aging and arrogant pianist in an unnamed European town.

That novel has its detractors, of which I am one. 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.

Ishiguro 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 Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy. His work rarely fails to cast a spell.



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