Ishiguro’s writing is not limited by style or genre. Instead, what he shows us is that a great writer doesn’t need to be a great “writer”by Sameer Rahim / October 5, 2017 / Leave a comment
Whenever the Nobel Prize for literature is announced, there is speculation over what message the committee is trying to send. The Nobel likes to make a statement. Last year’s victory for Bob Dylan was a bold declaration that song lyrics could be literature as well. (They were right about that—but given Dylan’s tardiness in getting to Stockholm they surely regret it.) Orhan Pamuk won in 2006 while he was being prosecuted by the Turkish state. VS Naipaul’s prize soon after 9/11 was surely a nod to his gloomy warnings about Islamist extremism. All these winners deserved the prize for their work; but the timing depended on extra-literary considerations.
So, what can we read into the 2017 Nobel Prize for Kazuo Ishiguro? Why him, and why now? From a UK perspective, it’s notable that Ishiguro is the fourth British winner in 16 years—a ratio we can be proud of. Interestingly, three of those four were born outside the UK: Ishiguro in Japan; Doris Lessing in Iran; Naipaul in Trinidad. It’s tempting to see the award to another foreign-born Briton as the Academy rebuking our post-Brexit cultural insularity. A reminder that immigrants are not merely a burden, but also a boon. That English literature has always been nourished by outsiders. Citizens of Nowhere strike back!
So much for the political symbolism. When it comes to the work, Ishiguro is up there with his fellow laureates. He is master of the quietly unsettling. Every book is written in a different style—even genre. He has done the detective novel, the sci-fi novel and the medieval saga. He has ranged from ancient Britain to 1930s Asia to post-Bomb Japan. No matter the setting, though, he is always distinctively Ishiguro. His novels are both realist dramas and universal fables.
Born in Nagasaki, Japan in 1954 and raised in Surrey, Ishiguro’s upbringing gave him an angled perspective on his home country. The question of Englishness permeates his most famous work, The Remains of the Day (1989). In 1956, the year of Suez, the narrator Stevens looks back on his time as a dutiful butler to a Nazi-sympathising English lord in the 1930s. His emotionally-repressed narrative style encapsulates a certain kind of class-conscious member of the “lower orders” who has always known his place. When released from that rigid system, though, he is lost. The brilliance of the book is that we are never quite sure whether Stevens realises what damage he has done to himself—and to others, including his almost-lover, the housekeeper Miss Kenton. It is an unshowy masterpiece.