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.
And it is more than just a state-of-England novel: the idea of a class-bound country coping with post-imperial decline and complicity with war crimes is equally applicable to Japan. Beneath its still surface, Ishiguro’s work has many currents.
Remains of the Day came after his two “Japanese” novels, A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986)—both exquisite meditations on memory and mortality. But Ishiguro has also tried to float, as it were, above the boxes that critics have liked to put him in. He has never wanted to be known as a “Japanese” writer and has barely written about the country since his second novel. He also avoided the “ethnic minority” label. He came of age during the 1980s when big beasts like Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie were attracting all the attention. Ishiguro, though as successful as them, is rarely put in that group. Perhaps he is too idiosyncratic a writer to classify. Or perhaps it comes down to the fact that, unlike them, he is not prone to grand political statements or eye-catching interventions in the newspapers.
Anyone who has met “Ish,” as his friends call him, notices how unassuming he is. At a party, I once had a conversation with him about his daughter’s school play; it was a normal, even banal exchange. He was keeping back all his profound—and sometimes profoundly strange reflections—for the novels. And he can be very strange: The Unconsoled is a 500-page dream, or nightmare, that this reader felt relieved to awake from.
The power of Ishiguro's stories creep up on you. His extraordinary Never Let Me Go (2005) is a science-fiction novel about cloning and organ-harvesting. But it is also, you slowly recognise, about the inevitability of death. He picks up the same theme in his most recent novel, The Buried Giant, which uses the framework of a medieval quest saga to tells the moving tale of a couple searching for their missing son.
That last book was not especially well received. Critics thought his prose was awkward, the story too outlandish. Ishiguro has always admitted he does not have the easy command of sentences that some of his contemporaries have—possibly a legacy of learning English not quite as a native speaker. But if he doesn’t have a dozen sparkling metaphors on every page, what he does have is one big metaphor that animates the whole book. What he shows us is that a great writer doesn’t need to be a great “writer.”
The primacy of story over prose also means his films work well on film. The Remains of the Day, whose script was worked on by fellow British Nobel laureate Harold Pinter, is a rare example of a film that is as good as the book. A few years ago at a screening of Never Let Me Go, I heard Ishiguro say that he worries about including local references that might not easily translate either into another language or another medium. It was a revealing comment from an author who is open and self-deprecating in interviews.
The Nobel committee, in its inimitable way, cited Ishiguro for “novels of great emotional force,” which “have uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” But he’s not as cynical as that. The emotional force comes from the human connections—between a butler and his housekeeper, a carer and her donor, a husband and wife and their missing son. That these connections might fail only adds to the tragedy.
Writers sometimes suffer from the Nobel curse—and struggle to produce novels of the same quality after the award. I suspect Ishiguro will cope better than most. Of course, he’ll gracefully accept the prize and deliver the lecture in the appropriate tail-suit. He’ll submit to the interviews and the hoopla. And then he’ll retreat back into creating Ishiguro worlds—where shadows and dreams imbue the lives of ordinary people.