In praise of Kazuo Ishiguro

Last week the Nobel prize for literature was awarded to the writer Kazuo Ishiguro – Ishiguro was born in Japan but grew up, and continued to live, in England, and took UK nationality. The news of his award was covered widely in the papers and on television and Ishuguro himself appeared well regarded by his peers and popular with the British reading public. However Ishiguro did not stay in the news for very long – though, to be fair, longer than Richard Henderson who shared in the Nobel prize for Chemistry. Ishiguro was newsworthy, the award was well received but it was all a long way from dancing in the street. This muted response seemed to say quite a lot about British attitudes to literature.

Other countries do it differently. I remember years ago in Costa Rica when García Márquez, a Columbian and ‘leftist’, got the Nobel literature prize. It was headlined on the front pages of all the papers and seen as an honour for the American continent – even though the press was conservative and Columbia was a long way from Costa Rica. I don’t know how they celebrated in, say, Iceland when Halldór Laxness got the prize or in Germany when Gunter Grass won it, but we were told that if it had been Haruki Murakami this time his Japanese fans would have hit the roof, though they found plenty to cheer about in the choice of Ishiguro, with his Japanese heritage.

I wondered how Ishiguro’s prize went down in other European countries, with British insularity being such a live issue. What struck me was the interest and seriousness with which the award was discussed, albeit in the more liberal arts centred press. In Italy, La Republica [1] had several online articles and a long discussion of Ishiguro contribution to literature. In Spain, El Pais also offered a literary breakdown of Ishiguro’s work [2] and in France, Le Monde dealt with it in less depth but helpfully reminded readers that France had the most recipients for the literature prize. Most strikingly Deutsche Welle, a German portal aimed at an international audience, led their news of the day with a twenty minute discussion of Ishiguro [3].

I don’t have much to offer about Ishuguro as a writer. Most commentators describe his writing as intelligent and accessible and an ex-editor describes it as a ‘weird mix of classic English and minatory Japanese prose’ (weird is a good thing in this context) [4]. I can recognise this description in the books I have read.

I am more interested in how literature talks / or does not talk to social research. A friend of mine believed that there was no point in reading social research (at least that part that dealt with how we live) when fiction was much more interesting and covered most or all of what could be said. Ishuguro provides a good example of this.

Ishuguro’s two most well-known books are the Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go – both made into films. Both covered, amongst other things, the capacity we have for self-deception. In the first, a butler (Mr Stevens) reflects back on his life in service to a ‘great family’ and we can see that in the telling this is a story of denial: denial about the pro-Nazi sympathies of his employer; denial that there was anything emotionally absent in his relationship with his father; denial that there was an opportunity for love or at least companionship with the housekeeper [5]. Through Ishuguro’s subtle telling we can see the deception and by the end the Mr Stevens comes tantalisingly close to seeing it himself. It is a gentle account and we are sucked into sympathy and understanding – Mr Stevens has hung on to what he calls his dignity by turning his back on other ways of living. In sociological terms he entirely inhabits the role of butler; he has closed down any inner voice telling him that there was any other way of seeing the world.

In the second, Never Let Me Go, we are also given an unreliable narrator, this is Kathy. The story is about the experimental cloning of children for donations of body parts. What I really liked about the novel was that it countered expectations: you imagined that this was going to be about the ethics of cloning or a kind of horror fantasy. Instead, it was recognisably about the everyday. The setting was very different from Remains of the Day but Ishuguro had the same concern to show how we rein in our ambition and accept the life that is mapped out for us [6]. Again he does this with subtlety and considerable compassion.

Of course the Nobel prize has generated a fair amount of controversy both for the choice of particular awardees; for a general male white bias; and for being funded by Alfred Nobel, who made his money in arms manufacturing. However, at least in literature, the Nobel prize is the highest accolade for writers and in the main, I don’t think we made enough of Ishuguro’s achievements.

References
[1] Know How Nobel Letteratura – La vittoria di Ishiguro at
https://video.repubblica.it/spettacoli-e-cultura/know-how-nobel-letteratura-la-vittoria-di-ishiguro/286418/287036
[2] PREMIO NOBEL DE LITERATURA 2017
https://elpais.com/cultura/2017/10/06/babelia/1507307119_168668.html
[3] Literaturnobelpreis an Kazuo Ishiguro: Stiller Meister der Seelenerforschung
http://www.dw.com/de/literaturnobelpreis-an-kazuo-ishiguro-stiller-meister-der-seelenerforschung/a-40819390
[4] My friend Kazuo Ishiguro: ‘an artist without ego, with deeply held beliefs’
https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/oct/08/my-friend-kazuo-ishiguro-artist-without-ego-nobel-prize-robert-mccrum
[5] This is a well known clip of Mr Stevens retreating in the face of his housekeeper’s teasing. I think it is a bit more melodramatic than what Ishuguro intended:

[6] The children are brought up in a kind of 1950’s private school, here a sympathetic teacher tries to tell the children the grisly future that awaits them.