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Kazuo Ishiguro 1954–

Japanese-born English novelist, short story writer, and scriptwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Ishiguro's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 27, 56, and 59.

Considered one of the preeminent novelists of his generation, Ishiguro garnered international...

(The entire section contains 43790 words.)

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Kazuo Ishiguro 1954–

Japanese-born English novelist, short story writer, and scriptwriter.

The following entry presents an overview of Ishiguro's career through 1995. For further information on his life and works, see CLC, Volumes 27, 56, and 59.

Considered one of the preeminent novelists of his generation, Ishiguro garnered international acclaim with his first two novels, solidifying his reputatuion with the Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day (1995). Praised for the precision of his narratives, Ishiguro typically deals with themes of self-deception and self-delusion. The recipient of numerous literary awards, Ishiguro is often credited with infusing the British literary scene with new life.

Biographical Information

Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan on November 8, 1954 to Shizuo, an oceanographer, and Shizuko Michida Ishiguro. In 1960, Ishiguro's father was temporarily assigned to help explore and develop oil deposits in the North Sea and the family, including two sisters, moved to England. By 1970 the family decided to remain in England; Ishiguro would not return to Japan again until 1989. He lived in an affluent London suburb and received a typical English up-bringing; however, he also spoke Japanese at home and was immersed in Japanese culture. After a period of indecision and travel, Ishiguro attended the University of Kent where he received a B.A. with honors in philosophy and literature in 1978. While working as a social worker in London, he met social worker Lorna Anne MacDougall whom he married on May 9, 1986. In 1980 he received a M.A. in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. While earning his degree he had three stories published in a new writers anthology and received a contract for his first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982). He received the Winifred Holtby Award from the Royal Society of Literature in 1983 for his first book and the Whitbread Book of the Year Award in 1986 for his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World (1986). In 1989 he won the coveted Booker award for his bestseller The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro was named to the Order of the British Empire for his literary work in 1995. He continues to write and live in London.

Major Works

Ishiguro's novels share similar stylistic elements and subject matter. In A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World, he examines Japanese culture from a Western perspective. In The Remains of the Day he shifts his focus to post-World War I England and in The Unconsoled he retains an English character but moves the setting to a surreal city in Central Europe. However, through all of these novels, he remains committed to telling the story of isolated characters who are self-delusional—consumedwith appearances, honor, and duty. Through a unique, finely crafted first person narration, the reader uncovers the reality of the central characters' lives. Ishiguro does not present characters as much as he slowly reveals them through the stories they tell of their lives. A Pale View of Hills centers on Etsuko, a former Japanese housewife who resettled to England to live with her English husband and their daughter Niki. As Etsuko recounts the events of her life in Japan, a portrait of her develops as a submissive woman who has been unhappy with her life choices but has been consumed with maintaining appearances. An Artist of the Floating World takes place in a provincial Japanese town between 1948 and 1950 as the protagonist, Masuji Ono, attempts to reorder his life and his country in the wake of World War II. However, despite his efforts to move his thinking forward, Masuji is unable to comprehend how his family perceives him. The Remains of the Day is narrated by an elderly butler named Stevens who has spent his entire life in unquestioning service to an English Nazi sympathizer. In the name of duty he has fired Jewish maids, neglected his father, and failed to realize a relationship with Miss Kenton, the housekeeper. Stevens slowly realizes that his life has been overwhelmed by illusions and self-deception. The Unconsoled centers on a concert pianist named Ryder who has arrived in a Central European city to perform. However, Ryder seems to be disconnected, as if his life has turned into a Kafkaesque nightmare in which he moves from one disaster to another. Despite its greater length and its unrealistic tone, the novel still centers on the concept of self awareness and choices.

Critical Reception

Critics have focused heavily on the influence of Japanese philosophy and culture in Ishiguro's work, sometimes to the dismay of the author, who insists that his novels are firmly grounded in the British literary tradition. Beyond commenting on the obvious subject of Japanese characters and setting in Ishiguro's first two novels, critics have credited the author's taciturnity, fine sense of timing, and quiet tone to his Japanese heritage. Scholars and other writers have been almost universally impressed with Ishiguro's novels, as testified by the number of awards he has won at a relatively young age. Malcom Bradbury has credited him with saving the English novel by infusing it with new style. Ishiguro is often named with other writers such as Salman Rushdie for adding new dimensions to the British literary scene. However, critics are divided over The Unconsoled. While many praise Ishiguro for his ambition, some claim that the work is too long and fails to engage the reader. Others, such as Charlotte Innes, believe that The Unconsoled is exciting and humourous as well as poignant.

Principal Works

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A Pale View of Hills (novel) 1982
An Artist of the Floating World (novel) 1986
The Remains of the Day (novel) 1989
The Unconsoled (novel) 1995

Kazuo Ishiguro with Gregory Mason (interview date 8 December 1986)

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SOURCE: "An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro," in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 30, No. 3, Fall, 1989, pp. 335-47.

[In the interview below, which was conducted on December 8, 1986, Ishiguro discusses Japanese and Western influences on his writing, his characters, and the writing process in his first two novels.]

In January 1987, Kazuo Ishiguro confirmed his position as Britain's leading young novelist. He was awarded the Whitbread Book of the Year Prize, the largest such cash prize in Britain, for his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World. Born in Nagasaki in 1954, Ishiguro left Japan at the age of five and has not returned since. In most respects he has become thoroughly English, but as a writer he still draws considerably on his early childhood memories of Japan, his family upbringing, and the great Japanese films of the fifties.

Soon after publishing a few short stories, Ishiguro jumped to prominence in 1982 with his first novel, A Pale View of Hills. A Pale View of Hills was awarded the Royal Society of Literature's Winifred Holtby Prize and has since been translated into eleven languages. With great subtlety, Ishiguro presents a first-person narrator, Etsuko, a middle-aged Japanese woman, now exiled in England some thirty years after World War II. Traumatized by the recent suicide of her elder daughter, she tells her own story and that of a wayward friend in postwar Nagasaki before she left. Her enigmatic recall, tantalizingly hamstrung by gaps and internal inconsistencies, works toward a dis-quieting and haunting revelation, masterfully embedded in the point of view itself.

Ishiguro's second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, is set in the Japan of the late forties. Ono, an aging painter, gropes in his diary entries toward a realization of the ironies of Japan's recent history, in which his own earlier, sincere convictions have enmeshed him. The gently ironic conclusion leaves Ono both humiliated and dignified, a kind of comic Everyman figure, wistfully trapped within his own horizons. Once more, the first-person perspective allows Ishiguro to finesse the confines of a linear plot, and again the author evinces an extraordinary control of voice, an uncannily Japanese quality emanating from his perfectly pitched English prose.

This interview took place on December 8, 1986, in Mr. Ishiguro's South London home. Throughout the course of his remarks, Ishiguro emerges as his own most discriminating interpreter and sternest critic. His meticulous interest in the craft of fiction and lucid grasp of his own aims and methods make this conversation an unusually valuable introduction and companion to the author's works.

[Mason]: How did your family's move in 1960 from Japan to England affect your upbringing and education?

[Ishiguro]: My parents have remained fairly Japanese in the way they go about things, and being brought up in a family you tend to operate the way that family operates. I still speak to my parents in Japanese. I'll switch back into Japanese as soon as I walk through the door. But my Japanese isn't very good. It's like a five-year-old's Japanese, mixed in with English vocabulary, and I use all the wrong forms. Apart from that, I've had a typical English education. I grew up in the south of England and went to a typical British school. At Kent University, I studied philosophy and English, and at East Anglia I did an M.A. in creative writing.

Do you feel you're writing in any particular tradition?

I feel that I'm very much of the Western tradition. And I'm quite often amused when reviewers make a lot of my being Japanese and try to mention the two or three authors they've vaguely heard of, comparing me to Mishima or something. It seems highly inappropriate. I've grown up reading Western fiction: Dostoevsky, Chekhov, Charlotte Brontë, Dickens.

Are there any influences from the Japanese side as well?

Tanizaki, Kawabata, Ibuse, and a little Soseki, perhaps. But I'm probably more influenced by Japanese movies. I see a lot of Japanese films. The visual images of Japan have a great poignancy for me, particularly in domestic films like those of Ozu and Naruse, set in the postwar era, the Japan I actually remember.

Your first novel, A Pale View of Hills, also deals with memories of Japan, but they are repressed memories with ellipses that the reader has to work to fill in.

Yes. In that book, I was trying something rather odd with the narrative. The main strategy was to leave a big gap. It's about a Japanese woman, Etsuko, who is exiled in Britain in middle age, and there's a certain area of her life that's very painful to her. It has something to do with her coming over to the West and the effect it has on her daughter, who subsequently commits suicide. She talks all around it, but she leaves that as a gap. Instead, she tells another story altogether, going back years and talking about somebody she once knew. So the whole narrative strategy of the book was about how someone ends up talking about things they cannot face directly through other people's stories. I was trying to explore that type of language, how people use the language of self-deception and self-protection.

There are certain things, a bit like in Henry James's The Turn of the Screw, that are just unresolved. For instance, in the pivotal scene on the bridge when Etsuko is talking to her friend Sachiko's daughter Mariko, she switches without warning to addressing the child as if she herself were actually the child's mother. At the most extreme, that leads the reader to ponder whether the two women were not one and the same person.

What I intended was this: because it's really Etsuko talking about herself, and possibly that somebody else, Sachiko, existed or did not exist, the meanings that Etsuko imputes to the life of Sachiko are obviously the meanings that are relevant to her (Etsuko's) own life. Whatever the facts were about what happened to Sachiko and her daughter, they are of interest to Etsuko now because she can use them to talk about herself. So you have this highly Etsuko-ed version of this other person's story; and at the most intense point, I wanted to suggest that Etsuko had dropped this cover. It just slips out: she's now talking about herself. She's no longer bothering to put it in the third person.

I thought that the effect of this scene was quite stunning.

Yes, that scene itself works all right, if the rest of the book had built up to that kind of ambiguity. But the trouble is that the flashbacks are too clear, in a way. They seem to be related with the authority of some kind of realistic fiction. It doesn't have the same murkiness of someone trying to wade through their memories, trying to manipulate memories, as I would have wanted. The mode is wrong in those scenes of the past. They don't have the texture of memory. And for that reason the ending doesn't quite come off. It's just too sudden. I intended with that scene for the reader finally to realize, with a sense of inevitability, "Of course, yes, she's finally said it." Instead, it's a shock. I didn't quite have the technical sophistication to pull it off, and the result is that it's a bit baffling. Fortunately, a lot of people quite enjoy being baffled. As you say, you're knocked over sideways. You feel you have to read the book again, which is a different sort of effect.

There is a dissonance between the picture that Etsuko paints of herself when back in Japan as a very timid, conventional person and the rather bold, unconventional things she emerges as actually having done: leaving her husband, leaving her homeland, and so on. That's another gap the reader has to wrestle with.

Yes, that's the gap in A Pale View of Hills. We can assume that the real Etsuko of the past is somewhat nearer the mousy Etsuko she talks about in the forties than she is to the Sachiko figure. After all, that is her account, the emotional story of how she came to leave Japan, although that doesn't tell you the actual facts. But I'm not interested in the solid facts. The focus of the book is elsewhere, in the emotional upheaval.

In some ways, especially in the dream sections, it seems as if Etsuko is trying to punish herself. She lashes herself with grief and guilt at the suicide of her daughter Keiko. Yet in other ways, it seems as if she's trying to rearrange the past so that she doesn't come out of it too badly. Am I right in seeing these two things?

Yes, the book is largely based around her guilt. She feels a great guilt, that out of her own emotional longings for a different sort of life, she sacrificed her first daughter's happiness. There is that side to her that feels resistant to her younger daughter Nikki, who tells her, "You've got nothing to worry about," and that she did exactly the right thing. She feels that this isn't quite a true account. But on the other hand, she does need to arrange her memories in a way that allows her to salvage some dignity.

There were some partly developed comic themes in A Pale View of Hills, but they didn't quite take hold.

Yes, whatever echoes I wanted to start between Etsuko and Ogata, the father-in-law, very much faded away. Let's say I was a less experienced writer at that point, and I think that one of the things that happens to less experienced writers is that you cannot control the book, as more experienced writers can. You bring in an element without realizing what the implication of this is on the rest of the book. A lot of the things I was initially most interested in got completely upstaged by things I almost inadvertently set in motion. But you get very excited when you're writing your first novel. And once having figured out these clever little narrative strategies, then you bring in this and you bring in that, and suddenly you find that two-thirds of the book is concerned with something else altogether. The Etusko-Sachiko story about exile and parental responsibility was essentially something which I waylaid myself into. I often would bring in things simply because they worked rather nicely on that particular page in that particular chapter. And suddenly, I'd find myself with a daughter who'd hung herself, or whatever, on my hands and I'd have to figure out how to deal with that. If you really want to write something, you shouldn't bring things into your book lightly. It's a bit like taking in lodgers. They're going to be with you a long time. I think the most important thing I learned between writing the first and second novels is the element of thematic discipline.

What drew you to your subject and to the theme of the older artist in your second novel, An Artist of the Floating World? Were you thinking of anyone in particular, or of any groups?

Not really, no. I suppose I was thinking of myself and my peers, the generation that came to university in the sixties and the seventies. I write out of a kind of projected fear of reaching a certain age and looking back. I am interested in that particular form of wasting one's talents, not because you spent your whole life lying on your back, not doing anything. I'm interested in people who, in all sincerity, work very hard and perhaps courageously in their lifetimes toward something, fully believing that they're contributing to something good, only to find that the social climate has done a topsyturvy on them by the time they've reached the ends of their lives. The very things they thought they could be proud of have now become things they have to be ashamed of. I'm drawn to that period in Japanese history because that's what happened to a whole generation of people. They lived in a moral climate that right up until the end of the war said that the most praise-worthy thing they could do was to use their talents to further the nationalist cause in Japan, only to find after the war that this had been a terrible mistake. An Artist of the Floating World is an exploration of somebody trying to come to terms with the fact that he has somehow misused his talents unknowingly, simply because he didn't have any extraordinary power of insight into the world he lived in.

Where is An Artist of the Floating World set?

It's just an imaginary city, for various reasons. Once I set it in an actual city, then the obligation to actually check up would become boringly relevant, and there seemed to be no point. It was of no value to me if I could claim that it's authentically set in Tokyo or not. In fact, in many ways it would play into the hands of a certain kind of misreader, who wished the book to be simply some kind of realist text telling you what Tokyo was like after the war. By setting it in an unspecified venue, I could suggest that I'm offering this as a novel about people and their lives, and that this isn't some piece of documentary writing about a real city. And it just gave me a lot more freedom. If I wanted a pavilion with lanterns around its eaves, I could just invent one. I could invent as many districts as I could think of names. All these things would have been technically rather irksome, if I had had to keep referring to a map, and to the actual history of Tokyo.

The other temptation was to set it in Nagasaki, the only Japanese city I have some familiarity with, and which I could have got some people to tell me about. But of course, overwhelmingly for Western readers, when you bring in Nagasaki they think of the atomic bomb, and I had no place for the atomic bomb in this novel. And so, although possibly I might have been able to refer more or less authentically to Nagasaki landmarks and districts, I didn't want to do it simply because it would have been another bomb book.

Was there any particular reason why you had your central character be a painter, rather than a writer, or even an actor?

No great reason, no. I was not intrinsically interested in painting or painters. It just seemed to me that a painter served my purposes better than some of the other careers. I think it's always dangerous to have a writer in a novel. That leads you into all kinds of areas, unless you're specifically interested in talking about the nature of fiction. But I try to avoid that very postmodern element in my books.

Did you do any research into how painters' groups at the time behaved? What props did you have in imagining these scenes?

I did very little research, primarily because research is only of any interest to me in order to check up after I've done something, to make sure I'm not getting anything wildly wrong. I need certain things to be the way they are in my books for the purposes of my themes. In An Artist of the Floating World, I needed to portray this world where a leader figure held this incredible psychological sway over his subordinates. And for subordinates to break free, they had to display a remarkable amount of determination. That's what I needed, and as far as I was concerned, things in my Japan were going to operate like that. I am not essentially concerned with a realist purpose in writing. I just invent a Japan which serves my needs. And I put that Japan together out of little scraps, out of memories, out of speculation, out of imagination.

In some respects, you have a narrative setup in An Artist of the Floating World similar to that in A Pale View of Hills. The whole narrative is recounted by a person who is somewhat unreliable, so the reader has to attend to other things to gauge the extent of the unreliability. Ono, the narrator, addresses the reader directly with the book's opening sentence: "If on a sunny day you climb the steep path…." This strikes an almost intimate tone, as if he is talking to a friend or acquaintance. Elsewhere, his account sounds more like an apologia, a public explanation for what he did. Who is the "reader" here, and what exactly is the narrative situation?

The reader that I intended obviously isn't the "you" that Ono refers to. Ono in his narrative assumes that anybody reading it must live in the city and must be aware of its landmarks. I used that device mainly to create a world. I thought it helped strengthen this mental landscape mapped out entirely by what Ono was conscious of, and nothing else. And whether the reader registers it consciously or not, it cannot help but create the effect of actually eavesdropping on Ono being intimate with somebody in his own town. To a large extent, the reason for Ono's downfall was that he lacked a perspective to see beyond his own environment and to stand outside the actual values of his time. So the question of this parochial perspective was quite central to the book, and I tried to build that into the whole narrative. At the same time, I'm suggesting that Ono is fairly normal; most of us have similar parochial visions. So the book is largely about the inability of normal human beings to see beyond their immediate surroundings, and because of this, one is at the mercy of what this world immediately around one proclaims itself to be.

With the somewhat doddery narrator's constant digressions, the plot line keeps fanning out all the time. Does this suggest that you're trying to escape from the tyranny of a linear plot?

Yes, yes it does! I don't like the idea that A has to come before B and that B has to come before C because the plot dictates it. I want certain things to happen in a certain order, according to how I feel the thing should be arranged tonally or whatever. I can have Ono in a certain kind of emotional mood or emotional way of talking about things when I want him to be, and it looks like he's just drifted, but from my point of view, it's quite contrived. I've figured out little transitory connecting paragraphs whereby he appears to drift from one section to the next. This might give the sense of his being old and vulnerable, but people to tend to talk like this anyway. And more crucially, people tend to think like this. So I'm not dictated to by the chronology of events, and I can reveal things just when I want to.

And again, there are unresolved points of fact in the narrative, open to varying constructions by the reader.

Yes, As usual, I'm not overwhelmingly interested in what really did happen. What's important is the emotional aspect, the actual positions the characters take up at different points in the story, and why they need to take up these positions.

At the same time, you draw a very explicit thematic parallel between the way Ono's mentor treated him, confiscating his pictures and expelling him from his villa, and the way that Ono subsequently treats his own pupil, Kuroda.

I'm pointing to the master-pupil thing recurring over and over again in the world. In a way, I'm using Japan as a sort of metaphor. I'm trying to suggest that this isn't something peculiar to Japan, the need to follow leaders and the need to exercise power over subordinates, as a sort of motor by which society operates. I'm inviting Western readers to look at this not as a Japanese phenomenon but as a human phenomenon.

In the floating world of urban Tokugawa Japan, with its pleasure quarters and puppet plays, or at least in the art that came out of the floating world, irreconcilable conflicts are often resolved by melodramatic suicides. The title of your book, An Artist of the Floating World, necessarily conjures resonances of this whole tradition. Yet you offer a gently ironic, comic solution to your tale, somewhat at variance with the more melodramatic, conventional expectations of the genre. Life-affirming values prevail, rather than everything descending into a welter of despair or the cliché of suicide. The narrative does hint, at certain points, that Ono's family are worried about such a possibility. Instead, Ono owns up to his errors, makes his accommodation with the changing times, and still manages to cling to a measure of self-vindication. Were you in any sense offering an untraditional or even un-Japanese resolution to his conflict?

Well, you see, I don't feel that it is un-Japanese. A while ago, I published a short story entitled "A Family Supper." The story was basically just a big trick, playing on Western readers' expectations about Japanese people who kill themselves. It's never stated, but Western readers are supposed to think that these people are going to commit mass suicide, and of course they do nothing of the sort.

This business about committing seppuku or whatever. It's as alien to me as it is to you. And it's as alien to most modern Japanese as it is to Western people. The Japanese are in love with these melodramatic stories where heroes commit suicide, but people in Japan don't go around killing themselves as easily as people in the West assume. And so my book may not have a traditional Japanese story ending in that sense, but a lot of the great Japanese movies of the fifties would not dream of having an ending like that. And if I borrow from any tradition, it's probably from that tradition that tries to avoid anything that is overtly melodramatic or plotty, that tries basically to remain within the realms of everyday experience.

I'm very keen that whenever I portray books that are set in Japan, even if it's not very accurately Japan, that people are seen to be just people. I ask myself the same questions about my Japanese characters that I would about English characters, when I'm asking the big questions, what's really important to them. My experience of Japanese people in this realm is that they're like everybody else. They're like me, my parents. I don't see them as people who go around slashing their stomachs.

What sort of mood did you wish to portray in the narrator, Ono, by the end of the book?

I wanted that slightly painful and bittersweet feeling of him thinking: "Japan made a mess of it, but how marvelous that in a few years it's all set to have a completely fresh go. But a man's life isn't like that. In a man's life, there's only room for this one go." And Ono's done it, he made a go of it, and it didn't turn out well. His world is over, and all he can do is wish the younger generation well, but he is no part of that world. And I was interested in the various strategies somebody would employ to try to salvage some sort of dignity, to get into a position where he could say, "Well, at least X, Y, and Z." In a way, Ono is continually being cornered. He keeps having to admit this and admit that, and in the end he even accepts his own smallness in the world. I suppose I wanted to suggest that a person's dignity isn't necessarily dependent on what he achieves in his life or in his career that there is something dignified about Ono in the end that arises simply out of his being human.

And through the course of his narrative, the reader can see Ono, to preserve his self-esteem, gradually making concessions and accommodations that he himself cannot see?

Yes, that certainly was the intention. It uses very much the diary method. Technically, the advantage of the diary narrative is that each entry can be written from a different emotional position. What he writes in October 1948 is actually written out of a different set of assumptions than the pieces that are written later on. That really was the sole reason for dividing the book up into four chunks, each ostensibly written in a sitting or whatever at the point when the date is given; just so we can actually watch his progress, and so that the language itself changes slightly.

And this in turn underscores the larger theme of the ironies and vicissitudes of the floating world. Having rejected the demimonde "floating world" subjects of his mentor, Ono received the patriotic award for his propagandist poster art and experienced a short moment of triumph. But this too was fleeting.

Yes, that's why he is the artist of the floating world, just as the floating world celebrated transitory pleasures. Even if they were gone by the morning, and they were built on nothing, at least you enjoyed them at the time. The idea is that there are no solid things. And the irony is that Ono had rejected that whole approach to life. But in the end, he too is left celebrating those pleasures that evaporated when the morning light dawned. So the floating world comes to refer, in the larger metaphorical sense, to the fact that the values of society are always in flux.

Your first-person narrators, a late middle-aged woman in A Pale View of Hills and an older man in An Artist of the Floating World, are far removed from you in your personal situation. How did you manage to inhabit these people? Through some kind of imaginative migration?

It never occurred to me that it would be a technical difficulty. It's rather like the question about realism and Japanese details. I didn't start from the point of view of saying, "What does a middle-aged woman think like?" That way you can get very intimidated by the whole project. I needed a certain consciousness, a certain state of mind, and it just naturally followed that this would be a middle-aged woman or an older man. Ono couldn't be anything else.

It is remarkable, for someone writing in English, how much of a Japanese texture your writing achieves. How, for instance, did you set about the problem of projecting differentiated Japanese voices through the medium of the English language?

There are two things. Because I am writing in the first person, even the prose has to conform to the characterization of the narrator. Etusko, in A Pale View of Hills, speaks in a kind of Japanese way because she's a Japanese woman. When she sometimes speaks about Japanese things, explaining what a kujibiki stand is, for instance, it becomes clear that she's speaking English and that it's a second language for her. So it has to have that kind of carefulness, and, particularly when she's reproducing Japanese dialogue in English, it has to have a certain foreignness about it.

The thing about Ono in An Artist of the Floating World is that he's supposed to be narrating in Japanese; it's just that the reader is getting it in English. In a way the language has to be almost like a pseudotranslation, which means that I can't be too fluent and I can't use too many Western colloquialisms. It has to be almost like subtitles, to suggest that behind the English language there's a foreign language going on. I'm quite conscious of actually figuring these things out when I'm writing, using a certain kind of translationese. Sometimes my ear will say: "That doesn't quite ring true, that kind of language. Fine if this were just English people, but not here."

When you write, do you have anyone who helps you to revise?

I tend to work entirely alone. I have an editor at Faber, Robert McCrumb, who often sees the penultimate draft. In both novels, he made suggestions that were very helpful, but they tend to be pretty minor. Normally he'll point to that part of the book that seems to be weak and ask me to look at it again. But I'll only show him my manuscript when I think it's more or less finished. And I certainly don't do this business of going through the prose with somebody else, page by page.

Do you feel any pressure to experiment formally?

I did at a certain time. When literary people talk about "young writers," they almost imply that this is synonymous with writers who are experimenting. You often read phrases like, "They're smashing up this, or subverting that." So I think that it's very natural to feel that the older generation has somehow already done that, and that now you've got to. But I try not to let it become too central to what I'm writing. The kind of book I find very tedious is the kind of book whose raison d'être is to say something about literary form. I'm only interested in literary experiment insofar as it serves a purpose of exploring certain themes with an emotional dimension. I always try to disguise those elements of my writing that I feel perhaps are experimental.

What are you working on now?

I'm writing another novel. This one is set in England. It's about a butler who wants to get close to a great man, close to the center of history. I also write television films. I've written two of these and we're trying to get a third off the ground, this time a cinema film. So I've always got at least two things going, a screenplay and a novel. Filmmaking is very, very different from writing. You shoot to a set schedule, and the crew knocks off at a certain time; otherwise you pay a fortune in overtime. You just haven't got the opportunity to keep doing scenes over and over till they're perfect. It's almost like a concert performance or something, where you've got to get it right, then and there. It's somewhere between a performance art and the more meditative, deliberate production that writing is. In writing, you can rewrite and rewrite and rewrite at no cost, other than what it costs for the paper, and you can spend a long, long time.

How do you see your work developing, and what do you see as your abiding preoccupations?

Well, it's very difficult to say if I'll have the same preoccupations in ten years' time that I have today. There are certain things in my books that I'm not particularly interested in, although they have taken up a fairly important chunk of my writing. I'm not particularly interested in themes about parental responsibility, or even about exile, although these seem to be very much to the fore in the first book. I'm not at all interested in the question of suicide, although I'm aware that that has been in both books in some form or another. But things like memory, how one uses memory for one's own purposes, one's own ends, those things interest me more deeply. And so, for the time being, I'm going to stick with the first person, and develop the whole business about following somebody's thoughts around, as they try to trip themselves up or to hide from themselves.

Merle Rubin (review date 30 November 1989)

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SOURCE: A Review of The Remains of the Day, in Christian Science Monitor, November 30, 1989, p. 13.

[In the following review of The Remains of the Day, Rubin praises Ishiguro's ability to get inside his characters and portray all their complexities.]

Stevens, the hero of Kazuo Ishiguro's third novel, is the perfect butler. All his life he has sought to embody the ideals of his profession: service, composure, dignity, and discretion. Having reached an age when, although still fully employed, he is starting to think about the shape of the rest of his life—"the remains of the day"—Stevens has set out (with his employer's blessing, to be sure) on a highly unaccustomed (for him) motoring trip. His general aim is to see something of the countryside (where he's lived all his life but never really visited). More specifically, he hopes to persuade Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), a former housekeeper, to return to Darlington Hall, which he hopes will run more smoothly again with her to help him.

Stevens is the narrator of his own story, and his perfect, perfectly parodied, butler's style of speaking can be contagious! That a writer born in Nagasaki in 1954 should have written a novel that so brilliantly captures the voice of a middle-aged English butler in the summer of 1956 reflecting on times past is remarkable, but not really another instance of the current "the Japanese do us better than we do ourselves" syndrome. Ishiguro has, in fact, lived in England since 1960, which makes him almost as English as Stevens, because Stevens (by his own unwitting admission) has tailored his life to produce a complete facade. What makes his narrative so poignant as well as funny, its pathos and satire evenly matched, is the sincerity with which the facade has been cultivated.

As he travels westward, taking in the scenery, Stevens's mind is more on the past than on the landscape. Yet, because he is hardly the sort of person who would launch into any activity as personal—and hence, improper—as recounting his own history, his story begins as a meditation on the "greatness" of the British landscape, which, in his view, consists in its quiet, self-confident lack of conspicuous greatness. This leads him on to consider the "greatness" of Great Britain and greatness in general—which leads, in turn, to the burning question, what constitutes a great butler?

For Stevens, the answer is contained in the word "dignity," a concept that means something different to him than it does to most other people:

"'Dignity,'" explains Stevens, "has to do … with a butler's ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits. Lesser butlers will abandon their professional being for the private one at the least provocation … The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role … to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming, or vexing. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstances tear it off him in the public gaze …"

As the narrative unfolds to reveal those occasions on which Stevens has displayed such dignity, the painful truth becomes ever more evident—to us, if not to him. Dignity for Stevens has consisted in remaining downstairs to serve at an important reception while upstairs his own father is on his deathbed. Dignity has meant voicing no objection, or even regret, when his employer, Lord Darlington, dismisses two servant girls because they are Jewish. In sum, Stevens's dignity has been based upon eviscerating himself both as a private and public person—as a man and as a citizen. He has mistaken the amorality of his professional code for a species of moral idealism: He believes that he has served humanity by having served a great gentleman in a great house.

Lord Darlington, the great gentleman in question, is now deceased. Stevens's current employer—the one who has so kindly encouraged him to take this brief vacation—is an American. Stevens respects him well enough, but his fondness for informality and banter puts Stevens at an uncharacteristic loss.

It's his time with Lord Darlington that Stevens considers the apex of his career in service. Stevens is proud of the contribution he made, but as we gradually discover the nature of what he was contributing to, we—and even Stevens himself—must drastically reevaluate his life's work.

In those years between the two world wars that Stevens served him, Lord Darlington did his best to foster ties between Great Britain and Germany. His gentlemanly, behind-the-scenes diplomacy began as a well-intentioned effort to temper the harsh terms of the Versailles Treaty. But it soon gave way to muddle-headed, but far less innocent, maneuverings on behalf of the Nazi regime. Ignorance, complacency, and upper-class smugness have combined to lead Darlington into a position that eventually tarnishes his name: His attitude and actions have run a course parallel to his butler's folly.

Interestingly enough, Ishiguro's previous novel, An Artist of the Floating World, explored the soul of a Japanese artist whose sense of mission led him to become involved in the imperialist movement that propelled Japan into World War II. Ishiguro's subtle understanding of both these mentalities—the British butler and the Japanese artist—enables him to portray them from within. The Remains of the Day, however, relies even more heavily on the narrative of a single character to reveal the blindness of his own sensibility.

Not surprisingly, Ishiguro's use of a narrative voice turned against itself has earned him comparison with Ford Madox Ford. Like The Good Soldier, The Remains of the Day exposes assumptions about class, correct behavior, and the "right kind of people," and exposes them from within, where we can see the damage done to those who presume as well as those who are presumed against.

Delicate, devastating, thoroughly ironic, yet never harsh, this is a novel whose technical achievements are matched by its insightfulness.

Gabriele Annan (review date 7 December 1989)

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SOURCE: Gabriele Annan, "On the High Wire," in New York Review of Books, December 7, 1989, pp. 3-4.

[In the review below, Annan argues that in Ishiguro's first three novels he has brilliantly portrayed characters who are unable to see their own faults, evoking condemnation and pity.]

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Japan thirty-five years ago. He came to England when he was six, and has lived there ever since. This is a stranger experience than being Japanese in the United States, where the landscape is dotted with second and third generation Japanese. Even twenty years ago, few Japanese lived in England, and a Japanese child, except in a group of tourists, was a rare sight indeed.

Ishiguro writes in English. His English is perfect, and not just in the obvious sense it is accurate, unhurried, fastidious, and noiseless. A hush seems to lie over it, compounded of mystery and discretion. The elegant bareness inevitably reminds one of Japanese painting. But at the very start of the first novel, A Pale View of Hills, he warns against such a cliché response. A Japanese girl has committed suicide in England:

Keiko … was pure Japanese, and more than one newspaper was quick to pick up on this fact. The English are fond of their idea that our race has an instinct for suicide, as if further explanations are unnecessary.

In a sense, all three of Ishiguro's novels are explanations, even indictments, of Japanese-ness, and that applies equally to the third novel, The Remains of the Day, in which no Japanese character appears. He writes about guilt and shame incurred in the service of duty, loyalty, and tradition. Characters who place too high—too Japanese—a price on these values are punished for it.

A Pale View of Hills is eery and tenebrous. It is a ghost story, but the narrator, Etsuko, does not realize that. She is the widow of an Englishman, and lives alone and rather desolate in an English country house. Her elder daughter, Keiko, the child of her Japanese first husband, killed herself some years before. The novel opens during a visit from her younger daughter, Niki, the child of her English second husband. Etsuko recalls her past, but Niki, a brusque, emancipated Western girl, is not very sympathetic. Her visit is uncomfortable and uncomforting, and she cuts it short: not only because of the lack of rapport with her mother, but because she can't sleep. Keiko's unseen ghost keeps her awake.

Etsuko's reminiscences go back to the days just after the war. She is newly married to a boorish company man, and expecting his child. They live in one of the first blocks to be built in the ruins of Nagasaki. Etsuko is lonely and strikes up an acquaintance with an older woman, an embittered post-1945 Madam Butterfly. Sachiko lives in a derelict cottage among the rubble, and receives visits from an American who is always promising to take her to the States, but never does. She has lost everything in the war except her ten-year-old daughter, Mariko. The child is hostile to people but deeply attached to her cat and kittens; her mother leaves her alone for long periods while she goes into Nagasaki about her dubious business. Mariko speaks of visits by a strange, silent woman during her mother's absence. Sachiko explains that this is all imagination, the result of an experience Mariko had in the last days of the war: she saw a woman drown her baby. The woman later killed herself.

Etsuko tries to befriend the disturbed and neglected child, but is rebuffed. Eventually the American lover really seems on the point of taking Sachiko and Mariko away. The kittens are to be left behind. Mariko pleads for them, but her mother drowns them before the child's eyes. Mariko runs away—she has done it before and always come back. Nevertheless, Etsuko insists on going to look for her. It is dark when she finds her by the river. Mariko seems frightened and asks Etsuko why she is trailing a rope. Etsuko replies that it got caught on her foot. Mariko runs from her in terror. The scene is a replay of a earlier occasion when Etsuko also went to retrieve the child, who noticed the rope and fled.

Mariko disappears from the story. Her suicide—actual or just probable—is the second of three, beginning with the woman who drowns her baby and ending with Keiko. They overlay one another like shadows—which they are—on a trebly exposed negative. The fourth shadow is Etsuko herself, though the hint that she too may take her own life is so faint that it may not be there at all. Ishiguro leaves a lot of room for reflection and conjecture, and after one puts down his novels insights go on plopping into one's mind like drops from a tap that is supposed to be turned off.

Etusko feels guilty about having up-rooted Keiko and taken her to England when she remarried. She knew the child would be unhappy in an English environment, though one can be sure she did not force her to leave Japan with the brutality displayed by Sachiko toward her own daughter. Brutality is not part of Etsuko's docile, self-effacing, well-behaved persona—the traditional persona for a Japanese woman of her generation. Even when she was young it was already so much a part of her that she was unable to see how unhappy she was in her role of Japanese wife, or why she could not get through to Mariko. She wanted very much to help the child, but only to become a well-behaved little Japanese girl; and the only method she could think of was to offer her trivial distractions from her obsessions and her misery.

Ishiguro puts across Etsuko's inadequacy behind her back, as it were, even though he does it in her own quiet, resigned, but very faintly smug voice. Her mask never slips: it faces inward as well as outward, blinding her with self-deception. Masks are what Ishiguro's novels are about, and he himself always chooses the mask of a first-person narrator. All the narrators are sedate and formal people so he never needs to drop into any kind of vulgar slang or colloquialism, and hardly to change gear when he allows them to call up a landscape or an atmosphere. Descriptions are as factual and plain as a Morandi still life, but they exude powerful moods and mostly sad ones: nostalgia, regret, resignation.

Just as Etsuko's disapproval of Sachiko in the past and Niki in the present seeps out from under her mask, so does Ishiguro's disapproval of Etsuko herself. The tension of the novel depends on the gradual revelation, clue by clue, of how misguided her behavior has been throughout her life. Ishiguro uses this detective-fiction format in all his novels and with cunning. The narrator is always blind, a well-intentioned person in good standing with him—or herself when the story begins. The degree of insight and disillusion they attain, the shame and remorse they suffer varies from novel to novel. They never go unpunished, though. Ishiguro is severe, vindictive sometimes; but then he is also very good at compelling the reader's pity, sometimes with positively Dickensian pressure.

A Pale View of Hills is about private guilt, but it has a small subplot about public guilt as well. Etsuko's first father-in-law is a retired teacher, proud of his old pupils and what he did for them. What he did for them was to imbue them with imperialist values and spur them on to die in a patriotic war. In postwar Nagasaki these ideas are discredited. The old man is attacked in print by one of his former pupils, and treated with contempt by his son, and even by Etsuko.

In the second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, the teacher of discredited values is the narrator and main character. Mr. Ono is a retired painter and art master, and as in A Pale View of Hills, the story bobs about between reminiscences of different periods of the hero's life. Not that Mr. Ono is a hero: in fact, he is the least admirable and sympathetic of Ishiguro's chief characters, an opportunist and timeserver, adapting his views and even his artistic style to the party in power. So it comes that in the Thirties he deserts his first, westernizing master of painting for the strict, old-fashioned style and patriotic content of the imperialist, propaganda art.

An Artist of the Floating World shows the traditional Japanese atelier system of art training in operation. The pupils all work in the master's studio; in this case they even live together in his villa. The arrangement is charming and convivial up to a point: but there is a lot of unkind teasing, ostracizing, and jockeying for position. Still, the students develop a mutual sense of loyalty, especially toward the master, far more intense than loyalties bred on a Western campus. So Ono's breakaway is seen as a betrayal, and causes much pain.

Worse still, he denounces a dissident colleague to the police, but he remains able to persuade himself that all his apparent disloyalties spring from the best of motives—in this case concern for the future of Japan. His own favorite creation is a painting of boys arming for war while politicians debate; he calls it Complacency. The title would fit the novel itself: It is a wry and funny novel, with the comedy springing from Ono's impregnable self-regard in the face of every kind of humiliation.

The plot hinges on the difficulty of getting Ono's younger daughter married. One match has already fallen through, and delicate negotiations are in progress to arrange another. Ono's daughters persuaded him that the first attempt failed because of his political past. So during the traditional miai—a dinner arranged by the marriage broker to bring the families together—Ono takes it upon himself to confess that he made political mistakes. Everyone is terribly embarrassed, except for Ono, who manages to extend his complacency to being proud of his courageous admission. The marriage takes place, but the irony is that it does not depend on Ono's admission at all. The bridegroom's family, and Ono's family too, consider him much too unimportant for his political record to be of any consequence. But even when his eight-year-old grandson begins to patronize him, his smugness is unshaken, his optimism undiminished. The little macho grandson is a beguiling comic portrait, and the novel as a whole is highly enjoyable, especially for the author's delicate duplicity toward his hero.

It could be called a comedy—just. Ishiguro's third book, The Remains of the Day, is a tragedy in comedy form, both played to the hilt: it is more harrowing than the first book, more broadly funny than the second, but in spite of having recently won the Booker Prize in London, it has more flaws than the others and seems more naive. This time Ishiguro impersonates an aging English butler—one can't help seeing the work as a performance, an act put on with dazzling daring and aplomb. The chronological template is the same as before: from a Fifties present Mr. Stevens recalls the Twenties and Thirties, when he worked for Lord Darlington.

Ishiguro gives a virtuoso performance, telling the story in the old man's pompous, deferential voice. A Japanese soul (or at any rate Ishiguro's critical version of the Japanese soul) could not have chosen a better body to transmigrate into than Stevens's: the butler runs on loyalty, devotion, propriety, and pride in his profession, and after much rumination he decides that the most important quality for a great butler—which his father was and he aspires to be—is dignity. He arrives at this conclusion during a meeting of the Hayes Society, a group of upper-echelon butlers who meet to discuss the finer points of their "profession" with other "professionals."

Sometimes the ghost of P.G. Wodehouse gets into the works. It causes havoc when Stevens tries to carry out instructions to explain the facts of life to Lord Darlington's godson, a young man who has just become engaged to be married. Stevens never gets very far because he keeps being interrupted by the demands of the French foreign secretary, who is staying in the house and wants him to attend to the blisters he got from too much sightseeing. The episode is about as convincing as a country house charade.

While it is going on, Steven's old father lies dying upstairs. Too frail to go on as head butler in his old post, he has joined Lord Darlington's household as second butler, serving under his own son. Their relations are strictly "professional," without intimacy or warmth. One day the old man falls with a trayful of tea things: he has had his first stroke. His duties are curtailed until all he is allowed to do is push a trolley. The second and final stroke comes on during an important house party: Stevens is too busy with the guests to be with his father when he dies. He just carries on:

If you consider the pressures contingent on me that night, you may not think I delude myself unduly if I go so far as to suggest that I did perhaps display, in the face of everything, at least in some modest degree a "dignity" worthy of someone like Mr. Marshall [a model "great" butler]—or come to that, my father.

Ishiguro specializes in the humiliations and sorrows of old age, and I found old Stevens's end as afflicting as Dickens's readers found the deathbed scene of Jo the crossing-sweeper boy.

Stevens sacrifices to his profession not only filial affection, but his own prospect of happiness. Miss Kenton joins the household as housekeeper. She is almost impeccable, and we watch Stevens becoming obsessed with her. Their relationship is prickly: if porcupines had a mating dance it would be like this. Still, the edgy repartee is the nearest thing to a love scene in any of Ishiguro's novels, and there has been no sex at all so far—Miss Kenton makes overtures, Stevens pretends not to notice, and when he hears her sobbing in her room, he pretends he may have been mistaken. "Why, Mr. Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?" she says, and makes a loveless match with another man.

Lord Darlington, in Stevens's eyes, is the truly distinguished employer a butler has to have in order to be a truly distinguished butler. He is an eminence grise in British politics: his house parties are arranged to further certain causes, and Stevens is convinced that by helping to make the arrangements perfect he is serving not only a great man but his country as well. There is a problem about Lord Darlington though: we watch him develop from a chivalrous critic of the Versailles Treaty into a Nazi sympathizer. Admirers of Hitler gather at Darlington Hall: Her von Ribbentrop is among the guests: an Anglo-German alliance is being plotted.

After the war Lord Darlington dies, discredited and broken, but Stevens's loyalty to his memory is unshaken. Darlington Hall has been taken over by an American, and Stevens with it, an authentic English butler to go with the authentic Chippendale. Mr. Farraday's genial style is very different from Lord Darlington's hauteur, and the novel opens with Stevens resolving to learn how to banter, since Mr. Farraday's seems to expect bantering from him. It is a move in the direction of democracy, and Stevens is proud of his own progressive attitude in making it. When Mr. Farraday takes a holiday he encourages Stevens to do the same. It will be Stevens's first, and Mr. Farraday lends him a car.

Stevens motors sedately towards Cornwall, where the former Miss Kenton has settled. A letter telling him that she has left her husband has given him an inspiration: she might consider returning to Darlington Hall, where an extra pair of capable hands would not come amiss. Stevens manages to have trouble with his engine, run out of petrol, lose his way. These mishaps may symbolize his incompetence in the face of real life, but they themselves are much less competently handled than the rest of the book. Stevens encounters specimens of ordinary, warm-hearted, decent humanity; each one is an argument for spontaneity, openness, and democracy, and against Japaneseness. They are wooden and implausible, but not as implausible as the sacked maids we read about earlier on: Ishiguro wants us to believe that in the early Thirties there were two Jewish maids on the Darlington Hall staff, and that Lord Darlington instructed Stevens to sack them (he did, of course). I would be prepared to bet that before the arrival of the first German refugees no Jewish maid had ever been seen in an English country house: not for anti-Semitic reasons, but because Jews didn't go in for domestic service. Still, this is Ishiguro's only gross sociological error.

When Stevens finally has his rendezvous with the former Miss Kenton over tea in his hotel, it turns out that she has made it up with her husband.

It took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover, as you might appreciate, their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed—why should I not admit it?—at that moment, my heart was breaking.

On the homeward journey Stevens breaks down and bursts into tears while defending Lord Darlington to yet another person he happens to meet:

He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship's wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can't even say I made my own mistakes. Really—one has to ask oneself—what dignity is there in that?

Still, he pulls himself together and returns to the pursuit of perfect butlering.

It occurs to me, furthermore, that bantering is hardly an unreasonable duty for an employer to expect a professional to perform. I have of course already devoted much time to developing my bantering skills, but it is possible I have never previously approached the task with the commitment I might have done.

The end is touching, but all the same, The Remains of the Day is too much a roman à thèse, and a judgmental one besides. Compared to his astounding narrative sophistication, Ishiguro's message seems quite banal: Be less Japanese, less bent on dignity, less false to yourself and others, less restrained and controlled. The irony is that it is precisely Ishiguro's beautiful restraint and control that one admires, and, in the case of the last novel, his nerve in setting up such a high-wire act for himself.

Hermione Lee (review date 22 January 1990)

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SOURCE: Hermione Lee, "Quiet Desolation," in New Republic, January 22, 1990, pp. 36-9.

[In the review below, Lee discusses the relative influence of Japanese and English culture on Ishiguro's first three novels.]

On the strength of three dazzling short novels, Kazuo Ishiguro is now, at 35, a famous prize-winning writer in Britain. (Hardly anyone in America had heard of him until this year, but that's changing.) Still, I notice that people are always getting the titles of his books slightly wrong. Is it A Pale View of the Hills? The Artist of the Floating World, or Artist of the Floating World, or The Artist of a Floating World? The Remains of the Day sometimes loses its first definite article. Like all slight but persistent mistakes—Ishiguro's characters are much given to them—these are symptomatic slips.

For Ishiguro's titles do indeed contain evasive articles. "An" artist (unlike Joyce's definitive portrait of "the" artist) is open to amendment and uncertainty, and the floating world he portrays, and betrays, is "transient, illusory." It's not "the hills," but "hills"—some, where?—and it's not they that are pale, but the view of them, as if paleness were a quality of the haunted, ghostly viewer, who describes herself as having "spent many moments—as I was to do throughout succeeding years—gazing emptily at the view from my apartment window … a pale outline of hills … not an unpleasant view." The "remains" are ambiguous, too: Are they waste, ruins, leftovers, or are they what is salvaged? Is this a metaphorical day, as in "our day is done," or is it "a day in the life"?

The titles hover on the borders of allegory. The openings of the three novels give off a similarly puzzling and contingent air:

Niki, 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. He finally agreed to Niki, thinking it had some vague echo of the East about it.

                                  [A Pale View of Hills]

If on a sunny day you climb the steep path leading up from the little wooden bridge still referred to around here as "the Bridge of Hesitation," you will not have to walk far before the roof of my house becomes visible between the tops of two gingko trees. Even if it did not occupy such a commanding position on the hill, the house would still stand out from all others nearby, so that as you come up the path, you may find yourself wondering what sort of wealthy man owns it.

But then I am not, nor have I ever been, a wealthy man.

                     [An Artist of the Floating World]

It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.

                           [The Remains of the Day]

All three speakers introduce themselves by way of fine distinctions between appearances and actuality, intentions and achievements. The effect is punctilious but cryptic. All three demur from the positive: the apparent nickname, the commanding house, the preoccupying journey are not straight-forwardly arrived at. Something is being denied or held off. The artist's invitation into his floating world is itself a "bridge of hesitation," picking its way through hypotheses, negatives, qualifiers, so that "you may find yourself wondering" about the status, the emotions, and the reliability of the narrator. The opening of A Pale View of Hills names "compromise" and "paradox" as its subjects, and tells us that a short name—like a short novel—need not be an "abbreviation" of these subjects, a lightweight version of something larger, but may be a very exact expression of them. And the "confession" of the third narrator immediately induces uncertainty ("seems"? "likely"? "really will"? What is the problem, what is he not telling us yet?), not least because of its peculiar formality, its air of being written in translation.

Part of Ishiguro's appeal is the novelty he seems to provide of a "translation," a little bridge, between Japanese culture and English writing. But the abbreviation at the start of the first novel sets up the paradoxes here. The Japanese-looking name is actually a mixed product of the narrator's desire to get away from Japan to England, and of her husband's romantic attraction (like the attraction some of Ishiguro's Western readers feel?) to "an echo of the East." What looks to a Western reader like a Japanese text may have a Western content for an Oriental reader. Ishiguro was born of Japanese parents in Nagasaki in 1954, but they came to England when he was only six, and he has only once gone back. So far he has made three variants of his translated identity. A Pale View of Hills poises itself between England and Japan, An Artist of the Floating World is set entirely in Japan, The Remains of the Day entirely in England.

A Pale View of Hills is told by Etsuko, a Japanese widow living alone in an English village, haunted by two layers of memory, which are hesitantly and evasively broached. The more recent retrospect is on the visit of her younger daughter, Niki, the entirely Westernized daughter of an English father. The visit follows the suicide of Etsuko's older daughter, Keiko, Niki's half-sister, who had left home some years before in a state of very serious depression, and was found hanging in her rented room. After leaving her first husband, a conventional Japanese businessman, Etsuko brought Keiko to England when she was seven. She approaches her unacknowledged guilt about what she may have done to her older daughter indirectly, by way of her more distant memories of a hot post-war summer in Nagasaki, when she was pregnant with Keiko.

In a surreal landscape of new apartments built over a wasteland of destruction, Etsuko remembers that summer's friendship with a single woman—a rather dubious, louche character—and her daughter. The woman, Sachiko, is waiting to be taken away from Japan by her American lover; her daughter, Mariko, a disturbed little girl, resents the lover, fastens all her affection on her cats, and is haunted by the sight of a woman drowning her child in the nightmare of wartime Tokyo. Child-murders and suicides push into the edges of the narrative. Sachiko drowns the cats; Mariko—possibly—kills herself. These images of despair are crosscut against older figures who are surviving out of total loss and destruction: the woman who runs a noodle shop and whose children were killed by the bomb; Etsuko's father-in-law, a well-intentioned retired teacher, who laments the lost spirit of Japan and is discredited by the next generation for doing what he thought was right.

In An Artist of the Floating World, that figure of the discredited old teacher becomes central. Masuji Ono, a "retired" painter whose life encapsulates, though he doesn't quite realize it, the history of 20th-century Japan, narrates his story piecemeal, with Ishiguro's characteristic strategies of pauses, repetitions, and slow accumulations of a half-admitted past. The "action"—it takes place in 1948 and 1949, in an unnamed but eloquently rendered Tokyo—is (as in all these novels) of a visit. Ono's married daughter comes with her little boy, Ichiro, to discuss wedding plans for her sister, whose previous attempts at marriage have been sabotaged, it seems, by Ono's postwar reputation.

As the difficult old man and the belligerent little boy establish a tender and funny relationship (Ishiguro writes extremely well about children), we begin to gather the salient facts: that his son and his wife have been killed in the war, that an old friend and mentor, Matsuda, is dying, that his patriotic work for the Empire ("artist and member of the Cultural Committee of the Interior Department") is now dismissed as a negligible ingredient in the dishonored past. As his grandson puts it, brutally: "Father said you had to finish. Because Japan lost the war."

Gradually, reluctantly, the old man's memory tracks back through an unsettling mist of self-deception. The story is of a series of bold moves for advancement. As a young man he defied a traditional, authoritarian father to become a painter, going to the big city in 1913 to work for a commercial artist's studio, where they turned out "Japanese"-looking geishas and cherry trees for foreign consumption. He left this trade for the studio of a distinguished painter, Moriyama, described as a kind of Japanese Degas, his subject the "floating world" of erotic beauty, the courtesans and pavilions and parties of a way of life that, like the old "pleasure districts" of the city, have been wiped out by the war.

Ono betrays his master, moving with the times (under the influence of the pragmatic Matsuda) from "escapist" romantic art to relevant social realism, and then, in the 1930s, to imperialist propaganda. (This is nicely illustrated by his reworking of a satirical painting of Japanese society, Complacency, which he turns into an advertisement for militant nationalism and retitles Eyes to the Horizon, with the caption "Japan must go forward.") Ono's opportunism (like the actor-manager in Mephisto) involves the betrayal of a friend and pupil for decadence and lack of patriotic spirit. It is a betrayal that haunts him. We are made to see, though—and it's the novel's most painful and delicate operation, as well as a form of comedy—that he has not been an evil or a dangerous man, only inadequate. As the dying Matsuda says to him:

There's no need to blame ourselves unduly…. We at least acted on what we believed and did our utmost. It's just that in the end we turned out to be ordinary men. Ordinary men with no special gifts of insight. It was simply our misfortune to have been ordinary men during such times.

Still, Ono does blame himself unduly. Like the writers of patriotic songs and the political leaders who are making their public apologies after the war by killing themselves (and this may be what Ono is about to do), he has internalized the country's shame, and is "floating" without the ballast of his self-esteem. What sounds at first like a carefully controlled voice turns out to be a man desperately trying to hold together his sense of himself.

Like all true novelists, Ishiguro is obsessional; and The Remains of the Day reworks his obsession with false control and self-deception. The novel is an extraordinary act of mimicry, an impeccably professional miming of the thoughts of an impeccable professional. There are close similarities with An Artist of the Floating World. Like Ono, the English butler Stevens has committed his life to an ideal of service, an ideal that is repeatedly analyzed in the course of his narrative. One of the pleasures of the book is that his profession is such an unlikely subject for a novel. Butlers in British fiction are a joke, associated with The Importance of Being Earnest, Jeeves, country-house thrillers, and "What the Butler Saw." Ishiguro's cunning is to invoke these associations—Stevens, after all, is a comic figure, pompous, funny, antiquated, and obtuse—and turn them to serious ends.

Stevens's burning question—we are asked to imagine it debated in the servants' halls in rather the way Japanese art students discuss the future of Japanese art—is, What makes a great butler? It seems a ludicrously quaint question to put at the center of a contemporary novel. But the debate, characteristically hovering on the edge of allegory, comes to be read, in part, as an analysis of "ordinary" people's political responsibilities.

Our butler has inherited from his father a belief that "greatness" in his profession consists not just of unflawed professional excellence, but of three deeper qualities: "dignity," either innate or acquired through "years of self-training and the careful absorbing of experience"; a life of service dedicated to "a great gentlemen" and through him to "humanity"; and, above all, the total "inhabiting" of the role, a professional being to be worn like a suit of clothes, not a "façade" or a "pantomime."

Like Ono's artistic creation, the butler's ideal of service is defined as a form of patriotism. No country but England has great butlers. And, like Ono's, his patriotism is entirely discredited by the end. Steven's "great gentleman," Lord Darlington, proves to have been a well-meaning but disastrous meddler in Anglo-German relations between the wars, a critic of the Versailles Treaty who became a dupe of the Nazis. Their ruthless "professionalism" gives another meaning to the word, and exposes it as a dangerous and dubious standard for living. Stevens's lifetime of commitment to Darlington (whose name has been as disgraced as the prewar Japanese leaders, as disgraced as Mosley) has involved getting rid of Jewish housemaids, waiting on von Ribbentrop, listening in on debates over the futility of democracy.

Now, in July 1956, the summer of the Suez crisis (like the bombing of Nagasaki in the earlier novel, it is not directly mentioned), Darlington Hall has been bought by a rich American. (Like England? Like Japan?) Stevens is a part of his new master's investment in a piece of authentic old England. He has been allowed out for a motoring trip, which is also a quest journey, through southwest England. On his quest, he encounters some rather artificial-sounding villagers, who discuss, inconclusively, the rights of ordinary British citizens.

Set at the terminal point of British imperialism, and, perhaps, of ordinary English people's faith in their leaders, The Remains of the Day reveals the vulnerability of societies based on traditional hierarchies and habits of trust. Stevens's bewildered, pathetic argument for the innocence of loyalty could apply to all who assume that those in authority are to be relied on:

One is simply accepting an inescapable truth: that the likes of you and I will never be in a position to comprehend the great affairs of today's world, and our best course will always be to put our trust in an employer we judge to be wise and honorable, and to devote our energies to the task of serving him to the best of our ability…. It is hardly my fault if his lordship's life and work have turned out today to look, at best, a sad waste—and it is quite illogical that I should feel any regret or shame on my own account.

Thus far, The Remains of the Day replays the themes of An Artist of the Floating World, with less complexity and less historical inwardness. There could be grounds for saying that, like an inferior butler whose role keeps slipping, it is only "pretending" to be an English novel. Really it's a Japanese one in disguise, and our formal, archaic butler is standing in for the classic Japanese figure of the ronin, the faithful servant left without a master. Certainly Ishiguro does invoke such Japanese items: Sachiko is a version of Madame Butterfly, and Ono speaks of gathering his men like an old warlord. In all three novels there is an un-English insistence on the link between paternal inheritance and honor. Ono's encouragement of his grandson's juvenile machismo is echoed in The Remains of the Day. Stevens's best example of "greatness" is his own father, flawlessly attentive to a general whose incompetence in the Boer War was directly responsible for the futile death of his older son, Stevens's lost brother. (He is one of several lost siblings who haunt Ishiguro's novels.) And Stevens is extremely proud of having been so committed to Lord Darlington's service that he was unable to be present at his own father's death.

The appalling paternal legacy of repression and stultification suggests not a "Japanese" novel dressed in transparent English clothes, but a novel whose crucial subject is something other—something more—than a political inquiry into habits of service. The Remains of the Day, unlike Ishiguro's other novels, is a love story. Stevens's country drive is in quest of the ex-housekeeper, Miss Kenton, who left the Hall some years before to get married, but whose letters have suggested that she may be unhappy. Stevens, as his father once did, is beginning to make mistakes in his work; he has too much to look after. Perhaps Miss Kenton—no, Mrs. Benn—might be persuaded to return? Through the refusals of feeling in Stevens's voice, we understand that she once tried to penetrate the "pretence" he "inhabits," to get through to the private self he is so committed to concealing. After their reunion, as his day closes, Stevens at last realizes what he has refused: his life itself, his only chance.

Since what has been suppressed is the true story, the cauterized narrative voice through which we read the suppressions is constantly stopping, going around, repeating itself, picking its way through a landscape of lost opportunities and stifled emotions:

But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such a moment turned out differently? One could presumably drive oneself to distraction in this way. In any case, while it is all very well to talk of "turning points," one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one's life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one's relationship with Miss Kenton: an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.

"Such evidently small incidents" are rendered with heartbreaking quietness. In one of these, Stevens and Miss Kenton look out the twilit gardens of the Hall, to see Stevens's old father, who has just humiliatingly tripped (with a full tea-tray) on the steps up to the summer-house, going up and down them in the dusk, trying to memorize them. Ishiguro can make such small incidents seem catastrophic. They take place in a dark landscape, often foggy or dusky, vaguely invoking regret and remorse. So, at the end of the novel, Stevens sits on Weymouth Pier, watching the lights come on and the crowds go by, weeping in the dark on his "bench of desolation."

Ishiguro often reminds me, as there, of Henry James, especially of Lambert Strether, urging others to take the second chance he never had: "Live all you can…. It's a mistake not to." To accuse Ishiguro of costive, elegant minimalism is to miss the deep sadness, the boundless melancholy that opens out, like the "deserts of vast eternity" his characters are reluctantly contemplating, under the immaculate surface.

Kazuo Ishiguro with Allan Vorda and Kim Herzinger (interview date 2 April 1990)

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 11516

SOURCE: "Stuck on the Margins: An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro," in Face to Face: Interviews with Contemporary Novelists, edited by Allan Vorda, Rice University Press, 1993, pp. 1-35.

[In the following interview, which was conducted on April 2, 1990, Ishiguro discusses Japanese and British culture, perceptions of himself in each country, and how these perceptions have helped and hindered his career as a writer. Questions are posed by Vorda unless otherwise noted.]

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954, and emigrated to Britain in 1960. He attended the University of Kent at Canterbury and received an M.A. in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. In 1982 he was included in the original "Best of Young British Novelists" after having become a British citizen earlier that year. He is the author of three novels, and each has received a literary award: A Pale View of Hills was awarded the Winifred Holtby Prize by the Royal Society of Literature in 1982; An Artist of the Floating World won the 1986 Whitbread Book of the Year Award; and The Remains of the Day won the Booker Prize in 1989, Britain's top literary award. He currently lives in London with his wife, Lorna MacDougall, and their daughter.

The interview with Kazuo Ishiguro occurred on April 2, 1990, in Houston, where the author was a guest of the Houston International Festival. (Additional questions were provided by Kim Herzinger of the Mississippi Review.) Originally, we were to conduct the interview in his hotel downtown, but when I arrived Ishiguro seemed restless. Courteously, he asked if the interview could be conducted somewhere else, since he had been cooped up in his hotel for three days. We drove to my house in Sugarland, a sprawling suburb southwest of Houston, and conducted the interview in the kitchen, with Ishiguro talking and sipping ice water. As we talked, I studied his face with its broad Oriental planes and features and listened to his very clipped British accent, a startling juxtaposition—at first. During the course of the interview, I came to realize that this was an extraordinary young writer with a tremendous understanding of his craft. At the end of the interview, Ishiguro asked if we could have a late lunch of Mexican food since he never could find it in England.

[Herzinger]: Last year, just before you went back to Japan for the first time since you left at the age of six, you were somewhat worried that the Japanese would expect you to know a great deal more about the culture and the country than you actually did. Were your fears realized?

[Ishiguro]: Not really. It's partly because they knew I was coming. I had a very kind of closeted journey to Japan. I was invited by the Japan Foundation, which is part of the government, so there was always an escort hanging around. In fact, there was far more media interest in me than I had anticipated. I caused a great stir in the press—not because they were particularly interested in me as a literary figure—but because I touched a strange nerve from the social aspect. Japan is, at the moment and perhaps for the first time, facing the idea that they cannot remain a homogeneous society.

This question about immigrants from Southeast Asia as well as a greater number of Western people living in Japan has started up a process. They now have to start thinking about what it means to be Japanese and what sort of country Japan might be. This has suddenly become a live-wire issue. This idea that somebody who is racially Japanese and looks very Japanese could go to England and have lost his Japaneseness in some ways is at the same time fascinating and I think rather threatening. So there was all this interest in what kind of person I was and what messages I could bring and what the West thought about Japan. They somehow thought that I was somebody they could actually ask. So I found myself put in that sort of false territory there.

I was on TV and I did a lot of interviews and things—but very rarely about literature. There were always these questions about what do people think of Japan and what did I think of Japan.

[Vorda]: Did you respond in Japanese?

No, I spoke English all the time and I was advised to do so. Really just to avoid this confusion—that was my way of saying I'm not a regular Japanese guy. My Japanese isn't good enough anyway to speak correctly. I could make myself understood, but in Japan that is not enough. There are about seven or eight different ways to say the same thing depending on how you perceive the status of the person you are speaking to, vis-à-vis yourself. To get this kind of thing even slightly wrong produces tremendous offense. It's terribly hierarchy-conscious society, although, in a curious way, it is a classless society. It means people aren't worrying about whether they are upper class or middle class or working class. They are worrying about what number they are on the ladder.

Did the people there like the answers you gave them, or did your answers increase their xenophobia?

I avoided giving any clear-cut answers, but I think just my very being is a kind of embodiment of the whole issue.

A lot of Japanese are starting to properly travel for the first time, and by this I don't mean just as tourists. Business and international trade means that they are spending more time abroad. Of course, they have children who are growing up abroad. This is something that some people say is good and others say is horrifying because their Japaneseness is going to become dissipated. The fear is that these people and their children will come back to Japan having lost something, such as eating with chopsticks, which is part of the cultural tradition.

A lot of the younger Japanese, particularly in Tokyo, know very little about things that people in the West consider to be traditionally Japanese. They don't even know how to put on the kimono. (I suppose I would be a good example since I don't know.) If you do it the wrong way around—the left on the inside or the right on the outside or whichever way it is—it's a terrible blunder because one way you only do to a corpse; living people have it the other way, and I never can remember which way it is. But what was interesting is a lot of the young Japanese don't know because they don't wear kimonos and they don't know a lot of the basic things. The younger kids, particularly in Tokyo, are kind of like Western kids in that sense. It is a kind of baffling, weird thing from a bygone era.

They also eat meat all the time. I was shocked at how tall they were as well. Anyone under thirty is six or seven inches taller on average than anyone over thirty. This is partly due to eating American junk food, so, of course, they may not live as long.

The older Japanese are small, but they live a long time. I think they still have the longest life expectancy in the industrialized world, although sometimes the Scandinavian countries compete in this area.

Thus, the whole trip was interesting and I think it's the way the world is going now since we're becoming much more international. America has always had this melting pot reputation, and now Britain has to face up to the question of multiculturalism. The Japanese are beginning to realize it's going to be their turn since Japan is the last large industrialized country that hasn't yet faced this problem.

You stated in the New York Times Book Review that, "Publicity for me has to a large extent been fighting the urge to be stereotyped by people." Do you think the stereotyping is due to your ethnicity and to the fact that your first two novels were set in Japan?

There is a kind of paradox about my books being set in Japan and whether this stereotypes me or not. In Britain, around the time when I published my first novel, the climate had actually turned toward a great deal of interest in writers who wrote books set in that particular setting. I think there was a very peculiar thing going on in Great Britain at that time. I tend to think if I didn't have a Japanese name and if I hadn't written books at that stage set in Japan, it would have taken me years longer to get the kind of attention and sales that I got in England with my first two books. What happened in Britain, certainly during the time when I was at university, contemporary fiction was, I won't say dead, but it seemed to be the preserve of a very small strata of a very small British society. We all had this image of contemporary British novels being written by middle-aged women for middle-aged middle-class women.

Some of them are good and some of them are appalling, but that wasn't one of the exciting things that was happening when I was growing up. Anyone interested in the creative arts was interested in theater. There was a whole explosion with a kind of radical theater. Rock music, cinema, and even television—because we have quite serious arts television in Great Britain—were the kind of things that everyone was talking about while the novel had a kind of sleepy, provincial, cozy, inward-looking kind of image and no one was interested in it.

Around 1979 and 1980 things changed very rapidly. There was a whole new generation of publishers and a whole new generation of journalists who came of age at that time, and they desperately wanted to find a new generation of writers to rediscover the British novel. I think there was something wider going on in English society at that time, too. There was an awareness that Britain was a more international place, a more cosmopolitan place, but it wasn't the center of the world. It was kind of a slightly peripheral, albeit still quite wealthy, country. It started to be aware of its place within the context of the whole international scene. In the early 1980s there was an explosion of tremendous interest in literature that suddenly appeared almost overnight. This occurred in foreign-language literature with people like Garcia Márquez, Milan Kundera, and Mario Vargas Llosa, who became very trendy people. At the same time, there was a whole generation of younger British writers who often had racial backgrounds that were not the typical white Anglo-Saxon. Even some of the "straight" English writers were also using settings or themes that tend to be international or historical. So there definitely was this atmosphere where people were looking for this young, exotic—although exotic may be somewhat of an unkind word—writer with an international flavor. I was very fortunate to have come along at exactly the right time. It was one of the few times in the recent history of British arts in which it was an actual plus to have a funny foreign name and to be writing about funny foreign places. The British were suddenly congratulating themselves for having lost their provincialism at last.

The big milestone was the Booker Prize going to Salman Rushdie in 1981 for Midnight's Children. He previously had been a completely unknown writer. That was a real symbolic moment, and then everyone was suddenly looking for other Rushdies. It so happened that around this time I brought out A Pale View of Hills. Usually first novels disappear, as you know, without a trace. Yet I received a lot of attention, got lots of coverage, and did a lot of interviews. I know why this was. It was because I had this Japanese face and this Japanese name and it was what was being covered at the time.

I tend to think I got a very easy ride from the critics. I subsequently have won literary prizes with each book, which is very important in Britain, career-wise. It's one of the things that help you climb the ladder. All these things sort of happened to me, and I think it greatly helped that I was identified as this kind of person.

Yet, after a while, this became very restricting, and the very things that helped me in the first place started to frustrate me as an artist and as a serious writer. I don't want to be confined by these things even though they were quite helpful publicity-wise.

[Herzinger]: In Britain there is a rather large community of extremely important and active writers who come from, or often write about, cultures quite different from the English, Irish, Scottish, and Welsh. I'm thinking of V. S. Naipaul, Salman Rushdie, William Body, Lisa St. Aubin de Teran, Doris Lessing, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, and even Americans like Paul Theroux, David Plante, and Russell Hoban. Do you find yourself grouped with them often? Do you mind it? Do you resist it? Do you think such a grouping is of any use in coming to grips with your work?

Like any writer, I resist being put in a group. The group you mentioned there is quite an eclectic one. I'm usually put in a much more narrow group—usually with Rushdie and a writer called Timothy Mo, who probably isn't that well known in America.

He's a Chinese-British writer who is quite prominent in Britain and has been nominated for the Booker Prize twice. He hasn't won it yet.

I write so differently than someone like Rushdie. My style is almost the antithesis of Rushdie's or Mo's. Their writing tends to have these quirks where it explodes in all kinds of directions. Rushdie's language always seems to be reaching out—to express meaning that can't usually be expressed through normal language. Just structurally his books have this terrific energy. They just grow in every direction at once, and he doesn't particularly care if the branches lead nowhere. He'll let it grow anyway and leave it there, And that's the way he writes. I think he is a powerful and considerable writer.

I respect Rushdie's writing enormously, but as a writer I think I'm almost the antithesis. The language I use tends to be the sort that actually suppresses meaning and tries to hide away meaning rather than chase after something just beyond the reach of words. I'm interested in the way words hide meaning. I suppose I like to have a spare, tight structure because I don't like to have this improvised feeling remain in my work. From a literary point of view, I can't see anything that links me with someone like Salman Rushdie or Timothy Mo.

If we can generalize at all about these writers, I think there is something that unites most of the writers that you have mentioned, especially the younger writers of Britain at the moment. There is something different about them, if you compare that group with the older generation of writers of Britain. The one possible, valid thing that unites the younger group is the consciousness that Britain is not the center of the universe. There was a time when Britain thought it had this dominant role in the world for a long time, that Britain thought it was the head of this huge empire. I think for a long time it was supposed you could just write about British issues and about British life and it would automatically be of global significance, since people all around the world would be interested. British writers didn't have to consciously start thinking about the interests of people outside Britain, because whatever concerned them was, by definition, of international interest.

I think there was this gray period—because literary habits take a long time to die—before the British finally, both intellectually and consciously, had accepted that the empire had gone. No longer did they have this dominant, central place in the world to go to anymore. I think perhaps the styles of writing and the assumptions of writing took a while to catch up with that, and I think this was rather a dull period in English writing. The writers were writing things in which nobody was interested, since it meant nothing to anyone outside of Britain; yet, they carried on with the assumption that Britain was the center of the world. In fact, it was this that turned it into this provincial little country.

I think the younger generation of writers not only realized that, but are now suffering from a kind of inferiority complex. There's great sense that the front line where the great clashes of ideologies were happening was elsewhere. So whether you are looking at communism and capitalism clashing or the Third World and the industrialized world clashing or whatever it is—people have this idea if you're actually based in Britain and British life is what you know—then you have to make some sort of leap. Either you go out there physically and start searching around as V.S. Naipaul and Paul Theroux did, or you have to use your imagination. It's much more normal for the younger generation of British writers, and, apart from the people you mentioned, I would also include Julian Barnes and Ian McEwan, that they will very often not write books in the contemporary British setting they live in. They will search far and wide in their imaginations for mythical settings or historical settings. For example, McEwan's novel The Innocent is set in the Cold War period of Berlin. This is not atypical of the differences that separate the younger generation from the older generation of writers.

[Herzinger]: Americans like to believe that English language literature somehow became theirs after World War II. We pay some lip service to Greene, Golding, Lessing, Amis, Fowles, Larkin, Heaney, Hughes, Powell, Murdoch, and the rest, but not much. In fact, I would say that Americans half feel that English literature never quite recovered from the deaths of Joyce and Woolf and the war itself. How do you see yourself, and other young contemporary British writers, in terms of the twentieth-century tradition of British writing?

What I just said previously raises questions about style and technique as well as setting and theme. If you happen to actually live in a country that you think won't actually provide a broad enough setting to address what you see as the really crucial issues of the age, that inevitably means you start moving away from straight realism.

If you happen to be, let's say, living in East Germany at the moment, perhaps there's no overwhelming reason to not write realism. I think there's a natural instinct to write realism. It takes much more to start thinking of other ways to write. It's when you are actually stuck on the margins. Then you start to become conscious that you are stuck on the margins and the things that you know intimately on that concrete, documentary level just won't do. Yet, on the other hand, you realize you won't have the same authority as someone who lives in Eastern Europe, or someone who lives in Africa, or the Soviet Union, or America to write about the places that you think are rather central to the things you would like to talk about. What can you do? You know about English life and the texture of English society, but it's something you feel you can't use that well. So you start to actually move away from realism. You have to start looking for other ways in which do work. I think here you start to move, not so much into out-and-out fantasy, but you start to create a slightly more fabulous world. You start to use the landscape that you do know in a metaphorical way. Or you start to create out-and-out fantastic landscapes. Perhaps Doris Lessing got caught up in that when she went off on her science fiction venture.

It may well be that Americans are going through some of the stages that British writers once went through because American society is today so central to the world community. What are the international themes that are of interest to everybody? In America there is no need to ask this question consciously. Americans are almost exempt from having to ask that question. Perhaps they shouldn't be. In any case, at this moment, I think people can write about American society and American life and it will be of interest to people in Kuala Lumpur or the Philippines because American culture has a broad appeal. It has gotten to the point that some people say American culture is invading or taking over everywhere you go in the world. Thus, a lot of people are trying to stop it, but a lot of people are bringing it in. It's very difficult to think of any point on the globe—or any society in the world today—where people shouldn't have a valued interest in American culture.

For the time being, just because of the way things are, I think American writers find themselves in this position—that they can write in a way that at other times might seem very inward-looking and parochial. Just by virtue of America's cultural position in the context of international culture, American writers are going to be relevant. So writers who haven't tried to be of great interest to people all over the world end up being so, sometimes precisely because they're so inward-looking and unconscious of the world beyond, and they reveal so much about where a lot of these influences are coming from. I think there was a time when British writers were in this position. Perhaps American writers need to be aware of a time when it will no longer be the case for them.

[Vorda]: Do you see your prose as participating in the more traditional, twentieth-century style of such writers as W. Somerset Maugham, E.M. Forster, Evelyn Waugh, and Joyce Cary?

Not really. Most of them I haven't even read. With The Remains of the Day it's like a pastiche where I've tried to create a mythical England. Sometimes it looks like or has the tone of a very English book, but actually I'm using that as a kind of shock tactic: this relatively young person with a Japanese name and a Japanese face who produces this extra-English novel or, perhaps I should say, a super-English novel. It's more English than English. Yet I think there's a big difference from the tones of the world in The Remains of the Day and the worlds created by those writers you mentioned because in my case there is an ironic distance.

Maybe I misread you somewhat. Are you saying that readers have to get past the realism in order to reach—as Barth or Borges or García Márquez have termed it—the irrealistic or fabulist world? This is more of your intent with The Remains of the Day than just writing a traditional British novel?

Absolutely. I think it's almost impossible now to write a kind of traditional British novel without being aware of the various ironies. The kind of England that I create in The Remains of the Day is not an England that I believe ever existed. I've not attempted to reproduce, in a historically accurate way, some past period. What I'm trying to do there, and I think this is perhaps much easier for British people to understand than perhaps people abroad, is to actually rework a particular myth about a certain kind of England. I think there is this very strong idea that exists in England at the moment, about an England where people lived in the not-so-distant past, that conformed to various stereotypical images. That is to say, an England with sleepy, beautiful villages with very polite people and butlers and people taking tea on the lawn.

Now, at the moment, particularly in Britain, there is an enormous nostalgia industry going on with coffee table books, television programs, and even some tour agencies who are trying to recapture this kind of old England. The mythical landscape of this sort of England, to a large degree, is harmless nostalgia for a time that didn't exist. The other side of this, however, is that it is used as a political tool—much as the American Western myth is used here. It's used as a way of bashing anybody who tries to spoil this Garden of Eden. This can be brought out by the left or right, but usually it is the political right who say England was this beautiful place before the trade unions tried to make it more egalitarian or before the immigrants started to come or before the promiscuous age of the '60s came and ruined everything. I actually think it is one of the important jobs of the novelist to actually tackle and rework myths. I think it's a very valid ground on which a novelist should do his work. I've deliberately created a world which at first resembles that of those writers such as P.G. Wodehouse. I then start to undermine this myth and use it in a slightly twisted and different way.

I was asking you earlier on, and this is a question I ask a lot of American people who know American literature, about the genre of the Western myth. It's always puzzled me that serious writers have not to a greater extent tried to rework that myth because it seems to me a nation's myth is the way a country dreams. It is part of the country's fabulized memory, and it seems to me to be a very valid task for the artist to try to figure out what that myth is and if they should actually rework or undermine that myth. It has happened in the cinema as far as the Western is concerned, but when I ask this question people don't seem to be able to offer many serious literary works that go into that area.

To a certain extent, I suppose I was trying to do a similar thing with the English myth. I'd have to say that my overall aim wasn't confined to British lessons for British people because it's a mythical landscape which is supposed to work at a metaphorical level. The Remains of the Day is a kind of parable. Yet this is a problem I've always had as a writer throughout my three books. I think if there is something I really struggle with as a writer, whenever I try to think of a new book, it is this whole question about how to make a particular setting actually take off into the realm of metaphor so that people don't think it is just about Japan or Britain. Because ultimately I'm not that interested in saying things about specific societies; and, if I were, I think I'd prefer to do it through nonfiction and follow all the proper disciplines such as to actually produce evidence and argument. I wouldn't do it by emotional manipulation.

Perhaps it is less interesting to do it through nonfiction because it is less imaginative. I guess that is one of the joys of writing fiction.

I think one of the joys of fiction is that you are actually saying things that are universal and not just about Great Britain or America or whatever. It can be about America or Britain, but I think when fiction really takes off it is because you can actually start to see how it is relevant to all other kinds of contexts and how there is a universal streak to these things. I always have this real problem because, on the one hand, you have to create the setting in your novel that feels firm enough, concrete enough, for people to be able to find their way around it. On the other hand, if you make it too concrete and too tied down to something that might exist in reality, that fictional work doesn't take off at that metaphorical level and people start saying, "Oh, that's what it was like in Japan at a certain time," or, "He's saying something about Britain in the 1930s." So, for me, it is something that I feel I haven't quite come to terms with yet, but I'm trying to find some territory, somewhere between straight realism and that kind of out-and-out fabulism, where I can create a world that isn't going to alienate or baffle readers in a way that a completely fantastic world would—but a world which, at the same time, can actually prompt readers to say that this isn't documentary or this isn't history or this isn't journalism. I'm asking you to look at this world that I've created as a reflection of a world that all kinds of people live in. It's the movement away from straight realism that is actually the real challenge. You get that wrong and you could lose everything, whereby no one identifies with your characters or they don't care what happens in this funny, weird, bizarre world. I just wanted to somehow move it away so it's just a couple of stages from straight realism in order to let it take off with that metaphorical level. I think I've come closer to doing that in The Remains of the Day than I did with the two Japanese novels, but I still feel this is a challenge I have to meet.

Your prose is a joy to read. For example, on page twenty-seven of The Remains of the Day you write: "I was then brought up to this room, in which, at that point of the day, the sun was lighting up the floral pattern of the wallpaper quite agreeably." And shortly thereafter, the butler Stevens thinks that the "greatness" of Britain paradoxically comes from "the lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart." Can the same analogy be made to your writing style?

When Stevens says that about the British landscape he is also saying something about himself. He thinks beauty and greatness lie in being able to be this kind of cold, frozen butler who isn't demonstrative and who hides emotions in much the way he's saying that the British landscape does with its surface calm: the ability to actually keep down turmoil and emotion. He thinks this is what gives both butlers and the British landscape beauty and dignity. And, of course, that viewpoint is the one that actually crumbles during the course of Stevens' journey.

To a large extent, when I wrote The Remains of the Day, that was the first time I started to become very conscious of my own style. And, of course, quite rightly, these references that Stevens makes are also a reference to my own style. I think what happened was this. My first two novels I just wrote these sentences without really thinking about style. I was just writing in what I thought was the clearest way possible. Then I started to read review after review which talked about my understated or clipped style. It was the reviewers and the critics who actually pointed this out to me—where my style seemed to be unusually calm with all this kind of strange turmoil expressed underneath the calm. I actually started to ask myself, "Where does this style come from then?" It's not something I consciously manufactured. I had to face the possibility that this was actually indeed something to do with me. It's my natural voice. In The Remains of the Day, for the first time, I started to question to what extent that was a good or bad thing from the human point of view regarding this whole business about the suppression of emotion.

Perhaps this was actually revealed by this style, by this inner voice, that I produced in my first two books. To a certain extent, The Remains of the Day actually tackles on a thematic level the implications of that kind of style. Of course, Stevens' first-person narrative is written in that style, but of course his whole life is led in that style. And in the book I try to explore to what extent it is indeed dignified and to what extent it is a form of cowardice—a way of actually hiding from what is perhaps the scariest arena in life, which is the emotional arena. It is the first book I've written in which I was actually conscious of my own style and to a certain extent tried to figure out what it is and why it's like that and where it's coming from.

[Herzinger]: Despite a comparatively paltry audience in the United States, there is a feeling that you, along with Ian McEwan, William Body, Martin Amis, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, and a few others—plus the international success of Granta—are leading an energetic new wave in English fiction. How does it seem to you?

It is very hard for me to assess what is going on in America because I have just visited, but it does surprise me the extent to which the Atlantic does seem to be this huge gap between the two literary cultures. There are household names here that aren't even available on the bookshelves in Britain and vice versa.

When I came over here to do my tour with Knopf in November, I discovered that there were these people who are literary giants here. For instance, consider Ann Beattie, who I don't think is readily available on the bookshelves in England. You might be able to track down a copy of an Ann Beattie book, but you could talk to a lot of literary journalists in London and they would not have heard of her. Quite likely they would not have heard of Russell Banks. On the other hand, Raymond Carver has become very well respected in England, as has Richard Ford. I would say these two writers have broken through to significant respect and readership in Britain.

All the time I'm coming across books here that I realize are very well known over here, but quite often these names mean very little to me. I've been given a book by Pete Dexter called Paris Trout, which I think is quite a well-known book here and I've noticed he's won the National Book Award. Personally, I had a hell of a time breaking through here. I don't know why there should be this huge gap, but I think it just points to the fact that—even though we share the same language—the literary cultures are so different.

The other factor has to do with the actual publishing industries, because so much of publishing has to do with contacts and literary politics. I think one of the real weaknesses of the system as it operates at the moment is that there is a tendency toward insularity. If you start operating any contact games then the mediocre domestic talent is always going to get promoted over more interesting stuff from abroad.

[Herzinger]: Since you studied American literature at university, were there any American writers who influenced your work? I hear that you think Hemingway, for instance, wrote great titles, but that perhaps the books that followed were a bit of a letdown.

I think Hemingway did write marvelous titles. I like Hemingway's early work, but I find some of his later stuff pretty mediocre, almost embarrassingly so, but his standard of title writing remained high right to the end. I think Across the River and Into the Trees is a marvelous title, but the discrepancy between the quality of the title and the book is one of the greatest discrepancies I've come across in world literature. It is staggering someone who could write a title like that could write such an appalling book, but he did write some fine stuff early on.

With American writers I tend to like the older guys from the nineteenth century, such as Mark Twain. I think Huckleberry Finn is a very beautiful book with a real liveliness to the language and the vernacular is very exciting. Moby Dick is a crazy book, yet very interesting. I like Edgar Allan Poe, who raises some very interesting questions about literature as a whole.

What about contemporary American writers such as Pynchon, Gass, and Barth?

These are all people that I should say that we don't really read in England. Pynchon is read … well, I don't know … he is bought. Usually the only book of his that anyone has read is The Crying of Lot 49, because it's short. A lot of people possess Gravity's Rainbow and V., but I know very few people who have gotten over one-third of the way through. It remains to be seen if people will finish Vineland in England, but people are buying him. Pynchon may very well be a very important writer, but I've only read The Crying of Lot 49, so I'm not in a position to say. From what I've read, it is a little too over-intellectualized for me. I suppose one of these days I should tackle his big novels.

I can't think of one writer in America who gets more critical attention than Pynchon.

Perhaps he is a great writer, or it could be because there will always be a certain kind of writer who is good for academics.

Can you name one thing that separates American literature from British literature?

One feature of your literary scene here that we don't have in Britain and generally in Europe is the creative writing industry. I think that is one of the enormous differences in the two literary cultures. It's probably true to say, and I've heard it often said, that you can't find a single American writer today of any significance who hasn't in some way been directly touched by the creative writing world, either as teacher or student. Even someone who kept away from it is going to be affected by it indirectly, because so much of the criticism and so much of the opinions of his fellow writers are going to be touched by it. I think this is something that would certainly make me nervous if I were living in a literary culture where the role of the universities and faculties who taught creative writing began to have that sort of dominant influence.

I'm not actually suggesting that the Thomas Pynchon phenomenon is something closely related to this, because I'm not in a position to comment on him. All I would say is that I would want to assess quite carefully what the role of the creative writing faculties actually is within the whole literary culture because, whether you like it or not, American literature is going a certain direction because of this and I would want to determine if the influence were benign or whether it was actually leading us up a garden path.

[Herzinger]: Lately in this country there has been some debate over the virtues of fictional "minimalism" (Granta called it "dirty realism")—Raymond Carver, Ann Beattie, Frederick Barthelme, Max Apple, Mary Robison, Richard Ford, Tobias Wolffe, and a number of others have been called "minimalists." Readers seem to like the work, but it has sent critics into spasms of concern over the death of the novel, the end of American fiction, and so on. Do you have any thoughts on the subject? Is there anything like minimalism and the subsequent outcry from the critics in contemporary British writing?

No. There isn't a compatible movement or phenomenon in British writing at all. Minimalism isn't a word that you hear very often in British literary debate. I should say in relation to the previous question that Richard Ford and Raymond Carver are two American writers that I admire enormously. Raymond Carver is a profoundly moving writer while Richard Ford has written two or three short stories that are amongst the finest short stories I've ever read. Perhaps it is the influence of the creative writing industry that somehow led to that sort of style, but if that's the case, then that is an aspect that I'll be quite well disposed toward because I think those two writers write with great emotional honesty about things that strike me as being genuinely deep at the human level.

The thing I fear from the creative writing industry and universities in general is that people elevate priorities that I would not consider to be terrifically important. They'll elevate to some special status issues like the nature of fiction or some rather cerebral intellectual ideas. Such issues become esteemed in that kind of environment because, after all, that is what that kind of environment celebrates. But, for me, while the nature of fiction or fictionality are things that writers might need to be concerned with to get on with their work, I don't believe that the nature of fiction is one of the burning issues of the late twentieth century. It's not one of the things I want to turn to novels and art to find out about. I think reading Ford and Carver for me is a kind of an antidote really to those over-intellectualized or self-conscious literary creations that almost seem to be created for the professor down the corridor to decipher. Carver and Ford seem to write about life in a way that is profound. Also, at the technical level, I think they are in a different league from a lot of these people who are just trying to show off or make comments about their literary techniques. The technique applied by Ford or Carver is one at the highest level and to the point that perhaps it's not that obvious. I think they say great things about the emotional experience of life.

Minimalism is not something that is discussed very much in Britain. Short stories haven't really caught on in Britain recently. You can bring out a volume of short stories and you know that only about one-third of the people read it, as opposed to the number of people who read a novel that you have written. For some reason the British don't get into short stories.

[Heringer]: To what extent has Japanese fiction influenced your work? If we look around for writers who sound a bit like Ishiguro, it would seem that Tanizaki—especially his cool precision and delicate touch—is closer to you than anybody else.

Tanizaki wrote in various different styles, and a lot of his books I wouldn't describe as cool or delicate. I think the book that is best known in the West is one called The Makioka Sisters. It is really like a Western family saga. It is one of those stately, long books like Henry James, Edith Wharton, Theodore Dreiser, or George Eliot would have written. It's about this rich merchant family where nothing terribly dramatic ever happens, but it follows the different family members through a period of social change. I think a lot of people think that Tanizaki always writes like that, but he also writes kind of weird, kinky, perverted stuff.

[Herzinger]: What book would you be referring to?

The Secret History of the Lord of Musashi, which is about a medieval lord who, the first time he gets sexually turned on, is wandering around a battlefield shortly after a battle and he sees these severed heads. I think that night he peeks through a hole and sees some women dressing the severed heads of fallen clan members and he starts to get sexually turned on.

I'm sure Freud would have had a good time with this.

It gets even weirder because the thing that really turns him on is a particular head that has a nose missing. So when he becomes a powerful lord later on, he has a real sexual craving for severed heads with missing noses. It gets really funny because there is a particular guy that he takes a liking to and he really wants to see this guy without a nose and so he keeps trying to arrange it so that his nose will get cut off, but it never quite works. This poor guy doesn't know what the hell is going on. Every few weeks he loses an ear or something happens to him, or somebody is after him, but he doesn't know why. There is this weird scene where the lord gets his servant to impersonate a severed head without a nose while he is making love to one of his concubines.

I mean, this is real Tanizaki territory, and this is where Tanizaki is really interesting. And there are a few other books like that. This is, by way of saying, that there is this tendency, just because I have a Japanese name, to pull out one or two other Japanese writers somebody else has heard of and say there is a similarity to my writing. Yet the critic perhaps is basing this comparison to a Japanese writer whose book is not typical of others he has written. For example, Tanizaki wrote in a lot of different styles and he wrote for a long, long time. Tanizaki actually went into his eighties, and he produced an enormous amount of books as he went through lots of different stages. I can't really see that anybody would particularly compare me to any Japanese writer if it weren't for the fact that I have this Japanese name. Now if I wrote under a pseudonym 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." I often have to battle and to speak up for my own individual territory against this kind of stereotyping. I wouldn't say it's wildly unfair, but then I can think of a dozen other writers with whom I could just as easily be compared. I would say I am not wildly dissimilar to the Tanizaki of The Makioka Sisters, but then someone could equally say that for anybody almost—whether it was George Eliot or Henry James or the Brontë sisters.

[Herzinger]: How about Chekhov? He would seem to be the one overwhelming influence on American writing over the past ten to fifteen years.

Chekhov is a writer that I always acknowledge as one of my influences. When people ask me about the writers I really like, I always say Chekhov and Dostoyevsky.

To backtrack just slightly on my refuting any affiliation with Japanese literature, there are some things I have learned from the Japanese tradition, if you like, but perhaps more from the Japanese movies. I think it is the same thing that perhaps I've taken from Chekhov, and that's from reading these people and seeing movies by film makers like Ozu and watching the plays of Chekhov and reading Chekhov's short stories. I think it's given me the courage and conviction to have a very slow pace and not worry if there isn't a strong plot. I think there is an overwhelmingly strong tradition in Western literature—at least I should say British literature and American literature since I think the French have a slightly different thing going—in which plot is pretty important. By fiction I also mean movies and the way television stories are told and so on. It is almost assumed that plot has to be the central spine around which the story is fleshed, and that is almost the definition these days. When you actually think about Chekhov, it is really rather hard to actually see his pieces as plots with flesh on it. What is interesting is in Japan, until very recently, this kind of plot-with-flesh model just didn't exist in Japanese fiction.

There are writers like Kawabata, whom I find quite baffling and alienating, because he's from such a different tradition, but at the same time fascinating because he writes kind of long short stories. I believe he is the only Japanese Nobel Prize winner for literature. Kawabata's stories are often completely plotless. They are not only plotless, but the pace goes so slowly sometimes it almost stops. These things seem to break all the rules people teach about how to write screen-plays for Hollywood.

This business about pace, you read these books on how to write a screenplay or books on how to keep the narrative drive going, yet reading Chekhov or some of these Japanese writers has indicated that you don't have to worry about that very much. I've really started to get into this idea of slowness with things almost stopping.

[Vorda]: This seems evident in The Remains of the Day where the plot is loosely based; yet, you are able to piece things together. For example, Miss Kenton disappears for much of the novel, but she is always there when you need her to pull things together. The use of Miss Kenton's character seems to allow you to intermingle different elements.

I don't structure my books around plots, and I find it a great liberation. If you have to worry about making a plot work, you often have to sacrifice other priorities to the mechanical workings of the plot, and you start to distort characters and all kinds of psychological insights. I find a great deal of freedom in not having plot, but that does actually mean you have to face lots of new challenges about not boring the reader and how to structure your work. These are some of the things in Chekhov which I find a continual revelation. How does he keep you absorbed when all the people are doing is just sitting around a field and asking whether or not they are going back to Moscow? He should be crushingly boring. In fact, one or two of those great plays are boring, but some of his short stories are masterpieces.

Which ones in particular?

It's probably not that well known, but I like "Ionych." Other stories that come to mind are "A Boring Story," "Lady with Lapdog," and "The Kiss."

You stated after you wrote A Pale View of Hills that, "If you really want to write something, you shouldn't bring things into your book lightly. It's a bit like taking in lodgers. They're going to be with you a long time. I think the most important thing I learned between writing the first and second novels is the element of thematic discipline." Do you now feel you have control of your thematic discipline after having written The Remains of the Day?

I'll never say I've got control, but I think I've gotten more and more control with each book. When I read reviews, I've always read the opening and closing paragraphs to see if they're saying this is good or not so good, but then after that the next thing that concerns me is the summary. Have they actually summarized the book in the way that I wanted the book to come over? For a long time, at the beginning of my career, I would actually get favorable reviews that praised me for a book that I didn't wish to write. They were emphasizing all the wrong things and praising me for things I didn't intend to do. So I could keep quiet about it and accept unwarranted praise. Of course, this isn't very satisfying, and the question of thematic discipline comes in here. There is a real satisfaction to be gotten from being praised for exactly the right things you wanted to be praised for and not for some accidental effect you created. Because that is what you're trying to do. You're not just trying to get people to like your book—you're trying to communicate a vision. This is why thematic discipline is so important to me. I used to read all these reviews recommending that people should read my first book for the weirdest reasons, but it had nothing to do with what I was wanting to do. I was pleased because they were favorable reviews, but that was a very frustrating experience for me.

The one point I still feel an element of frustration about, and I mentioned this before, is that people have a tendency to say that The Remains of the Day is a book about a certain historical period in England or that it is about the fall of the British empire or something like that. They don't quite read it as a parable or see it take off into a metaphorical role. Now, a lot of reviewers have understood my intent and said this is not just a book about a butler living in the 1930s. It is interesting that reviews vary from country to country. It tells you something about that country, but it also reminds you that as a writer you're going to be read by lots of different people in lots of different social contexts coming at the book from lots of different directions. I think it's always a healthy thing to remind oneself that you shouldn't assume every reader's assumption is going to be the same as a British reader's assumption. There are going to be very obvious reasons why some people see it in a completely different way. And usually the further I get from Britain the happier I am with the readings, because the people are less obsessed with the idea of it just being about Britain. In Britain, I suppose I'm still slightly locked into this realist reader and I recognize that a part of that is my own responsibility. I hate to use the word "fantastic," but the book is still too realistic for the metaphorical intentions to be obvious if the people actually come from the society which the book superficially resembles.

I've been very happy about the way the American reviewers, on the whole, have read The Remains of the Day. One or two have thought it was specifically about British history, but, by and large, most people read it the way that I intended them to. As I say, I think I had more trouble in Britain, where some people thought it was about the Suez Crisis or it was about British appeasement of Nazi Germany.

[Herzinger]: The Remains of the Day and An Artist of a Floating World both seem to be about men who have an extraordinary capacity to lie to themselves while presenting themselves as very precise and cautious truthtellers. Should we imagine that this is going to be the central obsession in your work? So far, the central notions in your work would seem to demand first-person narration. Are you planning to work in any other forms?

I think this is always a difficult question about how you're going to develop as a writer. I find it rather difficult to plan more than one book at a time, and I can't really say now which other themes I'm going to be obsessed about in two or three books from now. I think, certainly, what happened with my first three books is that I was actually trying to refine what I did over and over again, and, with The Remains of the Day, I feel that I came to the end of that process. That is why the three books seem to have a kind of similarity. It's not a similarity for which I can apologize; I have no other way of working.

I don't actually think of my writing as being an attempt to cover this territory and finish it and then move over to a different territory altogether and have a go at that. I don't see it like that. I feel like I'm closing in on some strange, weird territory that for some reason obsesses me, and I'm not sure what the nature of that territory is, but with every book I'm kind of closing in on this strange territory. And that's the way I see my development as a writer. Quite often I will have an idea for a story which is intrinsically quite interesting, but I know immediately that I can't use it because I know it's not going to help me close in on this territory. It has gotten to the point now that I recognize this. I know the things that apply to this territory which will be relevant or might be relevant from the ones that are quite diverting and therefore irrelevant. If I'm reading a newspaper and I come across an item, occasionally something will hit me, something that is perhaps quite banal, but it rings some kind of strange bell. The item doesn't necessarily have to be some kind of weird human interest story, because quite often some ordinary situation will just spring out from the page at me and I'll think that's something I could use.

I don't intend to write about old men looking back over their lives all the time because I think I've come to the end of that, but I think the real challenge that always faces writers is what to keep and what to cast off from their previous concerns and previous books. I think it is important to try to identify those things that still mean something to you, that still feel unfathomed in some way, and that is the way that you close in further and further on this territory. I think most writers do write out of some part of themselves—that is, I wouldn't say "unbalanced," but where there is a kind of lack of equilibrium. I'm not suggesting that writers are usually unbalanced people. I know many, many writers, and I would say that most of them are more than averagely sane and responsible people, but I think a lot of them do write out of something that is unresolved somewhere deep down and, in fact, it's probably too late ever to resolve it. Writing is kind of a consolation or a therapy. Quite often, bad writing comes out of this kind of therapy. The best writing comes out of a situation where I think the artist or writer has to some extent come to terms with the fact that it is too late. The wound has come, and it hasn't healed, but it's not going to get any worse; yet, the wound is there. It's a kind of consolation that the world isn't quite the way you wanted it but you can somehow reorder it or try and come to terms with it by actually creating your own world and own version of it. Otherwise, I can't see any other explanation for why people should actually do this time-consuming, antisocial activity of locking themselves away and obsessively writing. I think serious writers have to try, in some way or the other, to keep moving in a direction that moves them toward this area of irresolution and lack of balance. I think that's where the really interesting, deep writing comes from. This is partly why I'm very wary of the creative writing industry. I think it could actually deflect potentially very profound individual voices away from what their muses are trying to tell them.

[Herzinger]: Please comment on such characters as Etsuko, Ono, Miss Kenton, and Stevens, who have misused their talents or have not led lives of fulfillment because of a lack of insight. And also, conversely, would their lives be better off if they had insight and no talent?

I wrote about these people not actually to pass judgment on them, because I am interested in people who do have a certain amount of talent—not just talent—but who have a certain passion, a certain real urge, to do a little bit more than the average person. They've got this urge to contribute to something larger.

I can see where this applies to Ono in An Artist of the Floating World, but do you think it applies to Stevens?

Yes, definitely. Stevens is somebody who desperately wants to contribute to something larger, but he thinks he is just a butler and the only way he can do this is to work for a great man. He gets a lot of his sense of self-respect from an idea that he is serving a great man. If he were someone who didn't care at all about how his contribution was being used, then he wouldn't end up a broken man at the end. He is driven by this urge to do things perfectly, and not only do things perfectly, but that perfect contribution should be, no matter however small a contribution it is, to improving humanity. That is Stevens' position. He's not content to say, "I'll just get by and earn money so that I can feed myself."

But then again, it doesn't seem that Stevens has any great insight as to why he does things. Nor does he seem to have a great understanding of the world.

That's true, Stevens doesn't have a great understanding. I think this is where my characters go wrong. Their lives are spoiled because they don't have any extraordinary insight into life. They're not necessarily stupid; they're just ordinary. (I write out of this fear that I, myself, will waste my talent—not only waste my talents, but, indeed, end up backing some cause that I actually disapprove of or one that could be disastrous.) Yet, these ordinary characters often are going to get involved in a kind of political arena even if it's in a very small way. The reason I chose a butler as a starting point was that I wanted a metaphor for this vehicle. Most of us are like butlers because we have these small, little tasks that we learn to do, but most of us don't attempt to run the world. We just learn a job and try to do it to the best of our ability. We get our pride from that, and then we offer up a little contribution to somebody up there, to an organization, or a cause, or a country. We would like to tell ourselves that this larger thing that we're contributing toward is something good and not something bad, and that's how we draw a lot of our dignity. Often we just don't know enough about what's going on out there, and I felt that's what we're like. We're like butlers.

You also briefly present the lives of Lisa and the footman with whom she elopes. This seems to be a microcosm of what could have been a more fulfilling or happier life if Stevens had allowed himself to fall in love with Miss Kenton instead of denying his feelings.

I had this story of Lisa and the footman because I just wanted a scene where they were confronted with just such a situation and how they (Stevens and Miss Kenton) would actually talk about it and discuss it. It refers to something they're both painfully concerned with, and, yet, they have to discuss it as a kind of professional incident or setback. When Stevens is thinking back over his life, this is one of the things that comes back to him, which is the closest they ever got to discussing their romantic possibilities. So even when Stevens and Miss Kenton are discussing their unfulfilled romance, they do it indirectly by discussing Lisa and the footman.

Stevens' vision is very myopic in that he never seems to give a thought to anything, nor is sex an issue. Do you agree that he is a pathetically tragic figure that is almost nonhuman in his thoughts and feelings?

I wouldn't want to say nonhuman.

Maybe if I could digress just one second. You had that interesting metaphor in The Remains of the Day where Mr. Cardinal suggests to Stevens that it might be better if people were created as plants, "firmly embedded in the soil," then there wouldn't be any disagreements about "wars and boundaries." Then Mr. Cardinal adds, "But we could still have chaps like you taking messages back and forth, bringing tea, that sort of thing. Otherwise, how would we ever get anything done?"

I think he's in danger of turning himself into something less than human partly because he's got this sense of perfectionism. It's this kind of terribly misguided sense of perfectionism, which, if he actually achieves it, would actually mean turning himself into something less than human. But it's not just perfectionism. It's a kind of a cowardice. That is what I'm trying to suggest and, hence, the juxtaposition of his ambition to be a great butler with his avoidance of a romantic life with Miss Kenton. I suppose I'm suggesting that often that kind of drive to that kind of professional perfectionism is rooted in some kind of cowardice about the emotional arena. It's not just a determination to be the best. Once again, I was drawn to use a butler in this kind of metaphorical way because that seemed to be a profession in which at least a stereotypical view of the professional butler is that you have to kind of erase the obviously human from yourself. This was probably a social requirement because people wanted privacy at the same time as wanting to be served. So the butler was obliged to be a kind of robot-like figure.

Nevertheless, it seems as if Stevens is devoid of any feelings. For example, his proudest moment as a butler is during Lord Darlington's political conference when his father is dying upstairs. He ignores being with his father since his duty lies elsewhere—primarily trying to get bandages for the sore feet of the snotty Dupont. Even after his father dies, Stevens does not go to attend to the corpse, whereupon Miss Kenton sarcastically says, "In that case, Mr. Stevens, will you permit me to close his eyes?" It's as though Stevens is made of cardboard, without any identity or feelings.

The role of the butler is to serve inconspicuously while creating the illusion of absence and at the same time being physically on hand to do these things. It seemed to me appropriate to have somebody who wants to be this perfect butler because that seems to be a powerful metaphor for someone who is trying to actually erase the emotional part of him that may be dangerous and that could really hurt him. Yet, he doesn't succeed because these kinds of human needs, the longings for warmth and love and friendship, are things that just don't go away. This is what Stevens probably realizes at the end of the novel when he starts to get the inkling about this question of bantering. He starts to read more and more into why he can't banter, and this is an indication of the fact that he's somehow cut off from other people. He can't even make the first steps in forming relationships with other people.

In the New York Times Book Review, you say your next book will not be repetitive stylistically and that you might "like to write a messy, jagged, loud kind of book." What kind of book can your readers expect next?

It is very difficult to say. I write very slowly, and most of my writing time I'm not actually writing prose. The Remains of the Day took me three years and during that time I did nothing else. I don't have any other job, and I turn down any offers to do journalism. I was full-time working on that book, but I realized afterwards, looking through my diary, that I actually spent only twelve months writing the words that ended up in that book. It horrifies me to think that I spent two years just working up to it, but I find that I have to have a very close map of where I'm going to go before I actually start to write the words. I have to have it almost all in place in my head first. This is once again quite unusual, because I know plenty of writers who write brilliantly, although they know very little of where they're going when they start the first draft. I have to have all these things worked out and researched. Now things may change, obviously, in the execution, when I'm actually writing the words, but I usually have to know fairly precisely what I'm trying to achieve with every paragraph. So it takes me a long time to get to that situation. I fill folders and folders up with notes and ideas which look like excerpts from a longer work. I may experiment with a particular tone or a character during the very early stages when it's very difficult to say even where the book is going to be set. All I know are the themes.

Cynthia F. Wong (essay date Winter 1995)

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SOURCE: Cynthia F. Wong, "The Shame of Memory: Blanchot's Self-Dispossession in Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills," in Clio, Vol. 24, No. 2, Winter, 1995, pp. 127-45.

[In the following essay, Wong employs literary theorist Maurice Blanchot's theories on first person narration to analyze Ishiguro's A Pale View of Hills.]

"… the necessary condition for the solitude of a madman is the presence of a lucid witness."


The first novels of the Japanese-born and British-educated contemporary writer, Kazuo Ishiguro, employ a deceptively simple narrative strategy to develop the remembrances of protagonists reflecting upon and finding a meaning for their personal lives. Speaking in the period after turbulent historical times, the first-person narrators set private experience into a public realm; they seek to induct a reader, a witness, into their stories. They make an admission that their seemingly ordinary tales will be insufficient given the limitations of memory but, in establishing the fact of forgetfulness and the gaps in retelling, they also critique significant world events from their uniquely estranged perspectives.

In acknowledging the limits of their telling, however, the narrators reveal what literary theorist Maurice Blanchot calls their "torment of language," their search for a way to divest themselves of the prior period within the very act of retelling:

It is narrative (independently of its content) that is a forgetting, so that to tell a story is to put oneself through the ordeal of this first forgetting that precedes, founds, and ruins all memory. Recounting, in this sense, is the torment of language, the incessant search for its infinity. And narrative would be nothing other than an allusion to the initial detour that is borne by writing and that carries it away, causing us, as we write, to yield to a sort of perpetual turning away.

The narrators at first seek order and a means to revise the personal past. The narrators' initial gesture toward self-understanding soon gives way to what Blanchot calls the effect of their narrative's "deflected relation" to life, a tension the reader acknowledges in the narrators' effort to locate memory in order to master it. For the narrators, self-knowledge from retrieval and telling evolves not merely as a form of self-mastery but also self-dispossession, "unworking" the memories and "turning away" from one's past. In other words, they remember in order to forget; they reconstruct the past in an effort to obliterate it. Blanchot's concerns with speech and speechlessness are important in depicting how narrators apprehend "disastrous" personal and world events, and his critical theory may amplify the strategies important to Ishiguro's work.

Ishiguro's first published novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), sets forward the estrangement effect described by Blanchot through a narrative technique that also characterizes his two later works. I will analyze this novel primarily to highlight the implications of Blanchot's narrative theory for Ishiguro's novels. In A Pale View of Hills, Ishiguro presents an unusually "quiet" and oddly tranquil narrative told by an elderly Japanese woman living in England in the story's present moment; the occasion for the tale told by Etsuko is the recent suicide of her oldest daughter Keiko, an event which is painfully heightened by a visit from her second daughter Niki (Keiko's half-sister), but which is curiously subdued in Etsuko's remembrances. Most of Etsuko's tale is recounted in solitude; Niki's visit only emphasizes Etsuko's privacy, especially when the narrative moves into past events. In working through the meaning of her dead daughter's life, Etsuko situates her tale in Nagasaki and focuses on a strange and enigmatic friendship with another woman named Sachiko, whose own daughter's actions seem to foretell the suicide of Etsuko's daughter years later.

In all his novels, Ishiguro's narrators join two realms—personal experience and historical event—to produce an unusual narrative tension, or what Blanchot calls the narrator's struggle to "maintain the primacy of an individual consciousness" in order "to cover up by revealing." Years later, in recounting private experiences, the narrators establish the context of those individual moments against history; the narrators' consciousness of historical circumstances prompts their reassessment of the private past, but their determination to maintain the primacy of self is tied to producing a false disclosure. Significantly, they each express doubts about the veracity and clarity of memory, as if such admission of their uneasiness would also undo the pain associated with the past.

Specifically, in Etsuko's narrative, the two events found in past and present are tied to her subsequent dissociation of pain itself. Remembering Nagasaki, Etsuko is able to forget the premonition of death she connects with that period. Remembering the pain of the past, she is able to forget, momentarily, the horror of her daughter's demise. However, as Etsuko reconstructs the past period, she also reveals her reluctance to either fully remember or reveal, a technique Ishiguro uses in other novels. Like Etsuko, Stevens, the narrator of The Remains of the Day (1989), for instance, also critically assesses the function of his memory with the idea that "when with the benefit of hindsight one begins to search one's past for … 'turning points,' one is apt to start seeing them everywhere," and he implies that such articulation of a consciousness may reveal truth's elusiveness. Similarly, the narrator Masuji Ono of An Artist of the Floating World (1986) punctuates his story with remarks that any reconstructed narrative may be flawed representation, "may not have been the precise words I used that afternoon." His narrative, in this continued fabrication, becomes a self-acknowledged tale comprised as much from forgetfulness as remembrance. And Etsuko herself observes how memory "can be an unreliable thing" as she struggles for correspondence in recalling what she might have felt or experienced in the tumultuous period with what actual memory produces.

All of Ishiguro's novels deal with a great divide, whether between individuals or nations. By endowing his characters with knowledge of their flawed memories, Ishiguro tests the limits of their telling against their struggle both to reveal and to veil meaning. How does the dual desire to remember and reveal correspond with the compulsion to "unwork" and dissociate oneself from the memories of the past? Moreover, what does the uneasy conjunction of private experiences and public contexts mean in the relationship between the individual and history?

All of Ishiguro's narrators structure their tales according to discernible historical events and, in the unfolding of their texts, the narrators appear to arrive closer at uncovering some missing version of truth about that period. The narratives' evasive movement toward the respective disclosures indicates some secret to be revealed about the narrators' past guilt, embarrassment, or disgrace. For instance, Stevens' motor trip toward Mrs. Benn is also an internal journey reflecting on his repressed love for Miss Kenton (prior to becoming Mrs. Benn) which had resulted from his loyalty to Lord Darlington at a crucial period in world history—the moment between world wars concerning the future of Germany and Great Britain. Masuji Ono's hopeful anticipation of the lives of his two daughters is a retrospective examination of his role in Japanese imperialism, which led to postwar denunciations of artists like himself. Etsuko's mourning for a recently deceased daughter is transformed into a remembrance of the period following the nuclear devastation of Nagasaki, particularly to events which might help explain her daughter's suicide. For all three narrators, the return to the past is prompted by an intense and personal emotion in the present moment of narration; each foretells in the opening of the respective texts of a futile, but necessary, effort to reconfigure the events owing to a subsequent emotion which the reader will identify as their shame about the past. Each returns to a past which might atone for the present. Even a failed memory might allow each to reexamine significance in the new context and to account for the solitude of that past. Therefore, each does not undertake a "revision" in the usual sense of simply re-seeing the events again. Rather, the narrators reposition themselves in the new contexts and assess their own roles in contributing to both private and historical events. In light of the new knowledge, they reveal two important inversions: one between private and public and the other between narrative past and future. The act of remembering is tied to their unworking—or inverting—the shame of an irrevocable past. Importantly, their eventual remembrances become emblems of their self-dispossession from the past period, and it is this redoubling that I will examine.

In the second part of this essay, I will concentrate on the first-person narrative strategy of Ishiguro's first novel, A Pale View of Hills, and indicate later how Ishiguro's next two novels also develop a similar concern for the protagonists' limits of memory, as well as their simultaneous desire for and dread of disclosure. Because the return to the past is charged by Etsuko's desire to master the substance of memory, I will begin with Genette's structural analysis of temporal development in order to suggest that the manner of Etsuko's telling is thematically linked to the way memory is shaped by a will to dissociate herself from this period. Such a formal examination of the narrative reveals the tension between individual consciousness and historical circumstances; it also extends Blanchot's discussion of the narrator's strained tale that results from such a form. I then will indicate how the content of Etsuko's tale, which seems to derive at first from the act of remembrance, is indeed an inversion of memory itself—the reappearances from the dreaded past arrive in the form of her desire to forget the shame associated with the events. From the mutual interdependence of the two constructions—of self and history—I will indicate how this novel might reestablish the role of fiction in the interpretation of human events according to Blanchot's claim that literature is bound to language in a special way which renders it both "reassuring and disquieting at the same time." More specifically, through analysis of this first novel, I will suggest that the narrators of Ishiguro's next two novels also develop a growing awareness of missed opportunity and obligation in the past which propels them to reconfigure, perhaps even fictionalize, that prior period. For these narrators, the construction of a narrative in the "present" moment evolves into an assertion of the shame that both indicts and forgives them.

"No one likes to recognize himself as a stranger in a mirror where what he sees is not his own double but someone whom he would have liked to have been."

As narrator of Ishiguro's first novel, A Pale View of Hills, Etsuko tells the tragic tale of her daughter's suicide. The "madness" of Keiko's act is subtly linked to Etsuko's memory of her own self. In one brief scene with her father-in-law, Etsuko Ogata refers to herself as once being "a mad girl" and asks Ogata-San, "'What was I like in those days, Father? Was I like a mad person?'" Father's response, "'We were all shocked, those of us who were left,'" alludes to the historical moment which would have produced Etsuko's "madness" in a way that not only validates Etsuko's memory of herself but which also attributes a similar pain to others who remain. Ogata-San's words are both consoling and disrupting: his assessment establishes a relationship between Etsuko's past and present.

Etsuko constructs her personal story using three distinct temporal orders, what Genette terms prolepsis (anticipation), analepsis (flash-back), and anachrony or discordance between the récit (telling) and histoire (tale). Against the backdrop of Nagasaki's reconstruction in the late forties, Etsuko in England in the early eighties returns to two pasts—her own during the reconstruction and an earlier past remembered by others in this same period—in order to clarify the meaning of two futures: the "present" when she undertakes the narrative task and time beyond. However, if Etsuko's first-person account is dubious given her own awareness of being mad immediately following the bombing, it also is filled with lucid observation of the way historical circumstances produced one's sense of self in those times. This anachronic feature in the narrative extends the personal story and urges the reader to examine the sociohistorical aspects which inform it. A preliminary structural analysis of the narrative reveals the deeper implications of the discordance, that the attempt to produce a coherent narrative is tied to a desire to forget those very events.

Etsuko's own admission of madness attests to an understanding of self that requires another person to either validate or challenge; she seeks a lucid witness. Ogata-San's assessment propels Etsuko toward this understanding. His perspective, like those of other principal characters in her past, serves to either mirror or deflect what she herself attempts to recollect. In telling what she recalls, then, she is aware of her limitations: she says, "Memory, I realize, can be an unreliable thing; often it is heavily coloured by the circumstances in which one remembers, and no doubt this applies to certain of the recollections I have gathered here.'" Etsuko expresses an important condition of analepsis or flashback; moreover, she approximates an important truth about the temporal limits of narrative and marks what Blanchot calls its principle of incompleteness in her telling:

A [human] being, insufficient as it is, does not attempt to associate itself with another being to make up a substance of integrity. The awareness of the insufficiency arises from the fact that it puts itself in question, which question needs the other or another to be enacted. Left on its own, a being closes itself, falls asleep and calms down. A being is either alone or knows itself to be alone only when it is not.

Etsuko reconstructs her self from the mirrors of the past and from her interactions with other people, although what is reflected back to her may or may not coincide with her eventual understanding of that past. Blanchot's enigmatic assessment above expresses Etsuko's solitary condition when she first undertakes the narrative task: her self-absorbed memory alone is insufficient to convey the fullness of any event. Etsuko seems to understand intuitively this incompleteness when she searches for remembrance of the relationships she had with others. Whether these interactions were self-flattering or complementary to her own desire for eventual self-understanding Etsuko leaves ambiguous. The memory of other people in this period allows her to locate and place into perspective the different pieces of the past. While the personal story serves as the platform for the telling of other stories, it also reconsiders the past from new vantage points, thus reestablishing Etsuko's interpretation of events each time a new piece is added to memory.

The circumstances of Etsuko's emigration from Japan to England about a decade after the end of the Pacific War are revealed through a retrospective narrative which is instigated by a family tragedy, with each backward look revealing some historical development. She recalls three primary episodes from the past, a period which is characterized by its transient and impermanent state. Each aspect develops a distinct level of meaning pertinent to Etsuko's recollection as a whole. The first involves the developing but abruptly terminated friendship with a woman (Sachiko) and her young daughter (Mariko) who appear in Etsuko's neighborhood soon after early efforts to rebuild Nagasaki are underway; the second concerns the strained relationships with her first husband (Jiro) and her father-in-law (Ogata-San) and signifies the decline of traditional kinship ties; and the third is an enigmatic and non-chronological sequence which appears mostly as a remembrance of her dead daughter (Keiko) through disjointed images that merge past and present, but which do not develop the daughter's character given their fleeting recall. The framing device for these past reflections stems from the five-day visit of Etsuko's second daughter (Niki) from her dead second husband, an English journalist (Sheringham) who had written articles about Japan. Niki's early spring visit reminds Etsuko of the particular summer in the past, and it also prompts the narrator to consider her daughter's future in the context of past errors and omissions.

The analepsis of the narrative is triggered by images which visit Etsuko during Niki's stay, while the moments of anticipation from the past slowly evolve into meaning for Etsuko years later in England, a completely different space. Specifically, conversations with Niki concerning motherhood oblige Etusko's return to the period of her first pregnancy which is marked by the unusual friendship with Sachiko and mysterious encounters with the daughter Mariko. In one scene, Etsuko assesses the meaning of such an encounter, that it had been "capable of arousing in me every kind of misgiving about motherhood."

Etsuko's own calculated examination of such past moments suggests their key role in perhaps "explaining" the later events. What remains unspoken in the mother's narrative is the pain of death, including the destruction of Nagasaki and her daughter's own suicide years later in Manchester, England. Like the nuclear destruction which fragmented Japan, the imminent loss of Etsuko's daughter in the anterior future of the narrative is shown from the perspective of the past which contains Sachiko and Mariko, with these scenes serving to fill in the missing pieces of Etsuko's own life between Nagasaki and England, the time of Keiko's upbringing. The parallels between the two grown women in the past reflect, structure, and then compound the mysteries hinted at in the text; they also create an important link between the young girl in the past (Mariko) who might help explain another dead girl's lifetime later in the narrative.

In other words, analepsis and prolepsis clarify episodes concerning Mariko in this particular past and foretell the future which contains Keiko who is, at that time, still in her mother's womb. The figurative rebirth of the dead girl through another girl from Etsuko's past structures the narrative and charts the fateful outcome. The meaning of the past and its eventual "future" culminate in the final scene of Niki's departure from Etsuko's English home, with the mother bidding her second daughter a farewell that nevertheless suggests future meetings between them. Departure, with the extreme condition entailing death in the cases of the war casualties and Keiko, serves as formal limits in the narrative.

Etsuko recounts that prior period in order to understand how the events might have determined the outcome of the present. The gesture is also an effort to look onward to an uncertain but promising future for a living daughter who remains. The overlapping temporal structures thus anticipate the theme of optimism in the novel reiterated by Mrs. Fujiwara, who had lost practically everything in the war. She says to Etsuko during her pregnancy, "'You must keep your mind on happy things now. Your child. And the future.'" In remembering this utterance Etsuko considers how it applies to a "future" that is now past; the futility of meaning behind Mrs. Fujiwara's words, no matter how hopeful, nevertheless points toward the shame associated with Etsuko's memory of this period.

If the processes of looking backward and moving forward are discernible in the narrator's shuttling of key events, the anachronistic aspect of the text is conveyed by discordance between what Etsuko reveals of the past in relation to the reader's perception of meaning in the present. If Etsuko's own perceived "madness" is contested by Ogata-San's assessment of her "shock," that same self-perception has the effect of dismantling some of her narrative authority. Etsuko's ability to present a fair assessment of the historical past in the personal narrative produces another possible reading of A Pale View of Hills as the self-revelation of one woman's madness. Such a reading might clarify the mysterious relationship of Sachiko and Mariko to Etsuko, Keiko, and Niki; it also might be the key to uncovering a secret about Nagasaki, what Etsuko characterizes, but initially fails to elaborate, as "the tragedies and nightmares of wartime." Etsuko's augmenting knowledge of the past provokes the reader toward a gradual move toward disclosure, what Blanchot calls a "desoeuvrement" or unworking, of the wartime past remembered by Etsuko.

Such a reading might reveal discord in the narrator's remembered past, but it would do so by "conferring on the second narrative an explanatory function." Despite Etsuko's otherwise lucid recounting of the past, the reader grows increasingly uneasy as the events unfold because what Etsuko remembers seems as if it ought to interpret what she in the present moment leaves unspoken—but in fact it does not. Memory here serves not to explain the past as much to set it in the perspective of the present, with the reader's emerging realization that a comprehensible past is finally impossible. In other words, Etsuko's narrative is incomplete; what Blanchot above defined as an insufficiency that permeates the tale collides with the reader's expectation of a full and coherent disclosure. The reader cannot truly validate the incompatible details of Etsuko's past and future without undermining conventional aspects of the narrative itself; only by casting doubt on Etsuko's veracity can be reader probe the veiled truth in a manner set forth by the narrative itself.

Etsuko's narrative provokes instead a reading which allows for complexities without eradicating narrative authority. To indicate that Sachiko is Etusko's alter-ego is to diminish the horrible fact that only Etusko might have been affected by the aftermath of war. Rather than regard Etsuko as an unreliable narrator, it may be more fruitful to see how her "madness" is a testament to the fatal outcomes of nuclear ruin. Her memory of the devastation reveals the perverse democratization of the destruction: everyone suffered the pain and the ruin in ways markedly similar. To compress all the events of Etsuko's narrative past into one woman's confused ranting about that time is to diminish one meaning of Nagasaki's legacy, that its aftermath had tentacles reaching far beyond the moment. More precisely, to fuse the identities of Sachiko with Etsuko in the schizophrenic interpretation amounts to a reader's refusal to see that Etsuko was among many women affected by the bombing of Nagasaki. That Sachiko "really" existed may not be the point worth quibbling about. Instead, it is more important that Etsuko remembered Sachiko at all, especially given the turbulence of those times.

In truth, any narrative of a historical event can be told only from a select perspective, with attention to the limits of that telling. To regard A Pale View of Hills as solely one woman's experiences—and a neurotic one at that—is to demolish the painful truth of human destruction, that it is often unspeakable, except through the private events and tragedies which reflect a larger social situation. While Etsuko's narrative appears at times to withhold important information, the reluctant disclosure is consistent with her narrative task to show the effects of the war, rather than to make manifest polemical assertions. The diminishing of personal facts corresponds with the narrative task of telling world, not merely personal, history. Etsuko's effacement is therefore necessary to this construction if it is to emulate the pain of destruction.

If the past appears no less explanatory in the present, even with the benefit of time for possible reflection, the narrative's seemingly evasive strategy reinforces how, in death and destruction, so much remains unspeakable and incomprehensible. More poignant in Etsuko's withholding or refusal to disclose is the silent fact that many civilians of Nagasaki already had died or were dying from nuclear radiation during the time recounted in Etsuko's reexamination. Most, like Mrs. Fujiwara, were literally picking up small pieces from the pain and sorrow to reconstruct an existence of some dignity. When Sachiko scoffs at Mrs. Fujiwara's humble noodle shop operation, the reader—through Etsuko's sympathies—understands the magnitude of human loss in the face of another person's refusal to valorize the efforts of reconstruction. Silence, therefore, serves as affirmation of destruction's aftermath; verbal consolation could only exist at the margins of the pain of truth and loss, beyond its possibility as narrative.

Etsuko's retelling of Nagasaki's efforts to rebuild might serve as personal solace for her own present circumstances, but the quiet tone which permeates the telling hints at the story's implication for assessing historical facts. What Genette terms the "narrative mood," or the spatial distance and temporal dislocation contributing to a narrative's tone, shows how Etsuko chooses "to regulate the information [her narrative] delivers, not with a sort of even screening, but according to the capacities of knowledge of one or another participant in the story." That Sachiko might be the other "participant" in Etsuko's story becomes evident as the story centers on a woman's efforts to leave Japan. Sachiko's desire to leave Nagasaki in the period of reconstruction mirrors Etsuko's own unknowing desire to reconstruct a tale which would come years later. The conjunction of the two women's stories also culminates in Etsuko's effort to refashion an image of herself through Ogata-San's recollection.

Importantly, if Sachiko's attempts to escape from Nagasaki are manifested through the later, though unfinished, portrait of Etsuko's own departure to England, Mariko's response to her mother's desires seem to foretell Keiko's fate. During Niki's visit, the household is filled with tension about Keiko, and it is Etsuko's constant remembrance of the past which deflects an extended discussion of death in the "present." Etsuko's return to the past serves to recapitulate history in a moment filled with personal pain, but it is a thwarted effort to merge the private with the social, or what Blanchot calls "the sharing of the secret" between mother and daughter in the present moment of narrative. In other words, Etsuko slowly turns toward what had been kept guarded or hidden and begins the process of unworking the pain in the very silence between herself and Niki. Blanchot calls this condition of "sharing" the first step toward breaking the limits of the repressed past:

It is also in this sense that what was most personal could not be kept as the secret of one person alone, as it broke the boundaries of the person and demanded to be shared, better, to affirm itself as the very act of sharing.

Etsuko's account of her present life in England and of the past, comprised mostly of family and a limited social life in postwar Nagasaki, has no more subversive intent than to reveal the pain suffered by common people during a turbulent historical period. In other words, the narrative act itself becomes the possible sharing of grief among people. By referring to the past community in Nagasaki and speaking about the present state of affairs, Etsuko gives in to the inevitability of the past as it will determine the outcome in the future, which has already occurred by the time the narrative begins; she does so by producing a private story which is the mirror of other stories still untold. Ishiguro examines the wounds of nuclear destruction in the psyches of a few individuals as seen through Etsuko and, in this way, achieves a fuller portrait than what factual records such as a body count, for instance, might reveal.

What propels the narrative forward, then, has less to do with exposing political depths or revealing family secrets than exploring the peculiar atmosphere of a society reconstructing itself from the remains of nuclear destruction, a fact of the community that is revealed in public records. Everyone in Nagasaki was profoundly affected by devastation, not just a few select individuals singled out for private pain. Foucault's "common odyssey" of people suffering destruction required a maintenance of human dignity in the face of adverse social conditions. This odyssey establishes what Blanchot above called the affirmation of self and others within the community. By remembering the details of existence, one procures—even if years later—the anticipated, but persistently deferred, meaning of those particular episodes. Because the only precedent to such a cataclysm occurred but one day earlier in Hiroshima, the people of Japan were faced with the monumental task of preserving what vestiges remained of their material lives before rebuilding their emotional and psychological ones as well. Thus enveloped in death and knowledge of destruction, most acted out of instinct and a will to survive the aftermath of horror. No wonder, as in Etsuko's case, that so much time passed before a private horror prompted her to revisit her experiences in Nagasaki and, in so doing, examine the meaning of the personal against history.

In their efforts to rebuild a future for themselves and therefore reconstruct a strong society, the Japanese of A Pale View of Hills find a dependable structure in the institution of the family, although in Etsuko's case, this familiar structure eventually collapses. In emulating their symbolic head of state, their emperor, the characters in the novel stress the importance of solidifying their familial relationships. Their interactions are rooted in a discourse of family: loyalty, allegiance, and guidance are important traits of this strengthening. Those who fail to fulfill the terms of these expectations are held in shameful regard while those who put aside personal gain for the benefit of making the family unit cohesive are viewed more positively. This perspective is best reflected in the words of Ogata-San, who speaks for his pre-war generation when he says, "'Discipline, loyalty, such things held Japan together once. That may sound fanciful, but it's true. People were bound by a sense of duty. Toward one's family, towards superiors, towards the country.'" Stated in a rhetoric inflammatory to American democracy, Ogata-San's perspective contests the views of the young, such as those embodied by his son's contemporary, Shigeo Matsuda, who was once Ogata-San's pupil and who, after the war, had written an offensive article against the previous generation. Matsuda tells Ogata-San during a confrontation of wills: "'In your day, children in Japan were taught terrible things. They were taught lies of the most damaging kind. Worst of all, they were taught not to see, not to question. And that's why the country was plunged into the most evil disaster in her entire history.'" Etsuko's representation of these two opposing views shows the impact of individual action upon the collective. During the period of reconstruction, the important terms of the family were thus destabilized: especially for the young, loyalty to the family and state was less effective than a thorough critique of the institutional apparatus. Destruction in Nagasaki was more than physical ruin; it also dismantled values long held sacred in the secular foundation of Japanese society, and it split the Japanese into generational factions.

Not surprisingly, then, in the period Etsuko recounts, the people of Nagasaki are undergoing massive transitions, and the simple dichotomies of right and wrong behavior seem permanently contestable. Following a lull from the worst of the devastation, Etsuko expresses the dubious atmosphere still lingering, that "on the whole the feeling among the occupants seemed one of satisfaction. And yet I remember an unmistakable air of transience there, as if we were all of us waiting for the day we could move to something better." In maintaining strong relationships among family members and friends, people sought to establish the terms for their uncertain future. However, the nuclear destruction sufficiently guaranteed that families would be rent apart in irrevocable ways. The older generation lost faith in the younger, while the latter held the former responsible for unspeakable acts. On the one hand, those who survived the bombing suffered privately; on the other, it is also true that the privacy of the pain was generalized to the society at large. If at times it appeared that Sachiko and Etsuko were the same person, it is also true that many people experienced similar forms of devastation. While the generalities do not diminish the personal suffering, neither do they disperse, and in effect lessen, their intensity among the collective.

To examine this manifestation of the private onto the public during the time of Nagasaki's rebuilding, Etsuko herself reports that the city is intermittently struck by child murders; the news brings report of the tragedies which occur with no discernible pattern. The murders are a double wound on the society, because the young are regarded symbolically as the purveyors of their parents' legacy and thus hold the promise of a new future; in this way, children of the reconstruction period—those who survived the bombing and those waiting to be born—became the salve for those who died in war, even while their parents were denouncing the grandparents. The senselessness and arbitrariness of the violence are reflected in the way the child murders also metaphorically pronounce a death of the future, a message that is embedded in several incidents in Etsuko's narrative. When she speaks of the "misgivings" of motherhood, for instance, she herself embodies the fears and uncertainly of, literally, letting out the next generation.

"There is nothing that the madness of men invents which is not either nature made manifest or nature restored."

"Moreover, the power of destructive forces, both outside and within the individual and society, has never appeared as incontestable and irrevocable as it does today."

What begins for Etsuko as a personal postmortem, inquiring into her daughter's death, evolves into a tale about Nagasaki after the bombing. Inquiry into the past serves as the platform for Etsuko's historical consciousness. From the personal tragedy to the fact of Nagasaki, the narrative's unfolding resembles what Blanchot earlier called the sharing of a secret between Etsuko and the reader: there are some events in life rendered forever unspeakable, but it is in the effort to find expression that one deflects the torment of life onto language. Keiko's death, devastating for the mother who could not guarantee her daughter's happiness and salvation in a foreign land, parallels the meaninglessness of the many lives lost to the atomic bomb. Just as horrific in the tale are the shattered lives being salvaged amidst the wreckage. Etsuko imagines the many days her daughter hung dead and undiscovered in a city of strangers:

I have found myself continually bringing to mind that picture—of my daughter hanging in her room for days on end. The horror of that image has never diminished, but it has long ceased to be a morbid matter; as with a wound on one's own body, it is possible to develop an intimacy with the most disturbing of things.

The indelible image becomes, paradoxically, the inverse process of destruction; rather than seeing it as an alienated image, the viewer allows it to inhabit her own self so that, in refusing to diminish the power of the image, Etsuko here allows instead for a macabre intimacy, a kind of emotional scab for possible healing.

In thus speaking Nagasaki's story through her daughter's anomalous death, Etsuko manages to infuse the narrative with its strange effect, its seemingly straightforward narration compounded by the subtle suggestions of much deeper implications. As Etsuko leaps back into the past, the reader begins to understand that what remains below the surface of her speech and admission of pain struggles not for expression but silence. Etsuko's mysterious compilation of details concerning Sachiko's life, for instance, evolves less as an effort to speak fully that tale than to represent the grief enveloping her own life—and by extension, the lives of those remaining after Nagasaki—as a silent and ineffable tale. Of this inexplicable state of affairs between self and history, between private experiences and their public contexts, Blanchot writes about the personal and the communal efforts to merge the two realms:

It does not follow, however, that the community is the simple putting in common, inside the limits it would propose for itself, of a shared will to be several, albeit to do nothing, that is to say, to do nothing else than maintain the sharing of "something" which, precisely, seems always already to have eluded the possibility of being considered as part of a sharing: speech, silence.

Impossible to present the story even to herself, Etsuko can deliver the tale only as the "torment of language" that seeks a beginning and an end to infinite pain of memory and its associated images. Ishiguro's deceptively simple manner of presenting Etsuko's retrospective narrative is complicated by the determination to let silence itself speak. In turning toward the dreaded past, Etsuko conveys a tale that is the disclosure not of a tangible secret, but of a private shame associated with the memories now on the verge of becoming public.

Still, in order to understand how the historical conditions compel either silence or speech, it is necessary to consider how Etsuko's personal case elucidates the political circumstances of postwar Japan. Through Etsuko, Ishiguro seems to ask who or what is, in the end, responsible for the destruction experienced by the common people? What might a postmortem on the political facts reveal to these civilians? The policy of silence which Niki and Etsuko maintain about Keiko's suicide corresponds to the civilians' silence concerning the role of the Emperor in the war. In the novel, Etsuko's husband Jiro covertly establishes a rift against his father, Ogata-San, and shows how young Japanese will use innuendo rather than speak directly in order to convey their hostile sentiments. Jiro most piercingly displays his anger during the chess game with his father. Furthermore, Jiro refuses to speak with his former classmate (Matsuda) about the article written explicitly against the policies of his father's generation. Ogata-San, in keeping with the Japanese tradition of biting back his tongue on any confrontation, is reduced to the shame of having to approach Matsuda himself. What might have remained a family matter turns into a public forum for confrontation. However, as seen in Etsuko's efforts to speak about her own family, the public realm often makes the concealed and the personal more evident, therefore calling attention to the very facts which one sought to conceal.

The themes of individual responsibility and action reappear in Ishiguro's next two novels. The attendant concerns of memory and shame recur as narrative strategies and produce the tension associated with disclosure and concealment. Masuji Ono's tale is less a reflection of his glory days as an artist in Imperial Japan than a rationalizing account of his own participation in world affairs. The narrator Ono notes at the end of the novel that those like him, "have the satisfaction of knowing that whatever we did, we did at the time in the best of faith … When one holds convictions deeply enough, there comes a point when it is despicable to prevaricate further." The consolatory tone that characterized Etsuko's farewell to her two daughters—one dead, another alive—reappears in Ono's rationalization, moreover, the tone betrays the very prevarication that arose from the limits of his remembrances. Ono's tale, like Etsuko's, is wrought from the pain of the unspeakable; the efforts to tell the stories of the past are wound into the narrator's growing awareness that the tale is finally unaccountable and inexplicable. In The Remains of the Day, Stevens' tale, evolving at the outset as the mission to restore housekeeping help, becomes a confrontation with his allegiance to Lord Darlington, a Nazi sympathizer. To the very end he maintains the onerous lie of his lordship's indirect encouragement of genocide. Stevens' evasion of Darlington's guilt coincides with his silence about love for Miss Kenton/Mrs. Benn, with the two relationships establishing private "enlightenment" and public shame in that narrative.

All three novels appear to end with the narrator's renewed understanding about the past, although their dissimulation remains just below the surface of their overt telling. Even though each confesses to a flawed memory, each also structures the telling to reveal less the substance of an emerging secret than their desires to dispossess or unburden themselves of this past. They are in effect tormented by the confrontation with the past; they seek the compassionate ear of a reader and eye of the witness to ascertain for themselves the necessity of reconstructing an acceptable past. In so doing, however, they attempt to conceal the overbearing shame associated with this past. Their telling emerges as the effort to eradicate shame in the very engagement with language.

Conversely, the narrator's evasions are tied to the pain of lurid history itself. In Etsuko's case, if the nuclear arsenal once, literally, dazzled those from afar, that same power casts unspeakable destruction so that even those who survived never recover a language to speak fully that explosion. At the heart of Ishiguro's fiction lies the mortal's confrontation with empirical realities which preclude the possibility of expression. Ishiguro's narrators disarm the reader who searches for the recognizable stutters characteristic of so much contemporary literature. Rather, the narrators speak easily and calmly at first, with the difficulties of telling everything veiled by the very eloquence which masks their pain. Rather than actually deflect this pain, however, their efforts to locate and name the source and site of their experiences thrust them into the torment that both challenges and validates their silence. Only by first acknowledging the catastrophes of their past are they able to begin a critique of their significance. The preliminary gestures of naming and resisting the silence place them on the threshold of admitting to the shame which had structured their memories of that period. Subsequently, they move toward self absolution in language which also contests this possibility.

Bert Cardullo (essay date Winter 1995)

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SOURCE: Bert Cardullo, "The Servant," in The Hudson Review, Vol. XLVII, No. 4, Winter, 1995, pp. 616-22.

[In the following essay Cardullo compares the movie version of The Remains of the Day with the novel.]

Milan Kundera once made a helpful distinction between two sorts of novels set in the past. There is, on the one hand, "the novel that is the illustration of a historical situation … popularizations that translate non-novelistic knowledge into the language of the novel," and on the other hand the novel that examines "the historical dimension of human existence." In the first case, cardboard cutouts are wheeled out to represent "the bourgeoisie" or "the last throes of imperialism"—in other words, important social tendencies in the historical scheme of things rather than individualized or self-determined human beings. Here, the background effectively replaces the foreground. In the second case, history is only one part of a multifaceted portrayal of characters whose lives are inevitably and decisively, but not reductively, shaped by larger public events. In this sort of novel, that is, social institutions are presented in the form of complex human relationships; complex human relationships are not reduced to mere social symbols or signposts. Here, the background and the foreground bleed into each other at the same time that each retains its separate identity.

What Kundera says about the novel is transferable to its visual equivalent or rendition, the cinema, and all the more so in the case of a movie that has been adapted from fiction, like The Remains of the Day. This film, set in the past and dealing with issues of war, politics, class, and sexuality, has inspired diametrically opposed interpretations following Kundera's scheme. On the one hand, there are those who believe that The Remains of the Day states its political themes rather bumptiously, at the expense of character. On the other hand, there are those who consider James Ivory's latest film to be a poignant-pregnant portrait of the English class system up to World War II, of English hierarchies, rigidities, and blindnesses and their human perpetrators as well as victims; a portrait that has far more time to spend on the intimate portrayal of character from which metaphor can be inferred because it need only suggest the history of Hitler's rise and fall, with which its audience is intimately familiar. I propose to sort out these conflicting views, which are to some extent my own, in what follows.

I have not been a big fan of James Ivory's work in the past. It has suffered from a combination of Anglophilia, over-design, and under-emotion. Such films as Howards End (1992), Heat and Dust (1983), and The Europeans (1979) are in the grand British-museum tradition of Alexander Korda, except that Korda's museum for the display of the aristocracy looks now like nothing more than its mausoleum. But that hasn't stopped Ivory, along with his regular producer, Ismail Merchant, and his usual screenwriter, Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, from adding to the list of the dead and embalmed. These movies have nothing to do with contemporary British life; they don't use the past as a combined distancing-telescoping mechanism on the present; and they don't even have much to say about the past as past. The Remains of the Day marks a break from this tradition for Ivory and company, partly because of the very nature of its subject: the life of an emotionally and sexually repressed butler as it dovetails with that of his employer, a well-meaning but wrong-headed aristo-twit who, in the mid-1930s, secretly works to appease Hitler, avoid war, and preserve England's rigid social hierarchy.

The novel was written by Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born Japanese but bred English; it was supposed to have been adapted to the screen by Harold Pinter, but James Ivory discarded his script in favor of Jhabvala's. This is unfortunate because Pinter has proved himself adept at adapting novels with first-person narrators (e.g., The Go-Between [1970], The Proust Screenplay [1977], The Heat of the Day [1989]), something that is made difficult by the natural omniscience of the camera eye. The solution is obviously not to use a first-person camera throughout, to show only what the narrator can see and never the narrator himself, nor to employ large chunks of first-person voiceover narration; what the camera eye must do as much as possible is see as the narrator in the book does, see as if it were using the narrator's eyes. This is a neat trick, a kind of imaginative leap, and it can be made only by a screenwriter who is genuinely creative in her own right yet spiritually faithful to her source. Ruth Prawer Jhabvala, alas, is not such a scenarist, though she isn't without a certain skill.

The story begins in 1958, shortly after Lord Darlington's death and the sale of his palatial manor, Darlington Hall, to a solitary, rich American. Stevens, the butler, is staying on to work for the new owner, Mr. Lewis, but with a staff reduced from twenty-eight at the climax of the British Empire to four during its present decline. Stevens is thinking of adding to that staff one Miss Kenton, the former (superbly efficient) housekeeper of Darlington Hall, who has recently sent him a letter (parts of which she reads in voiceover, and to which Stevens responds with his own letter read in voiceover) implying that she would like to return to her old position. So, having been given a week's vacation by his new employer, together with the use of the American's car, he sets out from Oxfordshire on a journey to the West Country to meet Miss Kenton. She's been Mrs. Benn for the past twenty years, during which time Stevens has not seen her, and by now has a grown daughter, but her marriage is in trouble. Miss Kenton seems to be searching for something, then, to be reaching out, and so does Stevens. As he rides through the countryside to his appointment with her, he flashes back to their relationship—or nonrelationship—in the past, as well as to his role as master servant in a house once brimful of statesmen and ambassadors.

It was Stevens' role as servant, as server of Lord Darlington rather than fulfiller of himself, that got in the way of any personal relationship he might have had with Miss Kenton. A love seemed to evolve between these two household workers who never so much as call each other by their first names, but it remained unacknowledged and unexpressed—at least on Stevens' part. There is no real acknowledgement of its existence by Miss Kenton either, but there is some expression of feeling, which unexpectedly gets underscored in the film. Indeed, even Stevens' feeling gets expressed in the movie version, which recasts Ishiguro's exquisitely balanced tale more as doomed romance than as political allegory. This is a direction Pinter, with his latter-day political engagement, may have reversed, and a direction the normally reticent Ivory has apparently chosen to take in the condescending belief that the lower orders of society are more given to venting their emotions. For example, during one of their nightly meetings to discuss the management of the house, Miss Kenton responds to Stevens' question "Are you with me?" with the excuse that she is very tired. She is tired, of course—tired of meeting with him under these circumstances, solely to discuss work—but this meaning of "tired" remains subtextual in the novel. In the film, Miss Kenton directly express the sentiment that she wants to be with Stevens, not merely to talk with him about the discharge of their servants' duties.

The next day, her day off, she has a date in a pub with Tom Benn, a former butler who wants to marry her and open his own seaside boarding house at Clevedon. There is no such scene in the book; it fractures the first-person perspective of Stevens; and it's almost immediately followed by another insertion, Miss Kenton's desperate revelation to him of her impending engagement, to which he reacts by hastily leaving the room. Later, after she becomes formally engaged, Stevens impatiently offers her his "warmest congratulations," for "there are matters of global significance taking place upstairs and [he] must return to [his] post." Then, in the process of fetching drinks for Lord Darlington's guests, he drops a fine bottle of port—one more "emotional" event that does not occur in Ishiguro's novel—peremptorily replaces it with another, and proceeds to deliver it. But he must pass Miss Kenton's room in order to do so, and here again the film tellingly diverges from its source. This is what the author understatedly writes:

As I approached Miss Kenton's door, I saw from the light seeping around its edges that she was still within. And … that moment as I paused in the dimness of the corridor, the tray in my hands, an ever-growing conviction [mounted] within me that just a few yards away, on the other side of that door. Miss Kenton was at that moment crying. As I recall, there was no real evidence to account for this conviction—I had certainly not heard any sounds of crying—and yet I remember being quite certain that were I to knock and enter, I would discover her in tears.

In Ivory's film, as you might guess, the door does get opened and Stevens discovers Miss Kenton in tears, only to advise her that some household article wants dusting! Further, after the butler departs, the camera remains on Miss Kenton, regarding her heartbroken face in a way that Stevens could never bring himself to do.

The camera does this once more near the end of The Remains of the Day. Stevens and Miss Kenton have had their meeting and character-history has proved to be human destiny: the aging butler will return to his butlering without ever having brought up the subject of their dormant love, and the now matronly housekeeper will go back to her marriage and the promise of a grandchild from her expectant daughter. As he puts Miss Kenton on a bus in the novel, Stevens notices that she is crying and comforts her with some pleasantries—nothing more. As he puts her on that same bus in the film, Miss Kenton is not yet in tears. For heightened effect, we see her crying through the window of the departing bus as Stevens does; then, after he leaves the frame, we get another shot of her face receding in tears. From whose point of view? The omniscient camera-as-narrator, or Ivory-cum-Jhabvala as nouveau italicizers of emotion. This team even manages to inject heat into the novel's politics, or to put its heart where Ishiguro's head has prevailed. For instance, in the novel Lord Darlington, after "doing a great deal of thinking," tells Stevens to dismiss two Jewish housemaids, which he summarily does despite the strenuous objections of Miss Kenton. We never learn from Ishiguro what becomes of them, because in the book the girls are English Jews and therefore would not have been in danger of deportation. But in the movie the two maids are German-Jewish; Darlington decides they must be let go as he reads Mein Kampf(!); and, without work, the two young women are soon sent back to Germany, whence they are dispatched to concentration camps.

Ivory and Jhabvala readily seize on other opportunities to show the audience that their political heart is in the right place. Before departing for the West Country, Stevens is sent by them on business to the local general store, where he denies ever having known Lord Darlington, whom the clerk has decried as a Nazi sympathizer. No such scene occurs in the novel, and its effect is to change Stevens from an obtusely loyal, blindly trustful servant to a shifty timeserver masquerading as a man of conscience. En route to Clevedon, Stevens has a similar encounter—embellished by the filmmakers—with a doctor at an inn, where customers mistake the butler for a gentleman on account of his proper diction and dignified bearing. The high-born doctor senses Stevens' working-class origins and gets him to admit, in the film, that he is "in service" at a great house in Oxfordshire. Inevitably, their cinematic conversation comes around to Lord Darlington of Oxfordshire, whom the doctor pillories for his virtual collaboration with the Nazis, and with whom Stevens once again disavows any acquaintance. Then he relents and tells the truth: he was proud to have served Lord Darlington but his job was just that, to serve, not to agree or disagree with his employer's political views. He goes on to say that, in attempting to accommodate Hitler, Darlington made a mistake for which he later sincerely repented; whereas he, Stevens, once made a mistake too—but one that he can correct rather than lament. The teasing implication, of course, is that his mistake was a matter of the heart rather than politics: to have repressed his love for Miss Kenton, which he will shortly express to her in Clevedon.

Stevens' words here are a complete reversal of what he says in the novel, two days after Miss Kenton's departure by bus, to a man sitting next to him on a pier in Weymouth:

Lord Darlington wasn't bad man. He wasn't a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship's wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can't even say I made my own mistakes. Really—one has to ask oneself—what dignity is there in that?

Stevens appears less politically correct in this speech, since he calls Darlington courageous if misguided; but he also appears more emotionally honest because he speaks of his mistakes as irremediable in addition to undignifying, as inherent in his character as the narrative has established it. And they are mistakes, not one mistake, the use of the plural serving to conflate Stevens' relationship to Lord Darlington with his relationship to Miss Kenton. For the two relationships, and the butler's mistakes in them, are indeed related, as is Stevens' first-person perspective to the novel's thematic intent.

Ironically, Stevens gets to speak for himself in Ishiguro's tale, whereas in the past he had always allowed Lord Darlington to speak for him or at least to speak in his place. But in speaking for himself, he only reveals the tragicomic extent of his political capitulation and emotional barrenness, his substitution of a life of peripheral protocol for one of direct involvement. Being a butler, for Stevens, has been an act of selfless fealty toward a lord, not a mere profession or business—moreover, toward a lord engaged in great undertakings designed to secure England's future. He has allowed nothing to come between him and his duty to Darlington, not even the love of Miss Kenton, so satisfactory has his relationship with his master been. And Lord Darlington, for his part, has allowed nothing to come between him and his duty to his country, not even the love of a wife, so satisfactory has his life of (behind-the-scenes) public service been. As a member of the household staff at Darlington Hall, Miss Kenton serves Stevens even as he serves his lord and his lord serves the state. The problem with this hierarchy of faithful service, however, is that it permits no room for second-guessing, and second-guessing is what the action of both master and butler so desperately require. When Miss Kenton tries to question the actions of her "betters"—particularly in the dismissal of the Jewish maids—she is rebuffed. No one questions the fact that the happy "partnership" of Stevens and Lord Darlington seems to rule out the need for female companionship, though I hasten to add that there is nothing overtly or even covertly sexual about their relationship.

Ishiguro means, I think, to make Stevens' blindness—both to Darlington's political naïveté and Miss Kenton's emotional warmth—stand as a metaphor for England's blindness to its own national character and destiny. Just as Stevens trusted in Lord Darlington, Darlington trusted in his, and his country's ability to broker a lasting peace with the Germans where no one else had been able to. That is, he and his associates—who recall the members of the notorious if somewhat mythologized "Cliveden set"—placed their trust in the cachet of British empire and aristocracy, as did Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain after them. They were mistaken to do so because, as Hitler clearly saw, the empire and its royalty were headed for extinction. Stevens thought he was serving the empire by denying himself, but all that he really did was deny himself, deny the love that could have given his life some dimension. He unquestioningly accepted the class system and his insulated place in it, and his reward, like that of many of his countrymen high and low, was a life of lovelessness if not brutality, of coldness if not desolation, of constriction if not misery. Stevens' singular detachment or self-enclosure is well conveyed by the novel's first-person perspective, which naturally permits no other points of view to interject themselves and which furthermore allows Stevens to create his character, as well as its social significance, by indirection, without resort to psychologizing on the one hand or historicizing on the other. One of the problems with Ivory's film, as I've indicated, is that the omniscient camera does intervene and perhaps had no choice but to intervene. In doing so, however, it sacrifices Stevens' integral tunnel vision without providing any compensatory light.

The title of Ishiguro's novel refers both to the remains of Stevens' own day—to the quiet evenings following his daily yeoman's service as well as to the lonely retirement that awaits him—and to the twilight of British imperialism. That twilight tends to get moved back to its heyday or sunshine in Ivory's film, partly because of Tony Pierce-Roberts' cinematography, which appears celebratory instead of elegiac, lush rather than weathered; partly because of the movie's ending, which instead of finding Stevens sitting alone on a seaside bench in the evening (as the novel does), shows him back at Darlington Hall the next morning going about his duties, which happen to include—oh, cliché of cinematic clichés!—releasing a trapped pigeon into the verdant beauty of the surrounding countryside; and partly because of the documentary-like sequences showing, even glorying in, how a great manor is run, from the butler's ironing of the morning paper page by page to the scullery maid's cleaning of the cutlery, from the elaborate preparation of meals to the equally elaborate accommodation of numerous important guests. The camera remains somewhat removed through all of this, yet one can't help thinking that the preoccupied Stevens would never take the time to scan the place and process of his work in such loving detail. Nor, as I've already pointed out, would he regard Miss Kenton in the way the camera does: lingeringly and lovingly. In the novel, she's a figure of imagination, created by words, a player in Stevens' internal dramas whose face we never see. In the film, Miss Kenton takes on a life of her own—especially as acted by the estimable, I dare say enchanting, Emma Thompson. And that life with its drama detracts a bit from Stevens' own. Anthony Hopkins doesn't play the butler, he inhabits him as he knew he must if he were going to capture the inner life of a man who very nearly has no outer life, and whose appeal to any woman has to come from deep inside his self-imposed carapace. Hopkins creates a similar character in a film released almost at the same time as The Remains of the Day: Richard Attenborough's Shadowlands, the love story of C. S. Lewis and the American poet (as well as film critic) Joy Davidman. But there he is burdened by a script and direction far more sentimental than what Ivory and Jhabvala give him.

I obviously have my problems with their Remains of the Day, but I'll take it rather than no film version at all. And not least because of the generally fine supporting cast, among whose members two stand out: Hugh Grant, as Lord Darlington's presciently critical, refreshingly playful godson, and Peter Vaughan, as Stevens' aged underbutler of a father whose death inspires little filial emotion in his son. Even here, however, a mistake was made in (1) conflating the parts of the postwar American millionaire who buys Darlington Hall and an American Congressman who attends a prewar Darlington conference to speak against the appeasement of the Nazis; and (2) casting the eager but wooden Christopher Reeve in the "collapsed" role. The man whose denunciation of Hitler at the Hall fell on deaf ears would most likely not revisit such a painful and frustrating memory in his retirement, nor would he then dimly declare—in Jhabvala's screenplay—that he couldn't recall what he said that evening in Oxfordshire more than twenty years ago. This puts his character on an intellectual level with Lord Darlington himself, and even Christopher Reeve is not that stupid. Neither, finally, is the film of which he is a part.

Roz Kaveney (review date 12 May 1995)

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SOURCE: Roz Kaveney, "Tossed and Turned," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 8, No. 352, May 12, 1995, p. 39.

[In the following negative review, Kaveney calls The Unconsoled a "talented mess of a novel."]

Dreams are the most personal of universal experiences. Writers who deal in them may get credit for what is recognised or for what forces its way into the shared grammar of dreaming, but will be told there is no art in telling what everyone knows. They will be blamed for anything that seems too personal or feels like mere invention. Ishiguro's tortuous tale of missed appointments suffers, and occasionally succeeds, under all these rubrics.

Freud claimed all dreams for literary criticism, to be decoded as a poem full of hermetic symbolism. Jung added historicist New Criticism: your dreams are not your own, but merely inheritors of rules. They imposed a loss of innocence on the telling of dreams that is responsible for the sheer guarded mundanity of this novel. Ishiguro's discreet refusal of florid invention evades potentially embarrassing tropes at the cost of a deep dullness.

Ryder, an international virtuoso, arrives in a small town to play in a concert. The town combines an old quarter full of quaint bars where folksy Germanic porters engage in trials of strength with housing estates full of people Ryder knew in his suburban teens; its dignitaries and eccentrics are Mittel-European or middle-class English. He wanders around trying to honour commitments from which he is deflected, sometimes in the company of Sophie and her son, Boris, who may or may not be his wife and child.

Sometimes a gear shifts and he shares the consciousness of the underrated pianist son of the local hotelier, or the rehabilitated drunk conductor Brodsky. They perform, and are humiliated; Ryder never plays, practises, eats or sleeps, but wanders down irrelevant corridors or onto trams without destinations.

What is wrong with all this? Part of the trouble is what looks like awful literary knowingness. Ryder shares a surname with the narrator of Brideshead Revisited, another novel of going back and not doing that which you ought to have done. His name is also cognate with Ritter, the German knight: the chess piece that sets off in one direction and then turns in another. It is hard to be certain whether the S and B pairing of Sophie and Boris is intended to echo Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno, or whether this is simply the sort of book that plays so many irritating precious gambits that the attentive reader moves from closer reading to paranoia.

In The Remains of the Day, the butler protagonist spoke in a pompous idiolect that revealed him as an unreliable narrator. Hardly has Ryder arrived when he is subjected to a lecture from Gustav, the hotel porter and Sophie's father, on the duties of porters, delivered in a similar idiolect. The dignitaries fall into yet another one. It makes reading the novel rather like having Anthony Hopkins loom out at you from dark corners in a variety of thin disguises.

My own impression of high culture in dreams is that it mingles the imaginary and the well-known with things one knows exist, and can guesstimate the experience of Ryder and his colleagues only ever play or discuss non-existent music, which all sounds as if it is written by Michael Nyman. This is not credible: even in dreams, musicians have to play the Moonlight Sonata or the Maple Leaf Rag.

Ishiguro is representing as a realm a place that is actually a border post. He writes as if the rules of dream were constituted by the unconscious, rather than by the protocols of trade between the waking and sleeping self. This intermittently evokes how it feels to have an anxiety dream, but in 500 pages we expect more. Joyce alluded to the whole of western culture in the dream of Finnegans Wake.

The novel's various closures—the death of Gustav, the humiliation of Brodsky, the departure of Sophie and Boris—feel artificial. The only proper closure of a dream is to wake up, usually with nothing settled. Ishiguro has produced a talented mess of a novel that leaves one with the ill temper and headache produced by lying for too long in the wrong position.

Merle Rubin (review date 4 October 1995)

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SOURCE: "Probing the Plight of Lives 'Trapped' in Others' Expectations," in Christian Science Monitor, Vol. 87, October 4, 1995, p. 14.

[In the following review of The Unconsoled, Rubin argues that while the book may seem labyrinthine and nearly boring, it is also fascinating and skillfully written.]

Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1981), portrays his native city, Nagasaki, in the wake of the bombing that devastated it nine years before his birth. His second novel An Artist of the Floating World (1986), unfolded in the alien milieu of prewar, imperialist Japan. In his third novel, the Booker Prize-winning Remains of the Day (1990), Ishiguro imagined the world seen through the eyes of a stuffy, repressed English butler on the verge of retirement.

Now, in his fourth novel, The Unconsoled, this gifted and versatile writer, raised and educated in England, takes on a theme of Kafkaesque complexity that is played out in an ambience as overwhelmingly Central European as a vat of steaming goulash with dumplings.

The story is narrated by Ryder, a world-famous pianist who arrives in an unidentified European city to give a concert. From the instant of his arrival, Ryder is politely but relentlessly besieged by people wanting him to do small favors that will only take a "moment" out of his busy schedule but which will supposedly change their lives immeasurably. From the hotel manager who begs him to take a few minutes to look at the collection of press cuttings his music-loving wife has assembled about his career, to an old friend who pleads with Ryder to stop by her women's cultural group to prove that she really knows him, everyone wants to make use of the visiting celebrity.

As if this were not daunting enough, Ryder is already at a distinct disadvantage from the moment he sets foot in town: For some reason, he can't remember where he is or what he is expected to do.

He is supposed to be following a schedule of lectures, meetings, and social events leading up to his concert. But he has no copy of this schedule, and—what is stranger still—doesn't tell his host. If Ryder is a man who has stumbled into a situation that makes very little sense, he is also one who doesn't try very hard to make sense of it.

As in his previous novel, Ishiguro is concerned here with the ways in which role-playing, the fabrication of a public facade, can eviscerate the private self. It's not surprising that in attempting to describe this strange and elusive novel, its publishers should characterize its protagonist as "a man whose public self has taken on a life of its own." Certainly, Ryder is portrayed as having been too busy with his career to spend enough time with his family and as someone who allows his daily activities, sometimes his very thoughts, to be shaped by the demands of his so-called public.

But this is just the beginning. Not only Ryder, but everyone else in town seems caught in a trap of his or her own making. And in each case, this "trap," this inability to act, is based upon that person's misconception of how others see him. There's the kindly old hotel porter who stopped talking to his daughter for the most trivial of reasons years ago when she was a child, and still cannot bring himself to address her now, except by communicating his comments via her little boy. There's the man who married a music-loving woman who mistook him for an aspiring composer: Nearly two decades later, never having actually discussed this with her, he keeps wondering if she knows the truth and will leave him.

Ryder himself is obsessed with the fact that his parents are expected to come to town for the upcoming concert: He still sees them as the ultimate arbiters of his success.

Ishiguro brilliantly conveys the claustrophobic atmosphere of this status-conscious city that prides itself on its reverence for culture and suffers from a mild inferiority complex vis-a-vis larger places, such as Vienna or Stuttgart. The citizens are exaggeratedly deferential, indeed, obsequious, toward their distinguished guest, yet underlyingly demanding and bossy.

"If you find time to sit down at the Hungarian Cafe …," advises the helpful porter, "I feel certain you won't regret it. I would suggest you order a pot of coffee and a piece of apple strudel. Incidentally, sir, I did just wonder … if I might ask a small favor…. You see, I just know my daughter will be at the Hungarian Cafe. She'll have little Boris with her, she's a very pleasant young woman, sir, I'm sure you'd feel very sympathetic towards her…."

And on he rambles for another few pages, pressuring Ryder to meet his daughter. Everyone else in town seems afflicted with the same logorrhea, launching at a moment's notice into interminable dialogues, trying to draw him into their obsessions.

The physical layout of the city reinforces this sense of entrapment: Hallways lead into rooms in distant buildings, brick walls loom suddenly between pedestrians and their goals, and the harried Ryder often gets lost in a labyrinth or finds himself going in circles. The distinguished visitor is often overwhelmed by a sensation of powerlessness. Worse yet, he begins to find himself behaving quite as irrationally as his hosts.

Needless to say, the cumulative effect of some 500 pages of frustration and anxiety is something akin to boredom. Yet this boredom—though scarcely "exquisite" in the manner of Proust—is oddly fascinating. Occasionally, when some small breakthrough occurs and someone manages to express a true feeling, there is a poignant glimmer of hope.

Wending one's way through the labyrinth of atrophied emotion and blocked expression, one may chafe at the longueurs, but still appreciate the imagination and artistry with which they have been rendered.

Richard Eder (review date 8 October 1995)

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SOURCE: Richard Eder, "Meandering in a Dreamscape," in Los Angeles Time Book Review, October 8, 1995, pp. 3, 7.

[In the following review, Eder claims that The Unconsoled is a complex and ambitious novel which becomes wearisome but is also rewarding.]

Awake, we choose our life or our life chooses us, and we spend our days living out the consequences of the choice. Asleep and dreaming, we are haunted by all the choices we didn't make and their exfoliating consequences. A kind of vital mainspring usually lets us give priority to our daytime acts and keep at bay the infinite alternatives, which, if admitted, would bring us to a clogged halt.

Any choice or action, however virtuous or prudent, will cause some pain, loss or dilapidation somewhere, even if it is only for what is not chosen or done. Daytime's mainspring lets us lock down the possible guilt and regret for these things. At night the guilts, the insufficiencies, the terrors have nothing to check them but the twin facts that they are bodiless and that we are going to wake up.

Kazuo Ishiguro, in whose tersely sculpted novels of moral complexity and regret the night world looms faintly through the daylight (The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World), has now published a full-fledged nocturnal sprawl. It is not, of course, as huge and unrestrained as the most famous of dream novels: H.C. Earwicker's 678-page sleep in Finnegans Wake. It lacks the vast web of conscious and unconscious digression, the portmanteau inclusiveness of just about everything its author knew, its quadrilingual puns, its global myth and its fearful difficulty.

For all that, The Unconsoled is complex and ambitious, and undeniably difficult. If not a literary Everest—oxygen! Sherpas! can we please go home!—it is at any rate a Mt. Washington, and formidable enough. It offers some remarkable views, and flowers that grow only in the thin air of heights. Whether they are worth the climb is beyond even the subjectivity of a review. At any rate, it is a book that is not given but has to be earned.

The Unconsoled is the life of a public man seen by the infrared light of his dreaming vulnerabilities. Ryder is a famous pianist but he could be any celebrated artist. The night doubts and demons that declare the unreality of his achievements presumably reflect something of what goes on between the much-honored Ishiguro and his own pillow.

Ryder finds himself the honored guest of a nameless European city, German or Swiss in feeling, and plunged into a profound moral and spiritual crisis. In this allegorical place such a crisis is declared in terms of music. The city's tutelary composer, Christoff, an abstract modernist, is in disgrace; a movement is afoot to replace him with his predecessor, Brodsky, a once-revered romantic destroyed by his own debauchery and the winds of fashion.

A cabal made up of local politicians, a countess who is a leading art patron and the manager of the finest hotel is working to rehabilitate him. It is no mere musical matter; it means restoring the god to the abandoned civic temple. Either we succeed, one Brodsky supporter says, "or resign ourselves to being just another cold, lonely city."

Thus Ryder's effusive welcome. He is to play and speak in a few days' time at a concert at which Brodsky is to demonstrate his regained mastery as a conductor. Ryder's international prestige will put the seal on the enshrinement.

From the moment he checks into his hotel, everything goes askew, not as in life but as in a nightmare. He is told that he has a crowded schedule of vital meetings and events but never learns what it is. Everyone makes a claim on him he can't refuse. The hotel manager wants him to spare a moment to examine a book of clippings collected by his wife, ostensibly a Ryder fan; her sanity, he implies, depends on it. The manager's son, Stephen, a failed pianist who has taken up the instrument again, wants him to listen to a fearsomely difficult piece he will play at the Brodsky concert.

A hotel porter, Gustav, asks him to attend a meeting of the city's hotel porters and work a reference to their devoted work into his concert talk. He also asks him to talk to Sophia, his daughter, who is in a deep depression. Sophia, it turns out—everything displaces and reassembles—is Ryder's estranged wife. She wants him to abandon his peripatetic celebrity and make a home with her and their mournful little son, Boris. Boris wants Ryder to take him to their old apartment and reclaim a favorite toy.

The interruptions and demands escalate. Each time he sets out to fulfill one, he is waylaid by a new one. They become more and more insistent, and each is connected obscurely to a primal failure of his own. An old English schoolmate turns up indignant because he has not come to tea. An old English girlfriend accosts him on the tram where she is a ticket-taker and demands to know why he hasn't turned up at a Ryder fan circle she has organized. He churns in all directions, never manages to get where he is going—typical of a nightmare—and all the while time is running out for him to practice for the concert. It is another typical nightmare, the performer's, at finding himself onstage unprepared.

Not only do the claims, and Ryder's sense of failure, multiply, but each proliferates in its own complexity and intensity. Different town factions make use of him. Everywhere he goes he is effusively welcomed, yet before long each welcome turns into recrimination or, still worse, invisibility. At the receptions in his honor nobody pays attention to him unless it is to allude to some past failure or present omission. When he finally gets to the meeting of his fan club, the women ignore him while talking excitedly about how they almost met him at one of his public appearances.

The succession of inexplicable claims, frustrations and cordialities that turn into recriminations, the frequent refusal of places to stay put, and a tendency for destinations to recede as Ryder approaches them—there is more than a suggestion of "Alice in Wonderland"—go on and on. Amid the dreamlike figures, some—Sophia, the forlorn Boris, the maddened Brodsky—acquire a sharp and vivid poignancy. The absurdities become even more spectacular.

Ishiguro writes them with his characteristic grace and offbeat pungency. But for much of the book he strings them together, link by link, in a chain that seems to exist for itself, without binding anything up. It is a long meander whose picturesque curves grow wearisome after a while, for lack of a sense of a sea beyond. There is indeed such a sea. Ryder's long nightmare operates a change in him; he has a ruefully chastened awakening at the end. It is an unexpectedly satisfying end but it needed to come sooner. The recounting of a dream is as quick to fade as the dream itself.

Brooke Allen (review date 11 October 1995)

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SOURCE: Brooke Allen, "Leaving Behind Daydreams for Nightmares," in The Wall Street Journal, October 11, 1995, p. 12.

[In the following review of The Unconsoled, Allen argues that while Ishiguro has chosen a new writing style, his subject matter remains the same.]

Six years ago, at the age of 35, Kazuo Ishiguro came to international attention as the author of The Remains of the Day, an elegant novel that won the 1989 Booker Prize and was made into a film by Merchant and Ivory. In The Remains of the Day Mr. Ishiguro trod territory that he had already explored in his first two novels. A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986). The narrator was once again an elderly person—in this case an English butler—looking back upon a life of meaningless ritual, missed opportunities, failed love. It established Mr. Ishiguro as a realistic artist, who wrote traditional stories in a formal, rather anachronistic style. Some even compared him to Henry James.

Mr. Ishiguro later admitted that he wanted to write something less realistic in form. The result is The Unconsoled, a departure for Mr. Ishiguro and an unusual, striking piece of work.

Imagine an alternate world in which life is not a dream but in which the dream is your life—in other words, where you must live your life by the inexplicable logic and ever changing rules imposed by the dream itself. This is the fate of Ryder, the dreamer and the novel's narrator.

The middle-aged Ryder, an English-man, is a world-famous pianist. He finds himself at a hotel in a small and obscure city somewhere in Central Europe and is greeted by the manager, Mr. Hoffman; on Thursday night, it transpires, Ryder will be giving an important concert, and in the two intervening days he has numerous engagements and duties to fulfill. Ryder has no idea what these duties are, nor does he know what pieces he is supposed to play in the concert. With misplaced diffidence, however, he refrains from asking his hosts to elucidate matters.

Thus he sets out on a lengthy misadventure in an aura, peculiar to anxiety dreams of extreme disorientation. Ryder is always lost, always desperately trying to get from one location to some vital appointment for which he is horribly late. And as he struggles to meet his myriad obligations, he finds himself constantly impeded by people in desperate need of succor that only he can give.

All the frustrations so characteristic of anxiety dreams are placed in Ryder's path. He addresses a formal gathering with his genitalia exposed, trying to identify himself, he is unable to articulate his own name and can only strain and grunt; an unbreachable brick wall separates him, just before curtain time, from the concert hall; he is borne away on a tram by bossy journalists, having left a small child alone in a cafe.

Mr. Ishiguro is skillful at evoking the claustrophobia and chaos of a dream; more important, he puts across, with great force, the very real emotional urgency that infuses such dreams. The comic potential in Ryder's travails is always there, but it is overshadowed by his obvious fear, his sense of personal inadequacy in the face of overwhelming responsibilities, his foolish attention to minor duties at the expense of the people who should be most important to him.

For as the tale progresses Mr. Ishiguro artfully points to the fact that alongside the dream-story of Ryder's European sojourn exists another story, Ryder's real story. While Ryder grapples with the complications of his schedule, Sophie and Boris, incidental characters—the daughter and grandson of the hotel porter—impinge on Ryder's attention until it slowly be comes evident that they are not wholly un familiar to him, that they are, in fact, his wife and child. Various friends from Ryder's English childhood appear in odd places, recalling seminal emotional episodes of his early life. A gifted young pianist who is crushed by his egotistical parents might just be a version of Ryder as a youth. And as Ryder takes out his rage toward his parents on Sophie and little Boris, he repeats the cycle of familial sickness that has blighted his own life.

It would seem, then, that Ryder is not so very different from Stevens the butler, another antihero whose obsession with petty duties has kept him from attending to his major one, his duty toward his own heart. Yet The Unconsoled, while unlikely to be such a crowd-pleaser as The Remains of the Day, is the better novel. The Remains of the Day was a meticulous piece of work, but in it Mr. Ishiguro told us nothing that had not been told better by predecessors like E.M. Forster and Christopher Isherwood. The Briton's familiar catalogue of faults—his fear of emotion, his slavish love of form and tradition—were faithfully rehearsed.

The Unconsoled is more universal. Its melding of conscious and subconscious is effective, and the novel is entirely fresh, with no old-fashioned surrealism or Freudian cliché. No doubt some readers will liken it to Kafka, or to Lewis Carroll, but it is not a derivative book. Nor is it heavily stylized. "The kind of book I find very tedious is the kind of book whose raison d'être is to say something about literary form," Mr. Ishiguro has stated. While The Unconsoled might seem more "experimental" than his earlier works, Mr. Ishiguro's subject continues to be, as it has always been, character and emotion.

Charlotte Innes (review date 6 November 1995)

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SOURCE: Charlotte Innes, "Dr. Faustus Faces the Music," in The Nation, Vol. 261, No. 15, November 6, 1995, pp. 546-48.

[In the following review of The Unconsoled, Innes praises Ishiguro for creating an exciting, well written, and humourous novel.]

How hard it is to be true to yourself when people expect you to be something else. Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japanese-born English writer, known to millions for the movie version of his Booker Prize-winning novel The Remains of the Day, has wrestled for his identity more than most, first as an immigrant writer struggling to throw off the noose of stereotype and now as a postmodern novelist who jolted British critical preconceptions earlier this year with his fourth novel, The Unconsoled.

A discordant, plot-entangled, sometimes farcical nightmare of a book, nearly three times longer than his earlier works, filled with literary echoes and characters who won't shut up, Ishiguro's latest work has prompted reactions like "a stinker," "boring" and "chaotic."

Early American reviews sound puzzled. Like other writers who switch styles, Ishiguro will surely spark passions of every hue. For me, this is the first Ishiguro novel to arouse not only admiration but visceral excitement. As I read, it was as if Ishiguro were speaking directly to my concerns—how to juggle family, community, political activism and art. His nightmarish dreamscape doesn't entirely work. But he more than makes up for it. Here is a great writer spreading his wings and soaring high.

If controversy is new for Ishiguro, who has long been admired for his easy narrative style, he certainly knows what it's like to be misunderstood. His first two novels, A Pale View of the Hills and An Artist of the Floating World, which were set largely in post-World War II Japan, drew praise for their delicate "Japanese style"—even for the quality of the "translation"—though Ishiguro hasn't seen his birthplace since he was 5 and can only speak, not write, Japanese. Likewise, The Remains of the Day, which focused on the changing life of a butler called Stevens, drew puzzled admiration for his intimate knowledge of the day-to-day running of British aristocratic households.

In The Unconsoled, it's almost as if Ishiguro took reviewers' misconceptions to heart and cast a fog of vagueness over characters, setting and action to avoid stereotyping. An internationally renowned pianist named only Mr. Ryder arrives in an unnamed, seemingly Middle European city of flawlessly polite citizens to give a recital. Almost immediately, he finds he's also expected to solve a civic crisis that's never clearly explained. The symptoms are hinted at: "dozens of sad cases…. Of lives blighted by loneliness. Of families despairing of ever rediscovering the happiness they'd once taken for granted."

But the problem is not political or economic but musical. Citizens feel their hometown music is technically brilliant but lacks soul. The proposed solution is to dethrone the current musical leader, a cellist named Henri Christoff who is an advocate of stylistic restraint, and replace him with someone who has more verve and passion—or what one city father sinisterly describes as "true music" that shares "our values." They have chosen Leo Brodsky, an alcoholic who, it has been discovered, once had a remarkable career as an orchestra conductor.

Mr. Ryder is too polite or too afraid to ask some basic questions about this strange musical crisis, yet he feels compelled to help these people in the spirit of solving the city's problems with a sense of empathy so marked it sometimes becomes an uncanny ability to see into people's minds. He also suppresses any will of his own. A strange woman called Sophie asserts that he is her husband and the father of her little boy, Boris, and Mr. Ryder takes even this for granted, half-remembering a past with them.

Gradually, people's needs inflate Mr. Ryder's sense of mission. But as he struggles to be all things to all people—brilliant musician, devoted family man, consummate politician and social therapist—his life turns into a mess of tortuous car rides, missed appointments and barely kept tempers, culminating in the recital, a disaster that only confirms his outsider status.

Mr. Ryder sits alone on a tram with a sense of solitude so painful he breaks down and sobs. A friendly stranger offers comfort—echoing the end of The Remains of the Day—an act of spontaneous kindness that allows Mr. Ryder, like Stevens, to bury his anguish and don his rose-colored spectacles.

Clearly, The Unconsoled is tackling some old obsessions from a new angle.

In not naming the city, yet giving it a Germanic flavor and inhabitants who are unfailingly polite even under great stress, Ishiguro offers his usual cast of repressed and self-deceiving characters but in a different guise. Mr. Ryder is as misguided (and as easily swayed) in his attempts to help the city as Masuji Ono, the artist in An Artist of the Floating World who compromises his art to serve imperialist Japan. He's also like Stevens, who believes that with his unquestioning service as a butler he is making a better world.

Ishiguro's choice of music to represent a Germanic city's crisis is also significant. It suggests Thomas Mann's Dr. Faustus, in which a great composer, Adrian Leverkühn (modeled on the inventor of atonal music, Arnold Schönberg), struggles to write a new kind of music: a dark tone poem, based on the legend of Faust's pact with the devil, to reflect the growth of German fascism, which famously bent the public will to its own ends with the aid of a charismatic leader. (In Ishiguro's punning dream language, Christoff suggests both Christ and Mephistopheles, and Brodsky too is a crucified savior in permanent pain from an old "wound.")

Like Schönberg's dissonant, atonal music, The Unconsoled whacks us again and again with its unharmonious message about failed communication. Worse, all this division and self-absorption is passed from one generation to the next. Mr. Ryder's unhappy childhood memories are reflected in his fraught relationship with Boris—who desperately and touchingly tries to get Mr. Ryder's attention by studying a tiling manual—and in his dealings with Stephen, a would-be pianist whose cruelly perfectionist parents remind Mr. Ryder of his own.

In Ishiguro's work, as in Mann's, people cannot handle complexity. They prefer to sweeten and deny, as Mr. Ryder does on the tram and as the citizenry does in rejecting Brodsky's debut conducting session. Like Mann's burghers who are repulsed by the torment of the mad composer and a Faust who is allowed "no consolation, appeasement, transfiguration," Ishiguro's community is shocked by the anguish Brodsky evokes in the music. (Thus in shuttered minds, the seeds of fascism grow.)

Far from being "chaotic," The Unconsoled is as tightly plotted as anything Ishiguro has written, with many interwoven narrative threads. As in his other novels, none of these threads are happily tied by story's end. With so many unresolved problems, the sadness is all the more overwhelming. Yet thanks to Ishiguro's impeccable timing, his ability to deploy the techniques of suspense thrillers and his hectic humor, what could have been a gloomy tale is a positive joy to read. Hilarious, satirical potshots are lobbed at exploitative journalists, cynical local officials, snobby intellectuals, political opportunists, smug volunteers, even a surgeon who wields a hacksaw to chop off a leg.

Still, it's no wonder critics got upset. Though the story is told in Mr. Ryder's steady and rational-seeming tone (shades of Stevens and Masuji Ono), this book feels like a nervous breakdown waiting to happen. It's every awful scenario you've ever dreamed of—from drifting down interminable corridors to dressing inappropriately. It's also a deeply personal Conradian voyage into Mr. Ryder's subconscious where he battles, mid-life crisis-style, with painful memories of which we catch only glimpses.

The Unconsoled conveys the same bleak messages as the rest of Ishiguro's much-praised work. Our self-deceptions are intolerable. Denial is a hedge against madness. Life is one long search for consolation and the ability to compromise humanity's dubious achievement. But his emphasis on the tremendous relief to be drawn from the complementary comforts of kindness and art suggest something more ambivalent here. Just as true kindness has no motive, Ishiguro says, great art, with its blend of intellectual control and instinctive sensual passion, is beautiful for an inner integrity that can't be compromised by arbitrary pressure. Music carries no moral force. But the feeling it projects, like the life-giving exuberance of Ishiguro's prose, is unmistakable.

Stanley Kauffmann (review date 6 November 1995)

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SOURCE: Stanley Kauffmann, "The Floating World," in The New Republic, Vol. 213, No. 19, November 6, 1995, pp. 42-5.

[In the review below, Kauffmann suggests that The Unconsoled builds on Ishiguro's first three novels and should be interpreted in terms of the earlier works.]

Those who were lucky enough, or smart enough, to read Kazuo Ishiguro's first three novels in order of publication came to the third one, The Remains of the Day, with an advantage over the rest of us. Ishiguro was born in Japan and he has lived in England since he was five. (He is now 41.) To those who began with the third book, including myself, Ishiguro's huge cultural shift made that very English novel remarkable for what I would now call misconstrued reasons: we thought it an extraordinary feat of osmosis. But viewed through the perspective of his first two books, The Remains of the Day, wonderful anyway, seems even better.

Ishiguro's first novel, A Pale View of the Hills (1982), focuses on a Japanese woman now living in England, one of whose daughters has recently committed suicide and whose other daughter is in difficulties. The story interweaves the woman's past life in post-war Nagasaki with her subsequent English life and brings the braiding up to the present. The book concludes with a sudden, startling enigma. (That puzzle, though presumably this was not in Ishiguro's mind at the time, prefigures his latest, fourth novel.)

In his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World (1986), that world is the pre-war "night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink" in a Japanese city. This world was the chief background for the youthful paintings of the now-elderly painter who is the protagonist. But the phrase has taken on another resonance. Like the first book, the "present" of the novel is post-war, the protagonist and his artist-contemporaries feel some guilt about their work before the war that may have inflamed jingoistic feelings. One of the painters commits suicide in remorse. The "floating world," particularly as dangled before us by the title, comes to reflect other glints, other kinds of delusory gratification.

Ishiguro's first two books are masterly, in several ways. In each, the control is flawless without seeming arbitrary: every incident, every comma, appears to fit. Balance and rhythm are just, and in a gentle, oblique way, the story amplifies in texture. Remarks, observations, small incidents heighten our interest without the use of anything as crass as overt suspense. Yet the salient quality of these books is their method of characterization. Ishiguro doesn't use much physical description or interior delving. These people become familiar by the shapes of their lives—the way they choose and care, their daily routines, their harboring or shedding of grievances, even their liking of particular foods and their skill in cooking.

With many novelists, including some great ones, we sense that the author is carefully presenting his characters; at its crudest, it's the puppetmaster putting on a play. With Ishiguro, it's quite different. In these two books, he doesn't present his characters, he nestles among them. He watches them, respects them, obeys them, and conveys to us quietly what they tell him. He seems almost to chat with them from time to time "off-stage."

The quietness is the key. The children in these two books make some noise, but only the children. Ishiguro treats them with cunning, as citizens of a tangential world distinct from that of their parents and elders. Sometimes they permit their elders to enter, sometimes not; and often they are rackety. Except for their racket, the air of these two books is quiet. One of Ishiguro's triumphs is that their considerable range of emotion is brought close without a lot of fuss.

To arrive at The Remains of the Day (1989) through the avenue of the first two books is, peculiarly, to be both unsurprised and newly impressed. The "Japanese" qualities of the first two books—the taciturnity, the subtle brush strokes, the aim to evoke form rather than create it—persist. We cannot be quite so acutely aware of these qualities without knowledge of the earlier books; in this aspect the third novel grows directly from the first two. Yet, along with those persisting qualities from the past, Ishiguro is a secret member of a household in an utterly different culture. His Japanese past helped him to get there.

Darlington Hall, his main venue, has its own intricate grid of protocols. They have some analogies with Japanese social behavior, but it would be gross to call the two sets similar. Still, the third book has no whiff of exploration or discovery: Stevens, the butler, is as intimate to Ishiguro as any character he has written. This conviction is continually certified throughout the book because we see and hear everything through Stevens. Without tremor or cleverness, the book exists through the existence of Stevens. This fact becomes all the more telling, more moving, when we realize that through his eyes and ears we are seeing and hearing more than he ever comprehends.

About The Remains of the Day it is possible to risk the word "perfect." The book's special beauty is that it is a political allegory, bitter and sad, without losing any ground as a full-bodied novel. It has been compared favorably with Henry James; I would add Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Anthony Powell. Ishiguro's book belongs with the best of English fiction that treats the English class system with combined satire and relish, with perception of both its cruelty and its rigorous ethos, as a distillation of English history.

Passage through the first two Ishiguro novels is a fruitful way to reach the third. Passage through all three of those novels is helpful, though in a quite different way, for the fourth. To begin with a blunt fact: we know, when we pick it up, that The Unconsoled is a departure for its author because of its size, 535 pages. His longest previous book was 245 pages. Familiarity with his previous style—laconic loveliness, space compacted for intensity—makes us immediately curious about the differences we will discover.

They start to appear at once. The setting is Europe. On the first page a man named Ryder, whose first-person narrative this is, arrives at a hotel in an unspecified city. (It remains so.) The magazines in the lobby rack are in several languages, and the names we begin to hear are German. After Ryder has registered, he is taken up in the elevator by an old porter, Gustav, who carries his bags and doesn't set them down as they ascend. His face is growing red with the strain: Ryder urges him to set down the bags. "I'm glad you mention it, sir," says Gustav, then launches into a four-page explanation of the portering principles involved and the resolution of the porters in this city to abide by them. He even mentions the café where the porters meet to discuss these things. He concludes: "I'm sure Miss Hilde will vouch for what I'm saying." Then Ryder notices a young woman behind him. She, too, then speaks at length—about the attractions of the city and about the preparation of Ryder's schedule, though we don't yet quite know why there is a schedule.

Sensors flash in us. We have recognized already that the style has changed: the loquacity of those monologues is in stark contrast to the honed dialogue in the previous books. But more basically, the criteria of realism have shifted. Gustav's and Miss Hilde's comments are so lengthy that the elevators would have had to climb to the top of the World Trade Center, slowly, for those two to have time to speak them. Miss Hilde's could not possibly have been unnoticed by Ryder when he entered the elevator. Ishiguro patently wants these factual distortions to strike us: traditional realism is not to be this book's habitat. Yet the details are veristic.

This contradiction, plus the first tremblings of mystery around the seemingly commonplace, plus the scent of Middle Europe in the atmosphere, make our literary radar signal: Kafka. But this perception doesn't take much subtlety on our part. Ishiguro wants us to know that he has taken a master for this book. (Later he calls one of the streets in this city Walserstrasse. Robert Walser, the Swiss author who began publishing a few years before Kafka, was often compared to his junior; when Kafka's work first appeared, some readers thought that Franz Kafka was a pseudonym for Robert Walser.)

Before the first chapter is ended, Ishiguro has fixed his book in the realm of paradox that uses veristic minutiae to tack down the edges of billowing non-realism. Erich Heller says: "Kafka's style—simple, lucid, and 'real' in the sense of never leaving any doubt concerning the reality of that which is narrated, described, or meditated—does yet narrate, describe or mediate the shockingly unbelievable." This might have been Ishiguro's motto for his book. We learn that Ryder, whose first name is never mentioned, is an English pianist; he is to appear in a few days in a concert over which the city is making a to-do. A great deal happens in those few days, all of it couched in that ballooning/contracting sense of time, that melting/solidifying sense of place that quickly become integral in the book.

Another surreal element is soon added. The day of his arrival, when Ryder wanders into the square where the porters' café is located, he sees a woman around 40 and her small son seated there. Gustav had told Ryder that they might be there, his daughter and grandson, Sophie and Boris. She waves at Ryder, which surprises him, and when he goes over, she addresses him by name. In a moment Sophie asks Boris to go off for a bit; then she talks to Ryder about a house she is buying for him and her and Boris. Instead of asking what in the world she means, Ryder slips, slides, into acceptance of this new circumstance in his life:

She began to give me more details about the house. I remained silent, but only because of my uncertainty as to how I should respond. For the fact was, as we had been sitting together, Sophie's face had come to seem steadily more familiar to me, until now I thought I could even remember vaguely some earlier discussions about buying just such a house in the woods.

Other instances of Ryder's malleable consciousness soon occur, not as if he were being dragooned into accepting something but as if he were vaporously recalling it. This phenomenon strongly suggests another influence on Ishiguro: Pinter, especially Old Times. In Pinter's play, states of being, consistent in themselves, overlap other, contradictory states of being and memory in the same person—a kind of interior cubism. After these overlappings have gone on for a bit in the play, a woman says:

There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember that may never have happened, but as I recall them so they take place.

This is one of the insistent modes of Ishiguro's novel. (It's worth noting, not as proof but as linkage, that Pinter was for a time involved in the screen adaptation of The Remains of the Day.)

The café encounter is the merest corner of the long, complexly layered journey-saga that Ryder undergoes before the evening of the concert, and it doesn't end there. The hotel manager, Hoffman, his wife, and their pianist son Stephan; the conductor Brodsky and his estranged wife; some boyhood chums, now grown, from his English school-days—these and many, many more wander in and out. Almost everyone whom Ryder meets wants something from him: Hoffman wants him to look at his wife's albums of clippings about Ryder's career, Stephen wants Ryder to listen to his playing, Gustav wants Ryder to say something in public at the concert about the conditions of the porters; and more.

In the course of the book Ryder travels about on foot, by car, by tram, and he moves, suddenly and almost every time, from crowded streets to lonely country-side, from busy rooms into straitened corridors, all these transitions melding into a vivid but intentionally unreliable continuum of place. Added to this kaleidoscopic geography are multiple points of view—in a first-person narrative. A man who is driving Ryder somewhere parks in front of a house and asks to be excused for a minute while he goes inside. Ryder, sitting in the car, then sees and hears the conversation deep within the house.

These dissolvings of one place into another, this super-vision, suggest film. (The English paperbound editions of Ishiguro's work mention his "keen interest in the cinema.") The book has other filmic touches, of Bergman particularly. When the child Boris wanders in the hotel corridors, we think of The Silence; with the quasi-phantom classroom, Wild Strawberries. Several film references are frank. In Ishiguro's city there is Sternberg Garden; the city's "most senior" actor is named Jannings; a modern composer is named Kazan. Valentino and Groucho Marx are used as points of reference. 2001: A Space Odyssey is mentioned a few times. (With the wrong cast. This is deliberate, I'm sure, but no reason for this "mistake" is apparent.)

Like Kafka before him, Ishiguro conveys the immanence of a kind of spectral humor throughout, and sometimes that humor bulges into the foreground. (Just before the concert, Brodsky, the conductor, is in a car accident, pinned by his leg. The doctors have to amputate the leg to free him, but the leg they cut off is wooden. He appears on stage at the concert using an ironing board as an improvised crutch.) Unlike Kafka, however, Ishiguro, no hunger artist, frequently uses food for homely sensuality, even more than in his first two books. From the mention of strudel in the first chapter to the closing scene on a tram where a lavish buffet break-fast is being served, food figures.

The incongruence of that setting for a buffet is part of another technique in the book: disproportion. Of the numerous instances, here are two. It's disproportionate that, on the very evening of the recital, just before Ryder is to play, Hoffman insists on showing him his wife's albums; or that, for other reasons, Ryder gets lengthily sidetracked before he is to go on. And after all the disproportions, after all the frustrations and divagations, the story winds its way to the concert itself. Which, unsurprisingly, does not proceed as planned. The book leaves us with Ryder presumably en route to his next engagement in Helsinki.

It also leaves us with an ache of disappointment that has been growing in us as we read. Very early we realize that, as against earlier Ishiguro, we are not to savor character development. The author cannot nestle among his characters here, because there are none: there are only supposedly signifying figures. Neither are we to be absorbed in deepening narrative; one episode follows another with no cause except the author's mandate. We read along because we expect that all these teasings and suggestings, in the hands of a fine writer, will lead to thematic, aesthetic completion. But Ryder simply passes through it all on his way to Helsinki. None of it, not Sophie or Boris or anything else, affects him lastingly. Central though he is, Ryder is only one more of the book's charade figures.

But what is the charade about? Erich Heller observed that "there is only one way to save oneself the trouble of inter-preting The Trial: not to read it." Ishiguro lays the same exigency on us, but without much reward. This is not to belabor him with the need to equal Kafka: it is to point out that, for all his skill, he has followed his model incompletely.

Finally, desperately, we ask: Is this whole book a dream? That facile raison d'être must be considered, especially since the book is laced with sleep. Chapter Two begins: "When I was roused by the bedside telephone, I had the impression that it had been ringing for some time." Chapter Ten, too, begins with the telephone waking him. Parts Two and Three and Four begin with nearly identical sentences about waking with the fear of having slept too long. But, among other questions about such an interpretation, did Ryder dream all those extensive monologues that other people deliver? (He never speaks one himself.) After a while they seem less like instruments of prose than like elements in graphic design, as a designer might use blocks of black, except that in this case we must traverse them, inch by inch. They crush the suggestion of dream with their sheer black weight.

Anyway, to tag this book a dream is not to justify it, only to alter its unfulfilled debt. We may indeed be such stuff as dreams are made on, but before our little lives are rounded with a sleep, those dreams affect us with agony and exultation. Ishiguro's book does not. It parades its episodes before us. We feel little.

And the title doesn't help. The Unconsoled explains nothing. The word "consolation" occurs only a few times, in connection with Brodsky, his music, his lady love, and a wound of his that will not heal. (Hinting at Amfortas in Parsifal?… But enough puzzle-solving.) The people in this book are no more stringently unconsoled in any sense than many of us.

The book's most plausible meaning is its very existence. To put it otherwise, it opens a new territory in Ishiguro's interests, even if it doesn't prevail in that territory. If Ishiguro's two "Japanese" novels help us to appreciate The Remains of the Day, then all three of his preceding novels, taken together, are the best available justification of the fourth. He has moved from the taciturn beauty of the earlier books to a larger scope, a much more explicitly intricate structure—a move from Japan and Britain to the heart of Middle Europe. Previously, he dealt with the psychological and spiritual aftermath of World War II in Japan, then with English confusions and self-betrayals in that war. Now he moves to the continent, to the involuted psyche and spirit that was the root of much of that war, that bred most of our culture and also of our horror.

Ryder, the English artist, enters a shadowy European city. Ishiguro, another English artist, enters the morass of the European novel. We may wonder what will happen to the rest of Ryder's career. With a great deal more hope, we may ask the same question about the extraordinary Ishiguro.

Further Reading

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Last Updated on February 6, 2016, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 59


Wilhelmus, Tom. "Between Cultures." The Hudson Review XLIX, No. 2 (Summer 1996): 321-22.

Argues that The Unconsoled comments on the difficulties of being caught between cultures.

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Kazuo Ishiguro World Literature Analysis


Ishiguro, Kazuo (Vol. 27)