The Birdcage Archives

Saturday, 7 October 2017

Post-Nobel Prize for Literature Thoughts 2017

Hello Gentle Reader

Well now Gentle Reader didn’t that just come from left field. Nowhere, did it seem that Kazuo Ishiguro was in the running for this year’s Nobel Prize for Literature. The Swedish Academy proved they could be tight lipped, secretive, and surprising. Thankfully this time in a good way. After all, Kazuo Ishiguro is at least a writer not an antiquated pop culture icon, of hippie sixties resistance. Yet, despite the shock and sigh of appreciated relief, an actual writer won; the award felt rather bland. Yes, Kazuo Ishiguro is a writer, and a good one at that; but at the same time, the award felt awkward, and tasteless (much like an avocado; which doesn’t sit on my tongue for long). 

Kazuo Ishiguro is to be blunt: quintessentially English. His literary language is English, as are his literary preoccupations and themes. Ishiguro's novels are written in understated prose, reserved emotional touches, wrapped up in the grace and pomp of Anglophone culture. However, commentators and critics have often mentioned that Ishiguro employees ‘mono no aware,’—in his novels, which is a Japanese literary and cinematic trope, which is translated as: “empathy towards things,” or “a sensitivity to ephemera things,” or “the awareness of impermanence,”—in other words: it’s a understated manner, in which one reflects on the fleeting sense of joy, and in turn creates a wistful sense of sadness or longing; it can be related to the Portuguese term: Saudade;  or the German term: Sehnsucht. In that sense though, numerous writers of the English language, could have this attributed to their resume; such as Alice Munro (fellow Nobel Laureate).

To decide to award Kazuo Ishiguro is strikingly odd for a few reasons. First his entire output is very small, with seven novels, and one collection of short stories—and then of course the miscellaneous film scripts and collaborative work with musicians, writing lyrics. His output, however, has been noted for being uneven at times. His early novels: “A Pale View of Hills (debut) and “An Artist of the Floating World,” were set in Japan; though as Ishiguro clarifies, the Japan of his perspective or imagination is different than the reality, and striking separate from the Japanese fiction and literature being produced at the time. The sensibilities are there, though, they are heavily influenced by his parents, and his upbringing. After his early foray into his Japanese heritage, Kazuo Ishiguro, moved to his most famous and well known novel the Booker Prize winning: “The Remains of the Day.”

“The Remains of the Day,” is considered the prototypical example of what an English novel is. The novel traces the emotional stunted character, Stevens, through his past and present. He’s a man of dignity and servitude, as he is a butler by virtue. A position of dust and ash; belonging to a far flung era of fascination. The job itself would best be described as subservient, loyal and dignified; much like a neutered German shepherd; with the stoic state of a statue, and the emotional intelligence and maturity of a grain of sand. This is the only novel of Ishiguro’s which I have read, and the scene where Stevens father dies, still stands out, in its singular moment of reserved resignation of indignant coldness, on the border of sociopathic inability to respond or comprehend the situation. But where a sociopath would be reptilian in death; Stevens seems more like a dog, incapable of understanding the situation and in response must act with a false sense of regality and reticence, in order to come his masters beck and call, while completing ignoring or willfully oblivious to the personal trauma which has (and is) taken place. In all, the entire novel was delightful, gratifying and well deserved. There is no surprise or shock that it won the Booker Prize. 

Following, “The Remains of the Day,” Kazuo Ishiguro, wrote one of his most baffling novels: “The Unconsoled.” The novel has been described as a five hundred page indecipherable waste of time and money. It’s blatantly Kafkaesque and surreal, written in stream of consciousness prose; and has often been described as: unenjoyable, difficult, self-absorbed, narcissistic; and in some cases a waste of paper. Upon its release, the novel was savagely reviewed and shredded; but like scotch, whiskey, brandy, cognac and wine, it appeared to have aged well over the years, being voted as one of the most important English novels of the last fifty years; and was listed high on one of the best English novels from nineteen-eighty to two-thousand and five. Though the critics may have changed their tune, readers still found it deplorable.

Kazuo Ishiguro came back to his more comfortable format of historical fiction and realistic prose with: “When We Were Orphans.” The novel is described as a pseudo-detective novel; much like Orhan Pamuk’s “The Black Book,” or “My Name Is Red,” or Antonio Tabucchi in “Peirra Declares,” or “The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro,” or “The Edge of Horizon.” Despite being shortlisted for the Man Booker Prize, the novel was considered uncharacteristically weak; even Kazuo Ishiguro himself had admitted the book as weak, and not on par with his previous success.

Besides “The Remains of the Day,” most well-known novel, showcasing his talents for refined emotional storytelling, understated prose, and keen observation on the human condition, was “Never Let Me Go.” The work is a dystopian-historical novel; imagining an alternative historical period of recent memory; where human beings, with all their self-absorbed ability, and scientific arrogance, have found a way to fend off their greatest fear and inevitability: death—though it comes at a humanistic and troubling cost. It has been leaked or at least rumored; that the Booker Prize for two-thousand and five, came down between John Banville’s novel “The Sea,” and Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go.” Banville did win the award though. Yet “Never Let Me Go,” stays in the minds of many readers, who ponder the ethics presented, the concepts of mortality, as well as the selfishness of human beings. This novel has often floated around my peripheral vision, now and then. It’s a novel, I am curious to read, but has always been pushed aside in favour of other books and other writers. Perhaps in the foreseeable future, I will read the novel.

Kazuo Ishiguro has not just written novels; he has also released as collection of short stories (as previously mentioned). “Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall,” is his only collection of short stories he has released. I did attempt to read this collection eight years ago, and ended up shutting it with disappointment. The short story is a particular form; and I am a picky reader when it comes to the short story. Ishiguro lacked the appropriate lyricism, the expression of economy, and the jewelers craft to spin the right and gentle kind of filigree to make the short story work. The scaffolding of his short stories were plain to see; there was nothing either unique or interesting about them; the same old tropes, the same old themes. I don't think (personally) that the short storm form catered the talents and tastes of Kazuo Ishiguro. 

His most recent work the 2015: “The Buried Giant,” was controversial by some standard. Imagine this Gentle Reader, a writer known for his striking high literary sensibilities, dared to cross over the garden wall, and into the unknown woods of genre fiction. Kazuo Ishiguro was quickly and hastily criticized by many genre fiction writers (and to clarify genre fiction is: fantasy, science fiction, horror, Nicolas Sparks melodramatic romances et cetera). “The Buried Giant,” is set in a pre-medieval/dark ages Britain, populated with pixies, ogres, and a slumbering tyrannical dragon, whose thick miasmatic smoke cause’s widespread amnesia. The novel has been described as a Tokenistic journey, where an old married couple Axl and Beatrice on a quest to see their son. Their quest takes them through the post-Arthurian landscape, peppered with fantasy and reality, as they seek out their son. The novel received very mixed reviews from critics; and was often under attack from genre fiction writer, who felt the fantasy elements were being used at superficial value, and only furthered the claim that when literary authors treaded into the ghetto of genre fiction, they only mocked the lesser respected forms. Kazuo Ishiguro had expressed uncertainty with the novel, wondering if readers and critics would give the novel a chance, and see the entire idea behind the novel, rather than seeing it as only a novel with fantastic tropes and scenarios. Admittedly, many had difficulties coming to terms with the fantasy elements, and the explicitly metaphorical concept of collective memory; many thought prior historical situations would have been better suited for the idea; but Ishiguro rejected this perspective, stating that using post-war Japan, or post-Nazi Germany, or post-war France, or Bosnia or even America, would make the novel appear far more political then intended; and that the post-Arthurian fantastic landscape was ‘neutral,’ providing him the ability to explore the theme without any inclination (or misapplied accusation) political discourse, dissertation, lecture, or metaphor being attributed to it. Still the novel was divisive; many though it overtly unpolitical and even lazy; while others praised the author for combining literary and genre elements to create a unique piece of work; all the while Kazuo Ishiguro himself, was continually on the defensive, keeping the pitchforks and torches at bay; claiming that there should be no division or classification or caste system in place, separating genre fiction and literary fiction from one another; instead the two worlds should be more porous and interchangeable. His hope of unification fell (from what I can tell) on deaf ears. The authors of genre fiction, appeared to enjoy their place in the ghetto, as the downtrodden and the outcasts—they are the perpetual underdogs, and are therefore forced to make a stand against the literary high snobbery of others, even if they are attempting to build a bridge or tear down the garden wall. On a final note: it should be noted, during the Nobel interview, the Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Sara Danius, had expressed she rather enjoyed “The Buried Giant,” as well as his novel “The Remains of the Day,” (arguably his most well-known novel).

Reviewing Kazuo Ishiguro’s output, it seems he’s a rather odd choice. His output is terribly small and from the looks of it, rather uneven as overviewed by critics. “The Unconsoled,” “We Are Orphans,” and “The Buried Giant,” were considered either mediocre at best; while his more acclaimed novels: “The Remains of the Day,” and “Never Let Me Go,” remain his stellar achievements; and the short story was not designed for his literary sensibilities; and his earlier works are often overlooked or forgotten. Seeing Kazuo Ishiguro, becoming the Nobel Laureate in Literature of 2017, with an uneven output and two famous novels to his name, makes him appear as an odd choice; perhaps not the strongest candidate who could have taken the award. Yet, the Swedish Academy and its members are noted for their eccentricities and often eclectic tastes. The award has had its highs, surprises, and lows.

Of the candidates speculated for this year, Kazuo Ishiguro was not even whispered about. Once again, this was the year Ngũgĩ wa Thiong'o was audaciously proclaimed to be this year’s Laureate in Literature; and once again the Kenyan novelist would become a Nobel bridesmaid. There is always next year though; don’t lose face or hope. Thankfully the award did not go to Haruki Murakami, who would have been a rather uninspiring and limpid decision. Thankfully it also did not go to Yan Lianke, another writer, who appears dull and lacking in imagination. Philip Roth also has taken the backseat (or trunk), and thank god for that; as his solipsistic, self-absorbed and sarcastic narratives are suffocating, and unbearable. Sadly though other writers are also overlooked and time marches forward and progressively so, and it will rebound to collect those it has yet to already.

As it stands though, Kazuo Ishiguro, has been dealing with the attention as best as one could expect, with masterful grace, charm, and manners. He’s been modest, appreciative and even apologetic for his late replies and return of the phone calls. More than one could say about the blatant indignant and impertinent manner as a certain musician has done prior. Though, Kazuo Ishiguro did make homage to the singer, by stating he was honored to receive the award after him, and claimed Dylan had great influence over his work and himself personally.

This year’s Nobel Prize for Literature was a surprise. However, it’s not necessarily a overjoying surprise; as it was with Herta Müller, whose beautiful and concise work, is both poetic, piercing and terrifying; or Patrick Modiano whose work riddles my shelves, and has often been an enjoyable writer to read, as one stumbles along haunted Parisian streets. In fact, this year’s Nobel feels slightly bland; like over watered mashed potatoes or porridge. I am delighted it went to a writer at least; but it wasn’t a writer I had hoped would take the award. To be honest, I don’t think I’ll be in any rush to run out and grab a Kazuo Ishiguro novel—though, “Never Let Me Go,” does orbit occasionally in my peripherals, a little more now than it has in the past; but for now, I’ll leave it rest.

Congratulations are still in order for Kazuo Ishiguro; you were quite a surprise; and at the moment, a little baffling, but at least in a delightful manner.

Thank-you For Reading Gentle Reader
Take Care
And As Always
Stay Well Read

M. Mary


  1. This comment has been removed by the author.

  2. I think you underestimate the Japanese sensibilities found in Ishiguro's writings. Superficially, yes, he might seem as English as crumpets, but engaging with his texts by positioning them solely within English tradition oversimplifies their art. Clearly for me Ishiguro is a writer of two worlds, neither wholly an English writer nor a Japanese writer, and his choice of subject matter - time, memory, mortality, reality, illusion - and setting together with his scrambling and erasure of the codes of genre, which can be traced to the specifities of culture and country, point to a literature of the in-between. The Buried Giant also sought to blur the line between so-called high and low culture, literary and genre fiction. He is an incredibly fascinating writer.

    Also, Morrison won when she had only written six books. Same with Alexievich. Quality over quantity. There is precedent.

    I think those Swedes made an excellent choice. A very worthy and relevant (in this age of crumbling borders) writer indeed. Thankfully, they pay no heed to popular critical opinion when making their choices. I welcome independent thinking that embraces Dylan and the strange fiction of The Unconsoled and The Buried Giant.

    1. Hello Mathew Cole,

      Perhaps yo are right and maybe I have underestimated his Japanese sensibilities. However, since the win there has been a great deal of fixation and exaggeration on these sensibilities, and I would prefer it more appropriate to play on the side of caution, when referring to Kazuo Ishiguro as a singular 'Japanese writer,' as some have choose to describe him as. As you put it (and I do agree) he is a writer of trans-cultural exchange, due to his upbringing and heritage. Caution should be exercised with greater discretion, when attempting to place him in a context of being foreign, when he's quite familiar -- much like crumpets.

      You're right with both Toni Morrision and Svetlana Alexievich, having small oeuvres; but the comparison is superficial, due to the differences of their work. Morrison wrote novels of varying length, but with pitch perfect prose; Alexievich's work was different in how it is complied, with the research, interviews, and documentation. Greater writers; great quality; but vastly different.

      I don't doubt Kazuo Ishiguro is an excellent choice, Mr. Cole. I may find it bland, but that's just my opinion. ANd your right, thankfully they do not pay heed to popular critical opinion when making their decisions; as it is thanks to that convention the overlooked are welcomed and discovered.

      M. Mary