Thursday, March 04, 2021

On Ishiguro

 Below is a survey of Kazuo Ishiguro's whole career that I wrote back in 2009 for the "Quarterly Conversation" a site that, alas, seems to have wholly gone missing from the internet. Written on the occasion of the publication of Ishiguro's first book of short stories, "Nocturnes," it seems worth posting anew here the week of the publication of his new novel, "Klara and the Sun." 

For what it's worth--scorekeeping at a minimum, I suppose--I thought the one novel that Ishiguro published between this piece and "Klara," "The Buried Giant," was a complete failure, almost to the point of being unreadable. That said, I was no less quick to get the new one, and I am no less excited to see what he's done this time.

Were it not for the fact that Kazuo Ishiguro's six novels all share a fundamental concern with the way that people actively create the self they present to the world--expressed in each novel through tight first-person narration--it would be easy to think of him as two different writers struggling within one body. The first of those writers is a careful, understated realist, observing society and the attempts of flawed, frequently repressed individuals to find a place for themselves within it; think of a slightly less buttoned-down Henry James. The second is far stranger, influenced by Kafka and maybe even Proust, and he writes of individuals whose own self-deceptions, self-denials, and blind spots warp their understanding of the world to the point where we, the readers, can't even be sure that what they're describing bears any resemblance to reality. Though the separation isn't nearly so clean as such a classification scheme implies--there are interesting overlaps and resonances between the two approaches--it's nonetheless instructive to consider the differences they reveal.

The former writer, far better known and more widely appreciated, is most clearly exemplified by Ishiguro's most popular novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), which beautifully tells the story of the controlled emotional life of a head servant in an English country house as World War II approaches. That Ishiguro is also on display in An Artist of the Floating World (1986), which focuses on a guilt-ridden Japanese artist in the years after the war. Both these novels slowly reveal a meticulously calibrated consciousness, with which Ishiguro always plays a double game, here and there letting us perceive just a bit more about the narrators' feelings and lives than they are willing to acknowledge even to themselves; the meaning of a whole novel can turn on a word, an endearment, a phrase accidentally let slip that reveals far more than the narrator intended, or perhaps even understood. 

Looking back, we can see that the second, more unpredictable Ishiguro has also been present in some form from the start of his career. His debut novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), which is narrated by a survivor of the Nagasaki bombing, subtly works against its realistic surface until by the end our faith in the narrator has been completely undermined--while our sympathy, and our even our pity, has only grown. But it wasn't until The Unconsoled (1995), a frustrating, flawed, but remarkably compelling doorstop of a novel, that we saw what this other Ishiguro was really capable of. Where his previous novels had been masterpieces of concision and clarity, The Unconsoled is, intentionally, a rambling mess, a relentlessly repetitive journey through one of one of those nightmares where we're constantly nagged by a sense of important tasks left undone. As an amnesiac pianist named Ryder wanders through a nameless Central European city, unsure about his relationship to the people he meets, let alone the obligations he's taken on, Ishiguro forces us again and again to confront Ryder's lack of understanding and his--and thus our--impotence in the face of a rebarbative and mysterious world.

The Unconsoled was published near the end of my undergraduate years, and a favorite professor and I discussed it at length. (She said, only half joking, that she washed her hair a dozen times in the course of reading it: overwhelmed again and again, that was the only way she could clear her head enough to allow her to return to Ishiguro's world. The novel does have that sort of effect.) Neither of us was entirely sure what Ishiguro was trying to do with the book, but nevertheless we were impressed, even astonished, by this unexpected change in his writing--and we both wondered, worried, even, where he might go from there. Not to make too great a claim for the book, but like Finnegans Wake it seemed to represent an end rather than a beginning, a playing out of an ultimately sterile--if fascinating--logic. To move forward as a writer, Ishiguro would have to figure out a way to reconcile this more complicated, experimental style with his earlier, more obviously controlled writing--to do otherwise would risk incomprehensibility on the one hand, stasis on the other. 

And with his next novel, it seemed that he understood that: for much of its length When We Were Orphans (2000) appears to be at least somewhat in the vein of Ishiguro's more realistic fiction. If his narrator--a self-described famous detective in 1930s England who is haunted by the loss of his parents years ago in war-torn China--is perhaps a bit more obviously damaged and unreliable than earlier characters, the trappings of the mystery genre with which Ishiguro dresses the story succeed brilliantly in distracting the reader enough that we don't realize how far gone the narrator is until he returns to China and his fragile psyche collapses, taking every hint of external reality with it. It's a dramatic and unsettling novel, but it's also unsatisfying: its two halves, rather than being united by the disintegrating consciousness of the narrator, remain in an awkward tension that ultimately spirals out of control, and the expectations raised by the realistic beginning are neither fully fulfilled nor fully confounded. 

It's perhaps understandable that Ishiguro followed When We Were Orphans with his most conventional novel since The Remains of the Day. Never Let Me Go (2005), despite some sci-fi trappings (and even a brief descent into memorable gothic imagery near the end) remains essentially a realistic novel, focused on the stunted emotional understanding of a young woman who slowly discovers the reasons she is condemned to second-class citizenship. In its close tracking of the narrator's efforts to construct a self that can fit into the limited place the world is willing to allow her, the novel harks back to the precision and clarity of Ishiguro's first novels, and it was extremely well received, being named, for example, by Time magazine as one of the hundred best novels published since the founding of the magazine. But as someone who still sees in The Unconsoled a breathtaking expansion of Ishiguro's powers, I couldn't help but be disappointed at its failure to break out of its self-imposed form; it may be churlish to be frustrated by a well-made book by a smart, talented writer simply because he's already shown a mastery of this approach, but that's what I felt, and it's what I still feel four years later when I return to the book. 

 * * *

All of which makes Ishiguro's newest book, Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall, particularly interesting. A collection of short stories by an established novelist always seems like a stopgap--or at best a transitional volume, something to keep a writer's name in front of readers in the years between major works. But in the case of Ishiguro, who works slowly, the book can't help but take on more importance: despite the fact that he's been publishing for nearly thirty years, his output remains relatively slim, so any additions to his oeuvre are worth attending to. 

Befitting that importance, Nocturnes feels not so much transitional as oppositional, a working out of Ishiguro's two narrative approaches in shorter form. Ishiguro has explained that its five stories--all of which feature music or musicians in prominent roles--were conceived as a single, multi-part work; what's fascinating about that is that from story to story Ishiguro moves between his realist mode and his more subjective, even fantastic approach--and, in the stories "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Nocturne," for the first time he successfully marries the two. As we've come to expect from Ishiguro, all five stories are first-person accounts, tightly constrained by the consciousness and perceptions of their narrators. Characters recur, and the narrative voice, even as its owner changes, retains a certain casual, colloquial, even awkward tone that will be familiar to readers of Never Let Me Go. While the voice differs less than one might expect from story to story, its mimicry of the patterns and habits of thought remains convincing within each story nonetheless. 

Despite--or perhaps in a reflection of--the tension inherent in Ishiguro's exploration of his two modes, the structure of the book feels carefully planned, with stories gaining in resonance from the way they seem to comment on their neighbors, as well as by their place in the overall order. The stories that bookend the volume, told by a jobbing guitarist in Venice, are straightforward and beautiful, pitting the promise of music (and thus art in general) against the disappointments and compromises of daily life. Unusually for Ishiguro, they are mostly about people other than the narrator, who for the most part watches others and attempts to figure out their motivations. The resulting stories are closer to Henry James or Edith Wharton than anything Ishiguro's written since The Remains of the Day; ignore the colloquial tone of this opening passage from "Crooner" and see if it doesn't read like a set-up for a classic story from an age less skeptical of realist technique:

The morning I spotted Tony Gardner sitting among the tourists, spring was just arriving here in Venice. We'd completed our first full week outside in the piazza--a relief, let me tell you, after all those stuffy hours performing from the back of the cafe getting in the way of customers wanting to use the staircase. There was quite a breeze that morning, and our brand-new marquee was flapping all around us, but we were all feeling a little bit brighter and fresher, and I guess it showed in our music.

Those two stories are clear and straightforward, throwing into relief Ishiguro's recurrent concern with our ability to deny our deepest feelings even to ourselves, as well as, in the latter, the question of how to define and value creativity and artistry--and how they then define us as people--propositions that Ishiguro addressed explicitly in Never Let Me Go. The first time I read them, I thought them too simple, even half-formed, but the second time through they were powerful and convincing, "Crooner" even unexpectedly moving. 

The middle story, "Malvern Hills," is also entirely in a realist mode: a self-involved young singer-songwriter moves in with his sister for the summer, grudgingly working in her cafe in exchange for room and board. Despite some nice evocations of the beauty of the tourist-beset hills, it's a more awkward story than "Crooner" or "The Cellists," focusing more on the occasional eruptions of underlying resentment and misapprehension that we've seen before from Ishiguro's characters, and while the narrator's conflicts with his sister and brother-in-law are convincing, his casual encounters with a couple of Swiss tourists feel half-formed, and the story only half resolves, like a song that doesn't end on the tonic. 

Which leaves us the second and fourth stories, "Come Rain or Come Shine" and "Nocturne," the most exciting in the collection, and the most exciting stories I've read this year. Both begin firmly in a realist mode, with clearly flawed narrators spinning somewhat self-justifying accounts of their lives leading up to the events of their stories--but before too long, both veer into truly strange territory. Strictly speaking, "Nocturnes"--which ultimately sees a jazz saxophonist who's undergone plastic surgery for the sake of his career sneaking around a deserted hotel in the middle of the night with a flighty female celebrity, both their heads swathed in bandages--manages to marry the strange and the quotidian the best. It shifts from realist to fabulous (and creepy) and back remarkably smoothly, the modes succeeding in commenting on each other--and their relationship to outside reality--in a way that Ishiguro has never managed before. 

That said, it's "Come Rain or Come Shine" that is the true standout. For the first twenty of its fifty pages, it, too, seems like an ordinary, straightforward story: the narrator, an itinerant teacher of English who is clearly too old to still be living such a rootless, hand-to-mouth existence, goes to stay with old friends from college. Though there are indications that, as so often in Ishiguro's work, the narrator is living in the past to an unhealthy degree, refusing to acknowledge the changes that time has wrought, when we learn that he has been invited as part of a misguided, even cruel attempt to patch up his friends' disintegrating marriage, we think we understand the rough pattern the story is likely to take--which makes it all the more surprising when Ishiguro instead plunges into the truly strange. The surprises in the story are a substantial part of its pleasures, so the less said the better, but the deftness with which Ishiguro moves from the world of ordinary human motivations to pathology and comic--yet troubling--absurdity is stunning, as is the resolution of the story, which is unexpectedly calm, kind, and even generous. 

An author who can keep you reading--and keep you anticipating his every new work--despite frustrations and disappointments is a rare and satisfying artist. I've not regretted any of the time I've spent reading Ishiguro's work; even the novels that aren't fully satisfying offer much to admire and think about. That makes it all the more exciting to read this collection--and especially those two crucial stories--and get the impression that Ishiguro has made peace with his warring tendencies, and that he finally may see the difficult but rewarding way forward.

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