Authors: Kazuo Ishiguro

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

English novelist

Identity: Japanese descent

Author Works

Long Fiction:

A Pale View of Hills, 1982

An Artist of the Floating World, 1986

The Remains of the Day, 1989

The Unconsoled, 1995

When We Were Orphans, 2000

Short Fiction:

“A Strange and Sometimes Sadness,” “Waiting for J.,” and “Getting Poisoned,” in Introduction 7: Stories by New Writers, 1981

“A Family Supper,” in Firebird 2, 1983

Teleplays:

A Profile of Arthur J. Mason, 1984

The Gourmet, 1986

Biography

Kazuo Ishiguro (ihsh-ih-gew-roh), a renowned British novelist, is the son of Shizuo and Shizuko (née Michida) Ishiguro. On May 9, 1986, he married Lorna Anne MacDougall. Their daughter, Naomi, was born in 1992.{$I[A]Ishiguro, Kazuo}{$I[geo]ENGLAND;Ishiguro, Kazuo}{$I[geo]ASIAN AMERICAN/ASIAN DESCENT;Ishiguro, Kazuo}{$I[tim]1954;Ishiguro, Kazuo}

A key event in Ishiguro’s life was accompanying his parents in 1960 to England, where his father was employed by the British government as an oceanographer. Although the family had left Japan expecting to return in a year or two, they remained in England, and Ishiguro did not return to Japan until 1989, when he was thirty-five. He graduated from the University of Kent in 1978 with an honors degree in English and philosophy and then completed an M.A. in creative writing at the University of East Anglia.

Ishiguro’s distinguished reputation as a major novelist rests on a reasonably small literary output–five novels in two decades. The novels continue to garner prizes and recognitions: his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, received the Winifred Holtby Award of the Royal Society of Literature; An Artist of the Floating World received the Whitbread Book of the Year Award for 1986; The Remains of the Day was awarded the Booker Prize for 1989, and When We Were Orphans was short-listed for the Booker in 2000.

Ishiguro’s novels are heavily invested in the past. Typically, they involve first-person narrators attempting to establish the past, despite the unreliability of memory in confronting past errors and sins of omission. A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World are major accomplishments in their representation of a culture for which Ishiguro’s parents were his only resources. The first novel focuses on a Japanese mother, Etsuko, living in England, telling a story in which she explores her memory for the causes of her daughter’s suicide. The second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, is set in postwar Japan. Its narrator, Masuji Ono, is a painter confronting his complicity in the imperialist regime he represented as an official artist.

Although both novels were well received, it was The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s third novel, that launched him into international fame, later enhanced by the 1993 film adaptation starring Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins. Concerned that he was being pigeonholed as the author of “Japanese novels,” Ishiguro had made a radical break with his earlier literary production to write The Remains of the Day, a novel he described as “more English than English.” Its narrator, Stevens, is a butler adjusting to the American sense of humor of his new master, Farraday. Stevens is struggling with the notoriety of his former master, Darlington, whose Nazi sympathies before World War II brought him shame and an early death after the war. The narrative is Stevens’s effort to explain and vindicate Darlington. Also, Stevens wants to establish himself as a “great” butler. To qualify, he must serve a “great” master, committed to the betterment of humanity; he must serve that master with “grace under pressure.” Stevens offers two episodes in which he passed that test. During two international conferences, he maintained his butler’s aplomb, even though in one episode his father was dying upstairs and in the other the housekeeper, Miss Kenton, whom he loves, warned him that she was leaving that evening to accept a proposal of marriage. Once again, Ishiguro is working with issues of unreliable memory, especially in dealing with guilt and shame.

Despite his efforts to distance himself in The Remains of the Day from the “Japanese” elements of his first two novels, reviewers commented on the Japanese rendering of the English countryside or the values of Stevens being similar to “prominent aspects of the Japanese collective psyche,” as David Gurewich put it. Readers who might know little more about Japanese literature than haiku would also be struck by the compression and self-restraint of the first three novels, whether “Japanese” or “English.” The fourth novel, The Unconsoled, might be understood in part as a further rejection of Ishiguro’s being pigeonholed as both a Japanese writer and a writer of realist novels.

Like the earlier novels, The Unconsoled is narrated in the first person, but there the similarities end. This novel is longer than the first three novels combined, and it aims at a surrealistic or fantasy structure in time and space, violating narrative conventions. Its narrator, the pianist Charles Ryder, turns up in an unnamed European city with no notion of what he is doing there. Ishiguro uses a dozen pages to describe a conversation which supposedly occurred while Ryder was going up to his room in an elevator. During the ride, the porter asks him to talk to the porter’s daughter, Sophie, who turns out to be the mother of Ryder’s son.

Readers and critics were generally not pleased with Ishiguro’s postmodern narrative in The Unconsoled. Michiko Kakutani in The New York Times found it disappointing compared to his earlier novel: “Where The Remains of the Day was a narrative tour de force attesting to Mr. Ishiguro’s virtuosic control of the language, tone and character, The Unconsoled remains an awkward if admirably ambitious experiment weighed down by its own schematic structure.” In The New York Times Book Review, however, Louis Menand felt the novel suffered from invidious comparison with The Remains of the Day, which makes The Unconsoled seem “oblique, underpowered and, because of its length, slightly pretentious,” while in reverse, one might see The Remains of the Day as “predictable and heavy-handed” and The Unconsoled as “the most original and remarkable” of his first four novels.

When We Were Orphans also did not please reviewers. Its narrator, Christopher Banks, is a private detective who eventually returns to Shanghai, China, in the late 1930’s to search for his parents, who disappeared there when he was a child. Although the narrative is closer to the illusory “realism” of the first three novels, it borrows some surreal elements from The Unconsoled. Banks, for example, is a great detective reminiscent of Sherlock Holmes, yet readers never learn the solutions to the mysteries he solves. Although the puzzle of his parents’ disappearance is eventually disentangled, readers may have difficulty recalling what happened to them and why.

BibliographyBryson, Bill. “Between Two Worlds.” The New York Times Magazine, April 29, 1990, 38. This magazine article is an excellent, well-researched portrait of the artist. By covering Ishiguro’s life, art, and philosophical attitude toward his craft, and including the artist’s own words, Bryson gives the reader a sense of the personal and environmental circumstances under which Ishiguro has created his art. A photograph shows Ishiguro in front of his London townhouse.Gurewich, David. “Upstairs, Downstairs.” New Criterion 8, no. 4 (1989): 77-80. A detailed review of The Remains of the Day.Ishiguro, Kazuo. “An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro.” Interview by Allan Vorda and Kim Herzinger. Mississippi Review 20, nos.1/2 (1991): 131-154. An extremely useful interview with Ishiguro.Ishiguro, Kazuo. “An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro.” Interview by Gregory Mason. Contemporary Literature 30, no. 3 (1989): 335-346. Among the most substantial interviews with Ishiguro.Kakutani, Michiko. “Books of the Times.” The New York Times, October 17, 1995. Negative review of The Unconsoled.Mason, Gregory. “Inspiring Images: The Influence of the Japanese Cinema on the Writings of Kazuo Ishiguro.” East-West Film Journal 3 (June, 1989): 39-52. A perceptive study that argues convincingly that Ishiguro’s novels share much with Japanese art films of the 1950’s. There, as in Ishiguro’s fiction, Mason argues, one finds a strong focus on everyday experience and an avoidance of melodrama; the plot is often unimportant in relation to the themes.Menand, Louis. “Anxious in Dreamland.” The New York Times Book Review, October 15, 1995, p. 7. A generally sympathetic review of The Unconsoled.Parrinder, Patrick. “Manly Scowls.” London Review of Books 9 (February 6, 1986): 16. A perceptive review of An Artist of the Floating World. Parrinder places Ishiguro’s novel in the greater context of British literature and argues strongly for taking seriously Ono’s confession of his guilt, not brushing it aside as irrelevant. A good introduction to the novel.Shaffer, Brian W. Understanding Kazuo Ishiguro. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1997. The only book-length study of Ishiguro’s life and work, up to The Unconsoled.
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