Kazuo Ishiguro Biography
Nationality: British. Born: Nagasaki, Japan, 1954. Education: Woking County Grammar School for Boys, Surrey, 1966-73; University of Kent, Canterbury, B.A. (honors) in English and Philosophy 1978; University of East Anglia, Norwich, M.A. in creative writing 1980. Career: Community worker, Renfrew Social Works Department, 1976; social worker, 1979-80, and resettlement worker, West London Cyrenians Ltd., 1979-80. Awards: Winifred Holtby prize, 1983; Whitbread award, 1986; Booker prize 1989; Premio Scanno for Literature (Italy), 1995; Order of the British Empire (O.B.E.), 1995. D. Litt.: University of Kent, 1990; University of East Anglia, 1995. Fellow, Royal Society of Literature. Agent: Deborah Rogers, Rogers Coleridge and White Ltd., 20 Powis Mews, London W11 1JN, England.
A Pale View of Hills. London, Faber, and New York, Putnam, 1982.
An Artist of the Floating World. London, Faber, and New York, Putnam, 1986.
The Remains of the Day. London, Faber, and New York, Knopf, 1989.
The Unconsoled. New York, Knopf, 1995.
When We Were Orphans. New York, Knopf, 2000.
Uncollected Short Story
"A Family Supper," in The Penguin Book of Modern British Short Stories, edited by Malcolm Bradbury. London, Viking, 1987; New York, Viking, 1988.
A Profile of Arthur J. Mason, 1984; The Gourmet, 1986.
Remains of the Day, 1993.
Understanding Kazuo Ishiguro by Brian W. Shaffer. Columbia, South Carolina, University of South Carolina Press, 1998; Narratives of Memory and Identity: The Novels of Kazuo Ishiguro by Mike Petry. New York, Peter Lang, 1999.
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Kazuo Ishiguro is the author of five novels, and he was awarded the Booker prize in 1989 for his third, The Remains of the Day. It is not surprising that Ishiguro was given this literary accolade so early on in his writing career, as each of these novels is powerfully crafted in the inimitable, meticulously observed manner that has brought much critical and popular acclaim to their author. His more recent novels have been characterized by a formal adventurousness and willingness to experiment that have brought him further acclaim as a stylist and explorer of the possibilities of the novel.
Ishiguro's novels are characterized by the way that the calm expository style and seemingly unimportant concerns of the narrators disguise a world fraught by regrets, unresolved emotional conflicts, and a deep yearning to recapture (and make sense of) the past. In the case of A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World, the central figures are, like Ishiguro, Japanese by birth, and their personal desires to excavate the past suggest not only their troubled personal history, but also broader issues concerned with post-war Japanese society.
Ishiguro's first full-length work, A Pale View of Hills, is set in present-day rural England, where Etsuko, a Japanese widow, comes to terms with her elder daughter's recent suicide. The sad event of the present precipitates memories of the past and leads the mother to recall certain aspects of her life in Nagasaki just after the war. In particular, she remembers her friendship with the displaced, independent, and rather cruel Sachiko, a woman once of high rank now living in poverty with her neglected, willful daughter, Mariko. An elegant, elliptical composition, this novel (or perhaps more precisely novella) hints at connections between Etsuko's Nagasaki days and her present-day English existence. Her half-understood relationship with the enigmatic Sachiko and Mariko prefigures her problematic one with her own daughters, while Sachiko's displacement from her class, and eventually her turning away from her race as well, anticipate Etsuko's future anomie.
A striking feature of this confident first novel is the underlying sense of the macabre that pervades Etsuko's memories, particularly in her recollection of the strange, perhaps not entirely imaginary, woman whom young Mariko claims to know, and who appears like a character from a Japanese folk tale. This hinting at sinister possibilities, coupled with the way that Ishiguro with the skill of a miniaturist delicately shapes the story around shifting perspectives and selective memories, marks out A Pale View of Hills as a compelling and intriguing debut work.
While Etsuko's narrative betrays hesitation and uncertainty from the beginning, the narrator of An Artist of the Floating World is a much more robust creation. It is 1948 and Masuji Ono, a painter who has received great renown for his work, some of it decidedly nationalistic in its objectives, reconsiders his past achievements in the light of the present. As with the previous novel, little of consequence seems to happen. Over a number of months, Ono is visited by his two daughters, is involved in marriage negotiations on the part of one of them, re-visits old artist colleagues, drinks in the "Migi-Hidari," and, in a beautifully evoked scene, attends a monster movie with his grandson. However, these seemingly mundane domestic occurrences gradually force the elderly painter to review his past to reveal a complex personal history of public and private duties, professional debts and ambitions, and possible culpability in Japan's recent military past. More obviously than in A Pale View of Hills, the central character is both an individual and a representative figure. Through Ono's re-visiting of his past life, Ishiguro very skillfully describes an artist's training and work conditions before the war, raising much broader questions about artistic and personal responsibility during this contested period in Japan's history.
Ono's "floating world" is "the night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink," frequented by fellow artists. The narrators of all Ishiguro's novels seem to inhabit "floating worlds" distinct from the much visited, and joyfully described, pleasure-quarter. For them the old assumptions they held about their lives are under scrutiny, leaving them to try to make sense of the brave new "floating worlds" they inhabit. In The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro examines the changed cultural climate of post-war England through the attempts by Stevens, a "genuine old-fashioned English butler" (in the words of his American employer), to make sense not only of the present but, more acutely, of the past as well. As with the other novels, this tale of self and national discovery is precisely dated. In July 1956 the butler of the late Lord Darlington sets forth on a motoring holiday, accompanied by Volume III of Mrs. Jane Symons's The Wonders of England, to meet Miss Kenton, housekeeper at Darlington Hall during the inter-war years.
In the previous novels, Ishiguro raises questions about the relationship between personal and public morality. In the figure of Stevens, he presents public and domestic behavior as indivisible. Stevens has renounced family ties in order to serve his masters, having given up many years of his life to Darlington. As he sojourns in the West Country, Stevens reconsiders his time in service to the English aristocracy. The Remains of the Day, like the novels with Japanese settings, is distinguished by the skilled use of first-person narration. Here the stiff formality and prim snobbery of the butler's voice are maintained throughout, demonstrating the way that Stevens has renounced his individuality in order to serve well, and creating also some splendid moments of comedy when the events narrated are inappropriately described in such dignified and constrained tones.
In Ishiguro fashion, the "truth" is gradually hinted at through summoning up memories of things passed, and Stevens has to admit that his former master to whom he has devoted a good part of his life was possibly an incompetent amateur diplomat who was manipulated by National Socialists in the 1930s. However, as with the previous novels, the confrontation with an earlier, at times misguided, self offers hope for the future, and the endings of these precisely composed books are gently optimistic, rather than painfully elegiac, celebrating people's capacity for adaptation, understanding, and change.
Ishiguro's 1995 novel The Unconsoled, revisits much of the terrain of memory, regret, and aesthetic culpability that have been the hallmarks of his style. In this stylistically ambitious novel, however, Ishiguro inflects those concerns through a nightmarish dream-space where a Kafka-esque circularity results in a relentlessly anxiety-provoking narrative. The central character, a concert pianist of some renown named Ryder, arrives at an unnamed, vaguely central European town to give a recital. He then proceeds, in a time-frame that is stubbornly indeterminate, to pursue a bewildering number of delays, deferrals, and wild goose-chases, all of which may or may not be related to his own personal history.
The town that Ryder encounters has several fault lines in its social fabric. The most significant involves the civic implications of his performance, which differing factions within the town see as either a vindication or discrediting of an aesthetic conflict that is mapped along vaguely conservative and progressive lines. Ryder's unawareness of the broader ramifications of this performance, along with the continual emergence of new factional strife, produces a vertiginous plot, where encounter after encounter fail to resolve the issue at hand, and instead follow a bewildering line of deferral. Adding to the confusion is the fact that the characters themselves are frequently realized through what Ishiguro calls "appropriation," a technique by which, as in a dream, they appear as refracted manifestations of the narrator or his submerged fears and desires: the child Boris, whom Ryder frequently consoles with an insight that seems unnaturally empathetic; Stephan, an anxiety-ridden young pianist who looks to Ryder for advice on how to please his parents; and the elderly porter Gustav, who has ceased to speak to his daughter Sophie (Boris's mother) as an act of will. Ryder finds himself responsible for the suturing of these various social wounds, which are replayed through the many fractured parent-child relationships whose suffering permeates the novel, and his success or failure is to be measured by some nameless epiphany to be revealed through his endlessly deferred recital.
As in the earlier novels, there is a brooding sense of inter-generational trauma with which the narrator must somehow come to terms. In The Unconsoled, however, that trauma remains disturbingly unresolved. Ryder is unable to reconcile the various splintered relationships—too many to recount—that the narrative mourns throughout. Unlike The Remains of the Day, in which Stevens manages to recover the illusion of redeeming insight by the novel's close, The Unconsoled ends only with Ryder's tortured realization that resolution of the conflicts that have beset him throughout the novel—both personal and social—will evade him as surely as the recital that is the ostensible reason for his presence in the town. Ultimately, the hallucinatory style of the plot colludes so insidiously with Ryder's personal dream-world that the consolation of an ending where fragments are resolved in some measure is denied the reader as well.
When We Were Orphans proves a fitting stylistic continuance to The Unconsoled. Again, the territory is that of memory and nostalgia, and the failure of generational inheritance to relieve a painfully revisited nostalgia. Christopher Banks, the narrator and protagonist of the novel, is a well-known detective in pre-war England who is haunted by the disappearance of his parents in Shanghai years earlier. In 1937 he sets off to Shanghai to solve the mystery of their vanishing, and in so doing is forced to come to terms with the shady business practices not only of his father but of the colonial community as a whole. While the denouement may clarify some of the mystery, as in all of Ishiguro's novels there is much going on beneath the limpid prose of the narrative.
The undercurrents in the novel are again history—personal and public—as well as the troubling instability of memory in the face of trauma. Banks's failed relationship with fellow orphan Sarah Hemmings, as well as his childhood friendship with the Japanese boy Akira, emerge as part of a doubled time-line that triggers his recollections. While Banks as a narrator seems disarmingly disingenuous, upon closer reflection significant discrepancies begin to appear between his memories and the reported reactions of those around him. The resulting instability is a familiar one to the attentive reader of Ishiguro's fiction: the truth, as usual, is not the sole province of the narrator or memory, and resides instead in a more nebulous space where history and memory—trauma and wound—are indivisible from their informants.
updated by Tom Penner
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