Nobel Prize

Literature Nobel laureate Kazuo Ishiguro’s restrained writing holds unfathomable depths of emotion

The British writer, most famous for ‘The Remains of the Day’, engages with themes of memory and identity in his timeless fiction.

In the summer of 1987, Kazuo Ishiguro and his wife Lorna sat down to discuss a plan. It had been five years since the writer had quit his day job and in that period he had published his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, to critical acclaim. But along with this acclaim came endless distractions and social obligations. It was time for something drastic. For four weeks, the author, who was 32 at the time, locked himself in his study from 9.00 am to 10.30 pm, ignoring mail, the phone, visitors, and his wife. At the end of the four week ordeal, which he termed “The Crash”, he emerged with what was more or less the final manuscript for The Remains of the Day. It was the novel that catapulted him to international fame, won the Man Booker Prize in 1989 and sold over 1 million copies worldwide.

Earlier today, the British writer, was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature for his “novels of great emotional force.” The academy said the writer “has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.” For 62-year-old Ishiguro, the award is recognition of writing that spans across seven novels, four screenplays and several short stories, and tackles themes of memory, identity and time.

The influence of Japan

Born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954, Ishiguro moved with his family to England when we was five years old when his oceanographer father got a job in Southampton. He claims his Japanese is “awful” and does not know much about Japanese fiction and writing. Yet when he began writing his first novel while completing an MA in Creative Writing, he set it in Japan. A Pale View of Hills (1982), mostly set in a postwar Nagasaki introduced the themes of memory and tension between the old and the new that Ishiguro would become associated with.

An Artist of the Floating World (1986), his second novel is also set in post-war Japan and is a powerful first-person narrative of an ageing artist reflecting on his life and work. Considering Ishiguro returned to the country of his birth only 29 years after he first left it, he says his books were set in an “imaginary Japan”, based on pictures in his head and his mother’s memories from Nagasaki, where she grew up.

While his first two novels earned him adulation, acclaim and Britain’s prestigious Whitbread award, it was his third novel, The Remains of the Day that cemented his place among the great English writers of out time. The duty-obsessed butler Stevens, torn between his personal desires and his professional obligations, was immortalised by Ishiguro’s pitch-perfect characterisation, and subsequently by Anthony Hopkins’s portrayal in the Merchant Ivory film. With hungry readers and critics eagerly awaiting his next novel, Ishiguro flummoxed everyone in 1995, with the publication of The Unconsoled, a stream-of-consciousness story of a pianist who does not seem to be in control of his own life. It remains his most divisive work, panned by many and defended by only a handful.


A new direction

Ten years later, with the publication of his sixth novel, Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro stunned readers again, but this time for very different reasons. A science fiction novel about clones who are being raised for organ donation, the novel marked a departure from his earlier writing and introduced a dystopian layer. Yet its deeply-nuanced tackling of themes of love and identity placed it on the shortlist of the 2005 Booker Prize.

With his most recent novel The Buried Giant, published in 2015, Ishiguro stretched his abilities even further, introducing a fantasy land of magical creatures. But what remained as always was his restrained writing that hides within itself a depth of emotions.

Through the years, Ishiguro has also written screenplays and short stories, the most popular collection of these distills his other great love – music. Nocturnes, published in 2009, is a collection of five stories about music and musicians, marked by Ishiguro’s lyrical prose, attentive to rhythm. The influence of music on his writing has perhaps had the most-lasting impact in his most famous work. It was only upon hearing Tom Waits’s song Ruby’s Arms that Ishiguro decided the stiff-lipped butler Stevens would remain emotionally closed off right till the very end. He would crack just once, displaying only for a moment, the depth of emotion within.

While declaring him the winner of the Literature Nobel, the academy described Ishiguro as a mix of Jane Austen and Franz Kafka, with a bit of Proust. What you get in the end is a magnificent storyteller, who is very much his own.

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