Sunday, 8 July 2012

Kazuo Ishiguro and His Critics

Kazuo Ishiguro might be Britain's greatest living novelist, but despite winning the Booker, three other times on the shortlist and attracting a great deal of respect and attention, a lot of nonsense is talked about his work. The late Frank Kermode's review of Never Let Me Go for the London Review of Books was one of the most egregious. It dismisses the book in its second paragraph:

[Never Let Me Go] abandons the formality of [Ishiguro's] previous speakers in favour of a familiar, chatty style no doubt thought right for the character of a young woman of the place and date specified [...] Whatever the virtues of this authorial decision, the texture of the writing becomes altogether less interesting.

  He then quotes the following passage (claiming to have opened the book at random):

What with one thing and another, I didn't get a chance to talk to Tommy for the next few days. Then one lunchtime I spotted him on the edge of the South Playing Field practicing his football... I went over and sat down on the grass beside him, putting my back against the fence post. This couldn't have been long after that time I'd shown him Patricia C's calendar and he'd marched, because I remember we weren't sure how we stood with each other.

"Everything is expertly arranged," comments Kermode, "as it always is in Ishiguro, but the dear-diary prose surely reduces one's interest." But is this passage really as uninteresting as Kermode would have us believe? As is often the case in an Ishiguro novel, the emphasis is on what will happen between these characters, or will take on new significance later. If the scene were garnished with Kermode-friendly prose, wouldn't it detract from this effect?  As a reader and rereader of the book, I was too interested In Tommy and Kathy and their developing relationship to wish that Ishiguro had described Kathy approaching him in the South Playing Field with more ornate phrasing. Critics like Kermode would doubtless see this as inattentive: the ability of fiction to create human beings; its gift of granting us the illusion that we are learning more about them; the ability of narrative to let us move through the mind, time and the imagination in directions, as we see these characters develop, that we had never even perceived before; all take a backseat to the true purpose of literature in their world.

  As for the casual phrasing of the reference to Patricia C's calendar, doesn't Ishiguro's "dear diary" simplicity here strengthen the sense of temporal placement, which is a major strength throughout his work? Ishiguro is the poet of reconsideration: his narrators realise the significance of earlier moments in their lives once they put them in the context of other moments. It's a signature touch of Ishiguro's to have his narrator place an event before or after something mentioned previously. These points of reference need to be clear and believable: if they were written in purple prose they would be obscured, and we would lose the sense of navigating through landscapes of mind and memory of which Ishiguro is such a delicate master.

  There's no bad prose in the quoted passage, and as part of the novel's framework it contributes to an outstanding literary effect, and yet Kermode dismisses it because it contains no overtly literary or avante-garde phrases. Critics see what they expect to see. Thomas Pynchon, for example, has references to quantum physics, history, politics, postmodernism  or picaresque surrealism on every page (whether he actually does anything with them is another matter), but Ishiguro's novels just feature people talking. What's a literary critic supposed to do with that?

  An even more tedious objection came from Philip Hensher in his review of When We Were Orphans:

  There is something troubling about Ishiguro's prose style that took me a while to pin down, and it's this - he hardly ever uses a phrasal verb. He is a writer who always prefers to say 'depart' rather than 'set off', 'discover' rather than 'find out'. Phrasal verbs are, in a way, at the heart of English; they are a part of the language which presents peculiar difficulty to the learner, since there is no logic whatever in their meaning, and they hardly ever resemble anything in another language.

A Frenchman, learning English, would soon see the connection between 'discover' and 'découvrir'; 'find out', on the other hand, would seem to him like an exotic and irrational expression, which, despite its being more idiomatic, he might well choose to avoid. There is no logic to them; why 'get on with' and 'get off with' should mean what they do, rather than the other way round, cannot be justified, and yet they are at the heart of the spoken language.

In Hensher we have a critic who says that it took him a while to find what Ishiguro doesn't use, yet when he finds it insists that it is at the heart of the language. There's also something suspicious about his references to those learning English struggling to grasp this: surely this isn't a veiled reference to Ishiguro's Japanese descent? The idea that Ishiguro's knowledge of the English language is lesser than Philip Hensher's is risible enough even before one remembers that Ishiguro came to England at the age of six.

  Phrasal verbs make their first appearance in When We Were Orphans on page two, but even assuming this doesn't render Hensher's use of "hardly ever" dubious, doesn't their paucity suggest a distinctive prose style worth serious consideration? Shouldn't a reader consider what the writer does with that style, and what effects he achieves that couldn't be achieved otherwise? Or would Hensher deride Hemingway for rejecting so many more voluptuous words? A reader of this school would no doubt look at Cormac McCarthy's prose and see sentences without apostrophes and quotations marks and pared-down dialogue smudged into the narration, while another reader would see that these superficially reductive techniques actually create writing of transcendental, wonderfu, yet horrifying beauty that no other author could have written, seeming to descend from the sky rather than the page.

  It isn't just the deceptive clarity of the language (it certainly deceived Hensher and Kermode) that leads critics astray, though. They don't get Ishiguro because they don't trust emotion in Iiterature. Never Let Me Go isn't an exercise in surrealism or a warning about cloning: it's about life, and therefore about love, hope, death, friendship, grief and happiness. The novelist Rachel Cusk, in an essay about Never Let Me Go for the Guardian's "Rereading" series, couldn't come to terms with this, and suggested that:

as in Cormac McCarthy's The Road, the novel's horrific imaginings almost become a perverse kind of sentimentality, as though these (male) writers are unable entirely to distinguish between imagination and fear

Leaving aside the blatant gender-essentialism of that assessment (only marginally less fatuous than diagnosing feminine hysteria on an author's part as the cause for a novel's concerns), what depresses the committed reader of Ishiguro here is the sense that Cusk sees only neurosis instead of nuance; that she can't see a profoundly moving story (two, to include The Road) when it's right in front of her because surely it can't be that simple. One is reminded  of DS Savage's execrable essay "The Fatalism of George Orwell" in The Pelican Guide to English Literature, in which he insisted that the only thing Orwell's work gave insight into was Orwell's own damaged psyche (the thought of undergraduates being nudged towards a tome that saw fit to print it is unbearable).

  It's understandable that contemporary critics struggle with Never Let Me Go. In the modern literary climate, novels are talked about, both in reviews and PHDs, either as a mode of political reportage (Roth for what he tells us about America, Coetzee for what he tells us about South Africa, Morrison on the African-American's dilemma) or as a testing-ground for current literary theory (which is why Pynchon is found on university reading lists more often than Evelyn Waugh or Graham Greene, and why Adam Thirlwell and John Banville are given more space in the book pages than Terry Pratchett). Here we can see the critic's dilemma: when you read Never Let Me Go, The Remains of the Day or A Pale View of Hills, you're not given a set of literary parallels and influences to draw on for your review, unlike the novels of Tom McCarthy, Thirlwell, Will Self or Banville, where you can talk about Self's debt to Kafka or see how Thirlwell is playing with Kundera or Madame Bovary. There's also no clear references to the War on Terror or Global Warming, and no characters in it seem to correspond to Blair and Bush. Instead, you're presented with a novel about three people and the pattern of love, friendship, bullying, antagonism, betrayal, apology and forgiveness that colours their relationship; a novel about a butler whose awareness of of the love between him and the housekeeper and his employer's Nazi-sympathising are sublimated throughout his life; and a novel about a woman whose loss of a daughter to suicide makes her recollect her friendship with the mother of a damaged and possibly neglected child, whose life and failures may have parallels with her own. If you're interested in human beings, in their failures and yearnings, how their lives can be shaped by love and loss, and what it feels like to be someone else, then these novels will move you profoundly and open up the world and the possibilities of language. But what's a reviewer going to say? That it moved them?

  There is another problem with Ishiguro's oveure that confounds critics, though in different ways: he wrote The Unconsoled. This book has the same status within his body of work that Waugh's Brideshead Revisited, Greene's The End of the Affair, Ballard's Crash and The Atrocity Exhibition, Cook and Moore's Derek and Clive, Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover and Austen's Mansfield Park have within theirs: often disliked, often disliked by those who love the rest of the oeuvre, and yet a key text in one's understanding of that particular artist  and their work. Many have found it unreadable: James Wood, a critic not hostile to Ishiguro's other work, famously said it invented "its own category of badness" while Tony Parsons loutishly suggested that burning was too good for it and that maybe Ishiguro should committ harikiri. Other critics see it as precisely the sort of thing that should be occupying their time rather than the author's other novels. Kermode can't get to wait to get Never Let Me Go - which he's supposedly reviewing - out of the way so that he can champion The Unconsoled. Another of Ishiguro's masterpieces - The Remains of the Day -  is described by him with dripping condescension: "Subtle though it undoubtedly is, this is the easiest of the novels, as its popular success testifies." Perhaps it's hopeless romanticism on one's part to venture that what it really testifies to is the book's power and beauty. What's certain is that popularity is no more an indicator of lesser quality (even if Kermode wants to dress up this phrase as "easiness", which leads one to wonder how long it will be before "pleasurable" and "moving"' join the warning sirens) as it is of the higher kind. 

  The scene in The Unconsoled set during a screening of 2001:A Space Odyssey in which Clint Eastwood and Yul Brynner are mentioned as cast members may excite the critics who can then scrawl "ooh look! surrealism! Postmodernism! Hyper-real! Intertextual! Unreliable narrator!" in the margins of their review copies, in much the same way that the moment in Ian McEwan's Enduring Love when the narrator so very dramatically misremembers what flavour the sorbet in the previous chapter was might as well come pre-underlined for hungry A-Level students lusting for unreliable narrators. For this reader, though, it is far less impressive than a great many moments from Ishiguro's "easy" novels.

  Where to begin?  Consider the moment in A Pale View of Hills where the narrator's father-in-law - Ogata-San, a retired teacher - asks his son, Jiro, to contact one of the latter's friends, Shigeo Matsuda, as he has written a derogatory article about Ogata-San's legacy (before the Second World War he urged his students to glory in the prospect of Japan's triumph) and teaching methods for an educational journal. Each time he asks, over their evening games of chess, Jiro gives a noncommittal answer, until finally Ogata-San's nagging riles him and he lunges at the chess pieces, but upsets a teapot instead. This is writing that unites moments of individual human crisis, conveyed with exquisite subtly and depth, to political and social conundrums which are never rendered trite. Kazuo Ishiguro is a Jane Austen interested in the Napoleonic Wars.

  The Remains of the Day contains such a multitude of moments like this one wonders where to start. I can't resist going for my favourite (apologies for using it already in my Mark Haddon essay on this blog). Stevens, a butler at Darlington Hall, is staying at the local inn, having taken an uncharacteristic excursion to meet up with the Hall's former housekeeper. Stevens often occupies himself with mastering the art of 'bantering', and as the landlord and his friends ask him if he slept well he gets an opportunity:

‘You won’t get much of a sleep up there, sir. Not unless you’re fond of the sound of old Bob’ – he indicated the landlord – ‘banging away down here right the way into the night. And then you’ll get woken by his missus shouting at him right from the crack of dawn’.
Despite the landlord’s protests, this caused loud laughter all round. […] I was struck by the thought […] that some sort of witty retort was required of me. Indeed, the local people were now observing a polite silence, awaiting my next remark. I thus searched my imagination and eventually declared:
‘A local variation on the cock crow, no doubt.’
At first the silence continued, as though the local persons thought I intended to elaborate further. But then noticing the mirthful expression on my face, they broke into a laugh, though in a somewhat bemused fashion. […]
I had been rather pleased with my witticism when it had first come into my head, and I must confess I was slightly disappointed it had not been better received than it was.

Such humour in that passage, and such poignancy. A lifetime of thwarted desire, hope and sadness conveyed in a few clear sentences. How Ishiguro can write! How much more powerful this makes the realisation that Lord Darlington, Stevens's former employer, was a Nazi sympathiser. Salman Rushdie, an admirer of Ishiguro's, describes Lord Darlington a "guilty-as-hell British Nazi aristocratic" who was watered down in the film and portrayed as merely pathetic. This is true, but the strength of the novel lies in its refusal to judge Lord Darlington, leaving us to reach that conclusion by ourselves. If The Remains of the Day, which uses nuance, humour, deft character studies and the most delicate prose and narrative structure to depict war and its effects upon lives with genuine verisimilitude, so that it becomes reality again rather than cliche or horror, is the "easiest" of his novels than perhaps the 'easy' novel should go by a different name: literature.

  These 'easy' novels are also far more innovative in their techniques than The Unconsoled. A Pale View of Hills climaxes with a staggering moment that demonstrates new possibilities for fiction in depicting reality and memory. Etsuko, the narrator, had a daughter called Keiko, who committed suicide after her mother left her father for a British man and took her to Britain to live with them. As she reflects on the suicide, she relates her memory of her friendship with a woman in Japan named Sachiko, who had a troubled little daughter named Mariko. Sachiko is hoping to start a new life for herself and Mariko in America. At the moment in question, Etsuko is looking for Mariko, who has run from the house, and when she finds her, atttempts to persuade her that the move is nothing to be frightened of. Mariko's dialogue ceases to make sense, and the reader realises with a shiver that Etsuko is actually talking to Keiko years later. After trying to persuade Keiko to come with her to Britain, Etsuko has a glimpse of Mariko in the darkness. The jolt the reader has when realising that Mariko's presence is ghostly, and the extent to which she has all along been haunting Etsuko's subconscious as she relates this story, is one of those achievements that makes a reader wonder how anyone can possibly see the novel as an outmoded artform.

An Artist of the Floating World makes similar use of this technique of baffling the reader in order to enrich them. The narrator, an artist named Masuji Ono, recalls the time his teacher disowned a fellow pupil. We realise with dawning unease that this is precisely how Ono himself later disowned a student, and that Ishiguro has somehow managed to combine two important scenes into one. Not only does it sear the moment onto the reader's consciousness, it also shows - rather than tells -  us the major theme of the book: the futilie struggle to use memory to justify or blot out our actions. Technique and theme are inseparable, and that's a result only a great writer can achieve.

    Ishiguro has perfected another technique far more powerful than The Unconsoled's surrealism: he is the master of the trivial anecdote. In scenes of this kind, the narrator recalls a memory in which nothing much seemed to happen, and wonders if it had more significance than he realised, or if it could throw light on other moments in his life. The difficult trick Ishiguro pulls off here is in making this seem like a genuinely trivial experience that happened to a human being, rather than a wilfully trivial experience that feels like it happened to no-one and that only a novelist could have contrived.  Ishiguro's vignettes, unlike those of Ian McEwan, or David Mitchell in Black Swan Green, or some of Zoe Heller's in Notes on a Scandal, never have a whiff of the midnight oil about them.  The reader pours over these passages with a slightly impatient fascination: they come across with too much conviction and concise verisimitude to be shaggy-dog stories, and yet we can't quite get at their implications until we've finished the book. It feels like one of the enigmas one faces in one's own life rather than a literary cliche.  The Remains of the Day has the splendid anecdote of the "great Butler" opening the car door and standing his ground. Never Let Me Go has the pencil case, Tommy's drawings and Kathy being watched while listening to her favourite song. A Pale View of Hills has the picnic Etsuko and Sachiko take where they are befriended by an American woman while Mariko misbehaves,  When We Were Orphans has the scenes  with Christopher and Akira playing at detectives together in their boyhood, An Artist of the Floating World has the charming scenes where Ono takes his grandson Ichiro to the cinema. These passages are made even more vivid by Ishiguro's natural ease with positioning his narrator's memories, which Kermode earlier mistook for "dear-diary prose." Ishiguro captures the texture of life itself, unlike the works of his contemporaries which tend to capture the texture of novels.

But the most moving passages are the most innovative, whatever Kermode and Cusk may say. The astonishing endings of The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go demand to be quoted here. In the latter, Kathy has finally disclosed to the reader that Tommy has "completed": that is, undergone his final, fatal organ donation.  For the reader, this moment feels like death itself: we knew it was coming, don't doubt it when it happens, and yet still find ourselves gasping in disbelief. Remembering a teenage fantasy the two shared that all lost things could be found in Norfolk, Kathy drives there herself:

Though the tears rolled down my face, I wasn't sobbing or out of control: I just waited a bit, then turned back to the car, to drive off to wherever it was I was supposed to be.

After quoting a passage like that, what one say in the face of a literary culture dominated by the Kermodes, the Cusks, the Henshers and their followers? Simply that so much more is contained within it then they appear to have found within the whole novel. Such emotion, expressed through such delicacy of language, and yet  all through the character's perspective, rather than spilling into the sentimental outpourings which sound more like an author. It feels like the emotions of a person's life, not of fiction. As with all good science fiction or fantasy (and whatever else you want to call metaphorical writing), Ishiguro uses a striking unreal concept to defamilarise an all-too-real one

The climax of The Remains of the Day contains two remarkable moments. The first is this passage:

I do not think I responded immediately, for it took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover, as you might appreciate, their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed - why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking.

Not only does this bring to a climax the unspoken love affair between Miss Kenton and Stevens, but it sees him break free from the shackles that life under a Butler's code has imposed on his language. It's extraordinarily moving for the reader to find themselves cheering as Stevens finally acknowledges the what we have been so desperate for him to acknowledge. The second moment, as Stevens sits on a bench and chats with a stranger, brings the other of the book's main strands- his ambiguous attitude towards Lord Darlington - to catharsis. Stevens confesses:

"The fact is, of course," I said after a while, "I gave my best to Lord Darlington. I gave him the very best I had to give, and now - well - I find I do not have a great deal more left to give."
The man said nothing, but nodded, so I went on:
"Since my new employer Mr Farraday arrived, I've tried very hard, very hard indeed, to provide the sort of service I would like him to have. I've tried and tried, but whatever I do I find I am far from reaching the standards I once set myself. More and more errors are appearing in my work. Quite trivial in themseves - at least so far. But they're of the sort I would never have made before, and I know what they signify. Goodness knows, I've tried and tried, but it's no use. I've given what I had to give. I gave it all to Loed Darlington
"Oh dear, mate. Here, you want a hankie?"
"Lord Darlington wasn't a bad man. He wasn't a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship's wisdom. All those years I served him. I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can't even say I made my own mistakes. Really - one has to ask oneself - what dignity is there in that?"

My favourite moment there is when the other man offers the hankie and the reader realises that Stevens has  actually broken down, but would never tell us. No other medium could achieve a moment like this. Film would have to show us Stevens crying, (even if the view were obscured, the actor's voice would reveal the tears) and even with a voiceover, it could not construct the narrative entirely from Steven's words, which is where the tremendous emotional jolt comes from as we realise our narrator is not being straight with us. For that reason, It's not surprising the Merchant Ivory film adaptation omitted this scene. The nature of life as an Englishman, class, war, Fascism and idealism are made flesh and blood in this moment in that curious way that history books cannot achieve. This is what fiction is for.

  To return to the Jane Austen and the Napoleonic Wars contrast, Ishiguro's fiction is also astonishing in its imaginative interpretation of the effect war and geo-political turmoil have upon individual lives. When We Were Orphans, which mixes a surreal worldview with a compelling narrative and so beats The Unconsoled as Ishiguro's most challenging book, gives us a inter-war narrator who cannot come to terms with the existence of violence and wrong-doing in society, and believes that it can ultimately be prevented, just as the League of Nations must surely prevent a second War. The words subvert and genre are grossly overused together in cultural discussions (I'd be the first to say that Never Let Me Go is a brilliant piece of science fiction, not a subversion of it, except in the sense that anything good is subversive of its genre), but When We were Orphans actually does subvert detective fiction, in the same way that Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons's Watchmen subverts the superhero fallacy. Its narrator, Christopher Banks, has wanted since childhood to be a great detective in the Holmes/ Wimsey/Poirot tradition, and it soon becomes apparent that he now believes he is one. Things get odder as the novel progresses, until Christopher seems to believe that his detecting skills will bring peace to the 1930s. The problem of how one can accept the unchangeable pain and wickedness in the world is here given a curious and troubling form of expression. This is a novelist engaging with the world in a way in which no-one else does.

  Perhaps the problem is that Ishiguro's novels give me pleasure. We distrust pleasure, partly because of the regression of media book pundits to lazy readers who believe that anything difficult is not worth reading, which understandably has given smarter critics an aversion to anything with no stenuous patches. After hearing Booker judge Chris Mullin state that a book had to 'zip along' to meet his criteria, and Booker Prize Chairman Stella Rimington insist "we wanted to select books people would read and enjoy, not read and admire" (an absurd distinction: how could I enjoy a book I didn't admire? How could I not enjoy a book I admired?), one briefly feels the need to burn  every book that took less than a month to read, just as one wonders if they are the only person in the country who likes books after catching a few minutes of Channel 4's The TV Bookclub and seeing three presenters swap praise of Tony Parsons, or listening to Mariella Frostrup giggle her way through Open Book. When the red mist clears, though, one starts to realise that the school-of-thought that sees The Road as sentimental and Never Let Me Go as too simply written is no better.

Let's end by comparing two prose stylists. Here's Ishiguro, in A Pale View of Hills:

A half-moon had appeared above the water and for several moments I remained on the bridge, gazing at it. Once, through the dimness, I thought I could see Mariko running along the riverbank in the direction of the cottage

Here's Cusk on Never Let me Go:

indeed Its procedures are the very reverse of generic, for there is no analogy at work within the text, which instead labours to produce its iterative naturalism as a kind of sub-set or derivation of our own.

I know which one I prefer.


  1. Richard, your mention of The Road made me curious. Another writer whose site I check often, Adam Cadre, wrote two reviews of the book:, How would you respond to his accusation that it's "faith-based nuclear war fiction" with a sappy ending?

    1. Thanks, interesting links. Personally I'd disagree because I think McCarthy's writing is powerful enough to make us invest in the character of The Boy, so that the end is moving. The potential for sentimentality and overkill is always there in the book, but I think the brilliance of his prose carries everything through. I think, too, that a constant teetering over-the-top quality, so that the book becomes unbearable at times but then emotion anchors it again so that we don't stop reading, is part of McCarthy's aesthetic, as opposed to the more matter-of-fact style of Never Let Me Go, The Handmaid's Tale and 1984 - it's what makes his Blood Meridian such a great book as well.

  2. This comment is a little late (I just discovered your blog) still this is a really excellent article - Kazuo Ishiguro is probably my favourite living author but while I agree with you on most of his works – Remains of the Day in particular is amazing - my favourite book by him is The Unconsoled. I have no wish to debate its literary value and I’m not even sure I understood it, but I do know that I enjoyed reading it. In fact I enjoyed reading it more than any of his other works and I really did love them.
    I also know that it isn’t fair to assume that everyone who says they love The Unconsoled is a ‘hungry A-Level student’ looking for something to analyse or a literary critic wanting to seem impressive because I’m neither of those and I don’t want to analyse it at all – I just loved it.
    Anyway I’m really enjoying reading your articles – I completely agree with you about sexism and Doctor Who – It’s always great to discover a writer you like on the internet and see they have written so many pieces. To come across a blog because of Doctor Who and discover an article about Ishiguro is a real treat. Thanks.

    1. Hi Grainne,
      Glad you're enjoying the blog, and you join a list of passionate advocates for The Unconsoled that I respect (John Carey being another one). Rest assured I haven't given up on it!