Last year, when Bob Dylan was named winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature, I was surprised. I had never really noticed the announcement of the Nobel Prize in Literature before, although several of my friends had been involved in scientific or political projects that had been recognized by their respective committees. An even bigger surprise came last week, when Kazuo Ishiguro was named the winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature this year. It seemed that, in recognizing Dylan and then Ishiguro, the Nobel Prize committee had finally decided that instead of getting me to read the works of Laureate’s past they should just award the prize to whomever I happened to be reading or listening to in the mid-’00s.
Living in the Past
One of the reasons why the Nobel announcement surprised me was that after about a decade of not really thinking about him, I’d finally begun thinking about his novels again. Last year I listened to the audiobook of An Artist of the Floating World, while In July I finally got around to reading Nocturnes, his story suite from 2009. It’s strange how slowly he seems to have moved back into my head: the publication of The Buried Giant in 2015; listening to Floating World again in 2016; finally reading Nocturnes and the Nobel victory this year. It seems a little like a metaphor for how slowly my life seems to have been moving while I waited for permanent residence in Canada, applied for jobs I never heard back from, and felt like I was just existing.
An Artist of the Floating World was the first Ishiguro book that I read although I couldn’t pin-point the year. I think it remains my favourite. The eponymous artist is Masuji Ono, who worked on propaganda for the Japanese state in the Second World War. The story is told from Ono’s highly unreliable perspective in the late 1940s, after Japan has lost the war, as he thinks back on his life in the preceding decades, in the run up to the war. It’s a profound reflection on complicity and shame from the point of view of someone very invested in the victory of his country; of someone who has made questionable choices but has also lost so much. It is not easy to reflect back on profound mistakes, especially when one’s whole life was based around an idea that has been utterly destroyed.
In response to his Nobel victory The New Statesman began promoting an article from 2015, when Ishiguro’s latest novel, The Buried Giant, was published. In the article, Ishiguro converses with Neil Gaiman about genre, particularly fantasy. The conversation appears to have been prompted by Ursula le Guin’s response to The Buried Giant, in which she responded to Ishiguro’s question “Are they going to say this is fantasy?”: “Well, yes, they probably will. Why not?” Le Guin is known for her prodding of serious literary types when they flirt with genre, using its tropes and conventions but then distancing themselves from it, having previous teased Margaret Atwood for her unwillingness to identify her work as science fiction (which I discussed a little in a blog post earlier this year). Le Guin comments that “No writer can successfully use the ‘surface elements’ of a literary genre — far less its profound capacities — for a serious purpose, while despising it to the point of fearing identification with it”, and describes reading The Buried Giant as “painful”. Ishiguro and Gaiman discuss what genre means and how a book is attributed to a genre – Gaiman states, “I think that there’s a huge difference between, for example, a novel with spies in it and a spy novel; or a novel with cowboys in it and a cowboy novel.” But while there is much of interest in their discussion, I don’t think that it’s ever quite as interesting as the conversation Le Guin hoped to have with Ishiguro in her addendum to her original blog post:
“If I said I was “on the side of” dragons, but not really “on the side of” pixies, would that interest him at all? Would he be interested in talking about the various definitions of the word “fantasy” as inclusive of most imaginative literature (as I use the word), or as limited to a modern commercial development in fiction and the media (as I think he was using the word)?”
I think the biggest lacuna in Gaiman and Ishiguro’s conversation is the idea that writing as well as reading within a genre can affect our understanding of what a story is doing or can do. Part of Le Guin’s problem with The Buried Giant, or rather Ishiguro’s question “will they call this fantasy?”, is clearly that she sees this as a lack of respect for the work done in and with the genre coming from someone who believes themselves to be acting outside it. When I read Atwood’s In Other Worlds, I had the impression that she hadn’t really grasped anything that had been done in science fiction since the 1950s, meaning that while her contributions to the genre are good, her commentary on it seems woefully ignorant. By not knowing the genres in which they are writing, it looks like these literary authors jump into them with no respect for the hard work done by those who contribute to them to crate, shape, understand, and undermine its defining tropes, it audiences, and its explanatory power. The hurt is real, even if it wasn’t intended. I still haven’t read The Buried Giant (I’m not a big fan of fantasy), and this discussion doesn’t really warm me to it.
I have only fleeting memories of Ishiguro’s other novels, although I enjoyed all of them to some degree. I know that A Pale View of Hills gave me nightmares and that I found The Remains of the Day affecting, but distant. I am most ambivalent about Never Let Me Go; I don’t remember liking it all that much, and yet it feels like the most pressing novel to revisit. Nonetheless, from my perspective as someone who has read very little by previous Nobel Laureates in literature he seems a very worthy winner.