Ishiguro, Kazuo 1954-
ISHIGURO, Kazuo 1954-
PERSONAL: Born November 8, 1954, in Nagasaki, Japan; resident of Great Britain since 1960; son of Shizuo (a scientist) and Shizuko (a homemaker; maiden name, Michida) Ishiguro; married Lorna Anne MacDougall, May 9, 1986. Education: University of Kent, B.A. (with honors), 1978; University of East Anglia, M.A. (creative writing), 1980. Hobbies and other interests: Music, guitar, piano, cinema.
ADDRESSES: Office—c/o Author Mail, Faber and Faber, 3 Queen Square, London WC1N 3AU, England.
CAREER: Grouse beater for Queen Mother at Balmoral Castle, Aberdeen, Scotland, 1973; Renfrew Social Works Department, Renfrew, Scotland, community worker, 1976; West London Cyrenians Ltd., London, England, residential social worker, 1979-81; writer, 1982—.
AWARDS, HONORS: Winifred Holtby Award, Royal Society of Literature, 1983, for A Pale View of Hills; Whitbread Book of the Year Award, 1986, for An Artist of the Floating World; Booker Prize, 1989, for The Remains of the Day; Premio Scanno (Italy), 1995; Order of the British Empire for services to literature, 1995; honorary Litt.D., University of Kent, 1990, and University of East Anglia, 1995; When We Were Orphans shortlisted for Booker Prize, 2000.
A Pale View of Hills, Putnam (New York, NY), 1982.
An Artist of the Floating World, Putnam (New York, NY), 1986.
The Remains of the Day, Knopf (New York, NY), 1989.
The Unconsoled, Knopf (New York, NY), 1995.
When We Were Orphans, Knopf (New York, NY), 2001.
Never Let Me Go, Knopf (New York, NY), 2005.
Also contributor to Introduction 7: Stories by New Writers, Faber (London, England), 1981. Author of television film scripts, including A Profile of Arthur J. Mason, 1984, and The Gourmet, 1986. Contributor to literary journals, including London Review of Books, Firebird, Bananas, and Harpers and Queen.
ADAPTATIONS: The Remains of the Day was adapted into a feature film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson by Merchant Ivory Productions, 1993. Ishiguro's unproduced screenplay The Saddest Music in the World was adapted by Guy Maddin and George Toles in 2004.
SIDELIGHTS: After his first three novels, Japanese-born Kazuo Ishiguro emerged as one of the foremost British writers of his generation. Ishiguro's novels commonly deal with issues of memory, self-deception, and codes of etiquette, leading his characters to a reevaluation or realization about the relative success or failure of their lives. His capture of the prestigious Booker Prize for his third novel, The Remains of the Day, confirmed the critical acclaim his work received. His fifth novel, When We Were Orphans, was also widely praised, and was shortlisted for the Booker Prize in 2000.
Ishiguro's highly acclaimed first novel, A Pale View of Hills, is narrated by Etsuko, a middle-aged Japanese woman living in England. The suicide of Etsuko's daughter, Keiko, awakens somber memories of the summer in the 1950s in war-ravaged Nagasaki when the child was born. Etsuko's thoughts and dreams turn particularly to Sachiko, a war widow whose unfortunate relationship with an American lover traumatizes her already troubled daughter, Mariko. Etsuko, too, will eventually embrace the West, and leave her Japanese husband to marry an English journalist. "Etsuko's memories, though they focus on her neighbor's sorrows and follies, clearly refer to herself as well," wrote Edith Milton in New York Times Book Review. "The lives of the two women run parallel, and Etsuko, like Sachiko, has raised a deeply disturbed daughter; like her, she has turned away from the strangling role of traditional Japanese housewife toward the West, where she has discovered freedom of a sort, but also an odd lack of depth, commitment, and continuity." Surrounded that summer by a new order that has shattered ancient ways, the two women choose the Western path of self-interest, compromising—to varying degrees—their delicate daughters. "In Etsuko's present life as much as in her past, she is circled by a chain of death which has its beginning in the war," suggested New Statesman reviewer James Campbell.
Reviewing A Pale View of Hills in Spectator, Francis King found the novel "typically Japanese in its compression, its reticence, and in its exclusion of all details not absolutely essential to its theme." While some reviewers agreed with Times Literary Supplement writer Paul Bailey that "at certain points I could have done with something as crude as a fact," others felt that Ishiguro's delicate layering of themes and images grants the narrative great evocative power. A Pale View of Hills "is a beautiful and dense novel, gliding from level to level of consciousness," remarked Jonathan Spence in New Society. "Ishiguro develops [his themes] with remarkable insight and skill," concurred Rosemary Roberts in Los Angeles Times Book Review. "They are described in controlled prose that more often hints than explains or tells. The effect evokes mystery and an aura of menace." King deemed the novel "a memorable and moving work, its elements of past and present, of Japan and England held together by a shimmering, all but invisible net of images linked to each other by filaments at once tenuous and immensely strong."
While A Pale View of Hills depicts the incineration of a culture and the disjointed lives of the displaced, Ishiguro's novel is not without optimism. Critics saw in the war survivors' tenacious struggle to resurrect some sort of life, however alien, great hope and human courage. "Sachiko and Etsuko become minor figures in a greater pattern of betrayal, infanticide and survival played out against the background of Nagasaki, itself the absolute emblem of our genius for destruction," Milton continued. "In this book, where what is stated is often less important than what is left unsaid, those blanked-out days around the bomb's explosion become the paradigm of modern life. They are the ultimate qualities which the novel celebrates: the brilliance of our negative invention, and our infinite talent for living beyond annihilation as if we had forgotten it." Reiterated Roberts: "There is nobility in determination to press on with life even against daunting odds. Ishiguro has brilliantly captured this phoenixlike spirit; high praise to him."
In An Artist of the Floating World Ishiguro again explores Japan in transition. Set in a provincial Japanese town during 1949 and 1950, the story revolves around Masuji Ono, a painter who worked as an official artist and propagandist for the imperialist regime that propelled Japan into World War II. Knowing that his former ideals were errant does little to help Ono adjust to the bewildering Westernization that is going on all around him; nor does it quell his longings for the past, with its fervent patriotism, professional triumphs, and deep comradeship. "Ishiguro's insights . . . are finely balanced," wrote Anne Chisholm in Times Literary Supplement. "He shows how the old Japanese virtues of veneration for the Sensei (the teacher), or loyalty to the group, could be distorted and exploited; he allows deep reservations to surface about the wholesale Americanization of Japan in the aftermath of humiliation and defeat. Without asking us to condone Ono's or Japan's terrible mistakes, he suggests with sympathy some reasons why the mistakes were made."
Admiring how "Ishiguro unravels the old man's thoughts and feelings with exceptional delicacy," Chisholm determined that the story "is not only pleasurable to read but instructive, without being in the least didactic." "The old man's longings for his past become a universal lament for lost worlds," added the critic, who judged An Artist of the Floating World a "fine new novel."
In the opinion of Christopher Hitchens in Nation, Ishiguro's first two novels share a form in their "unmediated retrospective monologue." Hitchens cited their similar themes as well: "Each narrator has lived according to strict codes of etiquette and order; the ethos of actively and passively 'knowing one's place,' and adhering to protocol and precedent." Those same forms and themes shape the third novel, The Remains of the Day, which presents the narrative of Stevens, English butler to Lord Darlington of Darlington Hall. After more than thirty years of faithful service to the Lord, Stevens now finds himself in the employ of Mr. Farraday, a congenial American who has purchased the estate and keeps Stevens on as part of the colorful trappings. Farraday urges Stevens to take a motoring holiday through Cornwall. Concurrently, Stevens has received a letter from Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), the exemplary housekeeper who had left Darlington Hall some twenty years before. Mrs. Benn's letter hints at unhappiness in her marriage and suggests a willingness to return to service at Darlington. Short of staff in the downsized estate, the ever-dutiful Stevens justifies his absence with the utilitarian purpose of hiring the former housekeeper.
As the journey proceeds and Stevens rambles about in Farraday's old Ford—taking eight days to go about one hundred miles—he reflects upon the people he meets, the countryside and, tellingly and ironically, his own life. At one point, Stevens proclaims the English landscape the most satisfying in the world precisely because of its lack of obvious drama or spectacle. This fondness to dampen the dramatic and spectacular and to fit in easily does, in fact, control his life. It is the reason he so thoroughly inhabits his role as butler. As he returns to the same memories again and again, the fog of self-deception lifts. One motoring mishap after another—a flat tire, overheated radiator—affords him the time and perspective he has never had. Meeting the ordinary people who actually suffered during the war, Stevens has difficulty admitting to his long service at Darlington. He begins to doubt the Lord's—and his own—judgment. The quiet tragedies of revelation continue as Stevens comes to realize what the perceptive reader has known all along: his proposed rendezvous with Mrs. Benn has more than a utilitarian purpose. She represents, in fact, his last chance to seize happiness in life.
Reviewing The Remains of the Day for the London Observer, Salman Rushdie noted: "Just below the understatement of the novel's surface is a turbulence as immense as it is slow." Drawing readers into its subtle complexities, the novel met with a highly favorable critical response. Galen Strawson, for example, praised the novel in Times Literary Supplement, writing that The Remains of the Day "is as strong as it is delicate, a very finely nuanced and at times humorous study of repression. . . . It is a strikingly original book, and beautifully made. . . . Stevens' . . . language creates a context which allows Kazuo Ishiguro to put a massive charge of pathos into a single unremarkable phrase." In Chicago Tribune, Joseph Coates described the novel as "an ineffably sad and beautiful piece of work—a tragedy in the form of a comedy of manners." He continued: "Rarely has the device of an unreliable narrator worked such character revelation as it does here." Mark Kamine cited Ishiguro's technique in New Leader: "Usually the butler's feelings are hidden in painfully correct periphrasis, or refracted in dialogue spoken by other characters. . . . Few writers dare to say so little of what they mean as Ishiguro."
While many reviews of The Remains of the Day were favorable, this was not universally so. Writing for New Statesman & Society, Geoff Dyer wondered "if the whole idea of irony as a narrative strategy hasn't lost its usefulness." Dyer worried that Stevens's voice had been "coaxed in the interests of the larger ironic scheme of the novel." Comparing the novelist to Henry James, however, Hermione Lee defended Ishiguro's style in New Republic: "To accuse Ishiguro of costive, elegant minimalism is to miss the deep sadness, the boundless melancholy that opens out, like the 'deserts of vast eternity' his characters are reluctantly contemplating, under the immaculate surface."
Winning the Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day allowed Ishiguro "to break through the veil of expectations and constraints that both his success, and his readers' stubborn determination to take him absolutely literally, imposed," and "to try something wild and frightening that would prevent him from ever being taken as a realist again," according to Pico Iyer in a Times Literary Supplement review. Iyer noted that Ishiguro achieves this goal in his fourth novel, The Unconsoled "Even though every sentence and theme is recognizably [Ishiguro's]," noted Iyer, "he has written a book that passes on the bewilderment it seeks to portray."
The Unconsoled, much longer than Ishiguro's previous novels, details the journey of Ryder, a famous pianist, who finds himself in an unfamiliar town for a concert he does not remember arranging. Similar to the themes of his earlier books, Ishiguro again deals with codes of etiquette and order. "The book is in large part about assumptions and presumptions, about being put out and put upon—and about putting on a face of obliging acquiescence," stated Iyer. In one scene a hotel manager selfishly intent on making the pianist as comfortable as possible compels Ryder to change rooms, which in the end is an imposition rather than a kindness. The Unconsoled unfolds for the reader "a whole society that wonders if it has missed the point and missed the boat, and comes to see that perhaps, at some critical juncture, it was too timid, too accommodating, too dutiful to stand up for its real needs," added Iyer. He concluded: "The Unconsoled is a humane and grieving book, as well as one of the strangest novels in memory."
Indeed, The Unconsoled puzzled and irritated many reviewers. Maclean's contributor Guy Lawson noted that the book is built around "a clever idea: that music, no matter how unmelodic, represents a search for meaning in a confusing, contingent world," but complained that "Ishiguro . . . has written a book so plotless, so oblique, so difficult to read that the idea is lost in maddening digression after maddening digression." Several critics stressed the differences between The Unconsoled and I shiguro's previous novels. Commonweal's Linda Simon speculated, "It may have been Ishiguro's aim to subvert the conventions of the novel as a way of underscoring his theme [of the difficulty of communication and connection], but the result is a book lacking the grace and precision that we have come to expect from a writer who, so amply in the past, has proved his intelligence, insight, and talents." A Newsweek reviewer added, "It's as if he got sick of reading about how compact his prose is—how he's the poet laureate of the unspoken and unexpressed—and suddenly retaliated with this dense snowstorm of words." In New York Times, Michiko Kakutani began by commenting on one of the similarities between The Unconsoled and The Remains of the Day: "Ryder and Stevens are actually mirror images of each other. Both are unreliable narrators whose fragmented, elliptical reminiscences will gradually expose their self-delusions. Both are willful professionals who hide behind the mask of their vocations. And both are cold, pragmatic men who have cut themselves off from reality and emotional commitment." Kakutani continued, "The biggest difference between the two men, it turns out, concerns the novels they star in. 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."
The Unconsoled had its champions, though. In New York Times Book Review, Louis Menaud asserted that, "By the standards of The Remains of the Day, The Unconsoled can seem oblique, underpowered and, because of its length, slightly pretentious; but by the standards of The Unconsoled, The Remains of the Day is predictable and heavy-handed. If no one had ever heard of Kazuo Ishiguro, if he had never published a word before, it would have been much easier to see how singular the vision behind The Unconsoled really is." Nation commentator Charlotte Innes, noting that some critics found the book chaotic, contended that "far from being 'chaotic,' The Unconsoled is as tightly plotted as anything Ishiguro has written." She added, "The Unconsoled conveys the same bleak message as the rest of Ishiguro's much-praised work. Our self-deceptions are intolerable. Denial is a hedge against madness. . . . But his emphasis on the tremendous relief to be drawn from the complementary comforts of kindness and art suggest something more ambivalent here. . . . Music has no moral force. But the feeling it projects, like the lifegiving exuberance of Ishiguro's prose, is unmistakable."
When We Were Orphans offers a "fusion of Ishiguro's talents and techniques," including "the muffled misery and cool, clear prose" of The Remains of the Day and the "surreal paranoia" of The Unconsoled, according to Time International reviewer Elinor Shields. The novel begins in 1930, with its narrator, English detective Christopher Banks still haunted by the central mystery of his own life: the unexplained disappearance of his parents from their home in Shanghai when he was a child. His investigation finally takes him to Shanghai in the late 1930s, when the city is under attack from Japan. While chronicling Banks's pursuit of the truth behind his parents' vanishing, the story also gives us his remembrances of his youth in Shanghai, his education at prestigious British schools, and his rise to a position of prominence in detective work. The novel is at once a mystery, a work of historical fiction, and "a Freudian fairy tale about a painful transition to adulthood," Shields explained.
"The novel has its quiet successes," opined James Francken in a review of When We Were Orphans for London Review of Books. "The hand-me-down conventions of detective fiction are shown to be too neat. . . . And there are delicate comic details." But, the critic cautioned, "When We Were Orphans doesn't work as a detective novel. Banks's stilted narrative relies on the mystery of the unaccountable and the fear of the unexplained, but the danger never really becomes threatening: there is very little evil in the novel and not even much nastiness." Furthermore, he complained, Banks is "starchy" and "predictable." An Economist critic cited the novel's "story-telling strengths," but also commented on its inadequate characterization and "monotonous" dialogue. "The strongest impression is of nostalgia-soaked pastiche," the critic observed, a mix of "a novel of manners with a particular kind of detective novel." Shields, however, praised the work's "moments of unnerving suspense" and praised it as "a rich, satisfying read, clear yet complex." In Publishers Weekly a critic noted of When We Were Orphans that Ishiguro's novel "triumphs with the seductiveness of his prose and his ability to invigorate shadowy events with sinister implications."
In a profile by Susan Chira for New York Times Book Review, Ishiguro stated: "What I'm interested in is not the actual fact that my characters have done things they later regret. . . . I'm interested in how they come to terms with it." Ishiguro continued: "On the one hand there is a need for honesty, on the other hand a need to deceive themselves—to preserve a sense of dignity, some sort of self-respect. What I want to suggest is that some sort of dignity and self-respect does come from that sort of honesty."
BIOGRAPHICAL AND CRITICAL SOURCES:
Contemporary Literary Criticism, Volume 27, Gale (Detroit, MI), 1984.
Shaffer, Brian W., Understanding Kazuo Ishiguro, University of South Carolina Press (Columbia, SC), 1997.
Antioch Review, summer, 2001, Rosemary Hartigan, review of When We Were Orphans, p. 637.
Book, September, 2000, Helen M. Jerome, "An Artist of the World," p. 40.
Booklist, July, 2000, Brad Hooper, review of When We Were Orphans, p. 1974; April 1, 2001, Karen Harris, review of When We Were Orphans, p. 1490.
Chicago Tribune, October 1, 1989, p. 5.
Clio, spring, 2001, Cynthia F. Wong, interview with Ishiguro, p. 309.
Commonweal, March 22, 1996, Linda Simon, review of The Unconsoled, p. 25.
Comparative Literature, fall, 2001, Bruce Robbins, "Very Busy Just Now: Globalization and Harriedness in Ishiguro's 'The Unconsoled,'" p. 426.
Economist, May 6, 1995, p. 85; April 15, 2000, "New Novels," p. 12.
Encounter, June-July, 1982.
Harper's, October, 1995, p. 71; February, 1996, p. 30.
Library Journal, August, 2000, Barbara Hoffert, review of When We Were Orphans, p. 157.
London Review of Books, April 13, 2000, James Francken, "Something Fishy," p. 37.
Los Angeles Times, June 20, 1986.
Los Angeles Times Book Review, August 8, 1982; October 1, 1989; April 1, 1990; October 14, 1990.
Maclean's, May 22, 1995, Guy Lawson, review of The Unconsoled, p. 70.
Modern Fiction Studies, fall, 2002, John J. Su, "Refiguring National Character: The Remains of the British Estate Novel," p. 552.
Nation, June 11, 1990, p. 81; November 6, 1995, Charlotte Innes, review of The Unconsoled, p. 546.
New Leader, November 13, 1989, pp. 21-22; September, 2000, Tova Reich, review of When We Were Orphans, p. 42.
New Republic, January 22, 1990; November 6, 1995, p. 42.
New Society, May 13, 1982.
New Statesman, February 19, 1982; April 3, 2000, Phil Whittaker, "Return of the Native."
New Statesman & Society, May 26, 1989.
Newsweek, October 2, 1995, review of The Unconsoled, p. 92.
New Yorker, April 19, 1982; October 23, 1995, p. 90; September 11, 2000, Joan Acocella, review of When We Were Orphans, p. 95.
New York Review of Books, December 21, 1995, p. 17.
New York Times, October 17, 1995, Michiko Kakutani, "Books of the Times."
New York Times Book Review, May 9, 1982; June 8, 1986; October 8, 1989; October 15, 1995, Louis Menand, "Anxious in Dreamland," p. 7.
Observer (London, England), May 21, 1989, p. 53.
Publishers Weekly, July 3, 1995, review of The Unconsoled, p. 48; September 18, 1995, p. 105; July 10, 2000, review of When We Were Orphans, p. 41.
Sewanee Review, summer, 2001, Ben Howard, "A Civil Tongue: The Voice of Kazuo Ishiguro," p. 398.
Spectator, February 27, 1982.
Time, October 2, 1995, Paul Gray, review of The Unconsoled, p. 82.
Time International, April 24, 2000, Elinor Shields, "The End of Innocence," p. 65.
Times (London, England), February 18, 1982; February 28, 1983.
Times Literary Supplement, February 19, 1982; February 14, 1986; May 19, 1989; April 28, 1995.
World Literature Today, summer, 2000, Brian W. Shaffer, review of When We Were Orphans, p. 595.
Writer, May, 2001, Lewis Burke Frumkes, "Kazuo Ishiguro," p. 24.
Yale Review, April, 2001, Diana Postlethwaite, review of When We Were Orphans, p. 159.
January Magazine,http://www.januarymagazine.com/ (April 20, 2004), Linda Richards, interview with Ishiguro.*