Kazuo Ishiguro, the English novelist who wrote Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, has won the 2017 Nobel Prize for literature. In a statement, the Swedish Academy wrote that Ishiguro, “in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”
Ishiguro’s novels are mostly first-person, and mostly told by an unreliable narrator. They tend to revolve around a single traumatic idea that the narrator is not entirely capable of confronting head-on — that the narrator of Never Let Me Go is a clone who will eventually donate all of her vital organs to someone else; that the butler narrator of The Remains of the Day has spent his life tending to a Nazi — and which the book describes in anxious, claustrophobic circles until the reader fully understands it.
“I tend to write the same book over and over,” Ishiguro told the Guardian in 2015, “or at least, I take the same subject I took last time out and refine it, or do a slightly different take on it.”
Occasionally, this approach can be oblique to the point of frustration. The Unconsoled — which follows a man through a town as he meets a number of people, all of whom he at first professes not to know but many of whom he eventually recognizes as his intimate acquaintances — has its admirers now, but when it was published in 1995, its shaggy, dream-logic structure prompted cries of exasperation from readers. The New York Times called it “a narrative that for all the author's intelligence and craft sorely tries the reader's patience.” James Wood wrote that “it invents its own category of badness.”
Ishiguro’s novels have also faced some criticism from readers of science fiction and fantasy, who argue that he borrows the tropes of those genres without fully understanding how to use or deconstruct them. Most famously, when Ishiguro worried aloud that his readers might think 2015’s The Buried Giant was a fantasy novel, science fiction legend Ursula Le Guin tartly rejoined that reading his book “was like watching a man falling from a high wire while he shouts to the audience, ‘Are they going say I’m a tight-rope walker?’”
All criticism aside, there is nothing quite like the moment in an Ishiguro novel in which the trauma that the narrator is desperately trying to brush aside starts to become legible to the reader, who all at once can grasp the enormous repressed pain and heartbreak that — as the reader realizes for the first time — has been running under the novel all along, like a paved-over river. Here is that moment in The Remains of the Day, as the butler Stevens demotes his father at his employer’s request:
“The fact is, Father has become increasingly infirm. So much so that even the duties of an under-butler are beyond his capabilities. His lordship is of the view, as indeed I am myself, that while Father is allowed to continue with his present round of duties, he represents an ever-present threat to the smooth running of this household, and in particular to next week’s important international gathering.”
My father’s face, in the half-light, betrayed no emotion whatsoever.
“Principally,” I continued, “it has been felt that Father should not longer be asked to wait at the table, whether or not guests are present.”
“I have waited at table every day for the last fifty-four years,” my father remarked, his voice perfectly unhurried.
“Furthermore, it has been decided that Father should not carry laden trays of any sort for even the shortest distances. In view of these limitations, and knowing Father’s esteem for conciseness, I have listed here the revised round of duties he will now be expected to perform.”
I felt disinclined actually to hand him the piece of paper I was holding, and so put it down at the end of the bed.
Stevens’s weaselly use of the passive voice to avoid responsibility for what he’s doing, his use of the third person to describe his father right to his father’s face, and the repressed self-loathing suggested by his inability to bring himself to make contact with his father as he demotes him: It’s all part and parcel of the way Ishiguro writes characters, which is to say the way he writes trauma. He does it with understatement and with deeply buried emotion, and that’s what makes it hurt so much.
He also does it in four weeks flat, and truly, that should make his Nobel win an inspiration to us all.