Wednesday 15 May 2013

An Artist of the Floating World

Kazuo Ishiguro, 1986
(April 2013)

I did English Lit. for A-level (High School, for my non-Commonwealth friends). I may have mentioned this before. Every so often they’ll try to refresh the curriculum by including a book or two that wasn’t written by a dead white guy, so in addition to The Canterbury Tales, Othello, and Coriolanus, we also studied The Remains of the Day.

And that was the last – and until recently only – time I’d read anything by Kazuo Ishiguro. I wouldn’t say the experience all those years ago put me off him exactly, but there’s a big difference in doing something because you have to and because you want to, for all that I did choose to study the subject in the first place. It probably didn’t help that our first teacher spent a large portion of the first term obsessively highlighting instances of phallic imagery (church towers and the like) before clearing off on long-term convalescent leave for reasons that were never fully explained to us. So it goes.

An Artist of the Floating World was written a couple of years before TROTD, and it’s easy to see similar themes being worked through, almost like a practice session. It’s so much more than that though, and it makes me regret not revisiting this author long ago. The pacing and control are phenomenal as Ishiguro gives us another aging, unreliable narrator looking back on a life wasted in the support of the wrong side of history; looking back with a painful mixture of self-aggrandisement, self-obsession, and ultimately self-delusion.

For all that this is a short book the process of self-inflicted character assassination is agonizingly slow and drawn-out. At no point is the eponymous artist allowed the brutal but decisive disembowelment of Seppuku, but we much watch as he instead chooses to commit suicide of the ego through an infinity of paper cuts to the soul, as his pretensions to influence and legacy are flayed away to reveal the sad and shabby skeleton beneath.

“…real quarrels were rare at the Migi-Hidari, all of us who frequented that place being united by the same essential spirit; that is to say, the establishment proved to be everything that Yamagata had wished; it represented something fine and one could get drunk there with pride and dignity.”


  1. I have a couple of Ishiguro books somewhere that my dad got for me because he knows I tend to read Japanese stuff. (Not that Remains of the Day has even a scrap of Japan in it anywhere.) He's one of those authors that I feel like I really should read, but haven't gotten to just because this literature thing is so serious, if that makes sense.

    1. Is one of them Never Let Me Go? My wife has a copy and I might try it sooner rather than later. He really is very good and that one sounds like it might me SFnal enough for your tastes.

      On a vaguely related note, we still up for the 1Q84 read along next month?

    2. Yes. I need to post something and start organizing and HOLY CRAP MAY IS ALMOST OVER. I just barely realized that. Ack. Stay tuned.

      I think I have Never Let Me Go on the shelf, possibly next to one of three or four copies of Snow Falling on Cedars, a book that people kept giving me because it's "about Japan."

    3. I know. Next week and we're pretty much done for May. I'll try a bit of pre-publicity here as well, for all the good it'll do.

      I guess living here makes Japan related gifts harder to justify. I do get a lot of tartan from my dad, though...

  2. Love Kazuo Ishiguro. I really enjoyed A Pale View of the Hills, set in Nagasaki. And I don't regret a second of my time that I gave to Never Let Me Go. I wouldn't say it was enjoyable, but it still comes up in my thoughts from time to time, after reading it when it first came out, about six years ago?
    On the whole, I've stopped reading books related to Japan since moving here, not escapist enough!

    1. Yeah, it'll definitely be a shorter gap before I read another of his books.

      I kind of like the Japan related stuff now that I'm here. Reminds me that the small slice of it I experience on a day-to-day basis really is just a small slice. Still, escapism isn't without it's attractions, I'll grant you.