My Summer of Ishiguro, Looking back and moving forward
Kazuo Ishiguro just won the Nobel Prize for Literature. Our contributor, Nancy Chen, had a close encounter with the writer’s oeuvre one summer and writes about how the works affected her. Note, the piece contains some plot spoilers.


In reading as with everything else in life, timing is crucial to whether we emotionally connect with a novel. When I picked up Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, it was the start of a self-determined sabbatical I elected to take at 28 years of age. Having worked full-time since graduating college, I had successfully paid off five figures worth of student debt and had savings in the bank. As someone who works in a creative field, I wanted to give myself the luxury of free time for a finite period of somewhere between three months to a year, and use that time for creative pursuits which are often pushed to the periphery or off the table altogether when a full-time job demands most of our time and energy.

The Remains of the Day caught my eye because the cover quotes included high praise from Ann Beattie, who I once took a fiction seminar with at University of Virginia: “A perfect novel. I couldn’t put it down.” The Remains of the Day is about an English butler named Stevens who looks back on his life in devoted service to a British Lord and, in hindsight, sees the misguided role he played to prop up a crumbling British aristocracy. Through flashbacks, we see a pattern emerging from the moments where he sacrificed his own interests (a chance at a fulfilling relationship with a woman who is his intellectual equal) and the interests of his family (he turns away from his own dying father) in the name of duty. It is a novel that is quintessentially British, written by a Japanese immigrant.

The novel gripped me with its clear-eyed portrait of a human being facing the squandered opportunities of his life. Here was someone who had tried to live life based on high-minded ideals, taking pride in doing his work with utmost care and discipline, but only with sufficient distance could he see what he was blind to in the actual moment of living. Aside from the fact that it really is a perfect novel—so well controlled and expertly crafted that you can only admire the current as it sweeps you along—the difficulty of self-examination very much resonated with me, at the beginning of my personal experiment with freedom.

Time is a precious and limited commodity. In a self-created situation where all I had was time, what would I choose to do with it? What was my time for? Reading The Remains of the Day made me feel as though the part of me that was asking these questions of myself was recognized, as though I was suddenly face-to-face with a companion that I didn’t know I was looking for. This created a sense of gratitude and trust, cementing my commitment to Ishiguro—I wanted to see all that he wanted to show me.

Kazuo Ishiguro. Image credit: Jeff Cottenden.
Kazuo Ishiguro. Image credit: Jeff Cottenden.

Pasts Revealed Through Prose, and Finding Clarity

Alongside other personal projects which included writing, making new prints, assisting other artists make their work, and getting involved at a local artist residency that I had long admired, I read seven Ishiguro books over the course of three months. The group portrait of his characters and themes emerged: men and women who are looking back on their lives, trying to but occasionally unwilling or unable to see themselves and their pasts clearly. Using a plain and direct prose style, without florid language or embellishment, Ishiguro gently exposes their distorted recollections, letting his characters hold on to their dignity while their precariously constructed senses of reality begin to fall apart. As the ground beneath them starts to tremble, the fault lines become ever more visible to the reader, if not to the characters themselves.

The ill-fated children in the dystopian allegory, Never Let Me Go, attend an English boarding school and eventually find out they’re the livestock in a human organ farm. The elderly couple Axl and Beatrice in the historical/fantasy fiction, The Buried Giant, journey across a mystical landscape of Arthurian England that’s shrouded in a mist of forgetting, looking for their long lost son. Reading these two books after the realism of The Remains of the Day was initially disorienting, but beneath these different outfits of allegory and fantasy, it was possible to recognize familiar concerns. Considering that these three books were published across a span of 26 years (Remains in 1989, Never Let Me Go in 2005 and The Buried Giant in 2015), it spoke to a long-running thematic consistency in the writer’s mind. In Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro is less interested in “the big reveal” than he is on the protagonists’ reaction to finding out that their time is limited. As in Remains, the characters don’t try to escape; the author’s interest is in whether this self-awareness of their mortality would make them feel their lives were pointless. In The Buried Giant, the couple’s odyssey is interwoven into a complicated allegory with a dragon and a quest to lift the haze of forgetting from the land. Here, Ishiguro is questioning what uses the forgetting serves, and whether selective memory isn’t more conducive to personal as well as societal harmony. Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant have their respective pleasures. Both succeed in building emotional investment and new cores of feeling, though less acutely than The Remains of the Day.

As I read on, the portrait of Ishiguro himself as a writer was getting clearer. Anytime you get to know someone better, there’s bound to be some things that annoy you. In this case, I found the middle novels—The Unconsoled (1995) and When We Were Orphans (2000)—to be placidly tedious. In The Unconsoled, a renowned pianist named Ryder arrives in an unspecified European city for a very important concert, but finds himself endlessly and inexplicably distracted from crucial rehearsal time to prepare. In When We Were Orphans, set in 1930s Shanghai, an English detective named Christopher Banks returns to solve the most important, certainly most personal case of his life. Having grown up in Shanghai decades before, he tries to solve the mysteries behind the disappearances of his parents—in effect, investigating his own past. These characters are haunted by melancholic pasts, evidently connected to traumas related to their respective parents. The unhappy past seems to have fractured their ability to see clearly in the present, and act effectively. These novels contain languid and surreal atmospheres resulting from the blurring together of reality and the protagonists’ increasingly dream-like experiences. The sense of futility snowballs ever larger, making the possibility of a satisfying resolution not only impossible, but irrelevant.

I was left with the same frustrated sensation as when trying to wake up from a long, repetitious dream. The sort of dream where you have a simple mission, so you try one thing after another—all kinds of paths and strategies—to arrive at your destination, but it always eludes you; you always wake up before you get there.

Especially compared to the lean and powerful The Remains of the Day—where each and every sentence contributed to the devastating effect—some of these novels are far from perfect. But novels don’t need to be perfect in order for us to get something out of them. Experiencing them side by side, holding them all in my mind as parts of an oeuvre, I came to see Ishiguro as a writer who is unafraid to try new forms, to fashion new vessels containing his creative vision. I began to picture an artist or perhaps a scientist tinkering away in his private workshop, without much concern for whatever the external world anticipates or expects of him. Here is someone who tinkers and experiments for his own satisfaction, to see if he can achieve specific meaning through a variety of shapes. Here is someone who takes his time, averaging 4-5 years between books and both reinventing and reasserting himself with each project. And while there is a consistency to his core themes, he has never been predictable. I wondered if this shape-shifting is also a way for the writer/artist to keep himself interested, to make his work always feel new.

Reflecting on my ‘Summer of Ishiguro’

Looking back, I’m still gaining a sense of perspective that might eventually allow me to summarize last summer neatly. It was a time of great personal freedom. Perhaps it was an act of bravery (a word some people had used to describe my choice), to pull away from the everyday routine, straining against social pressures, to carve out the vital time and space to really scrutinize myself and my goals. I got more practice saying “no” to things if I really didn’t want to spend my time that way. It was also a time I look back on with ambivalence, because even though I did the things I set out to do, I honestly felt unmoored. I had done the things I most wanted to do, but why did it feel so removed from a larger current, among vital and productive human endeavor? I questioned (and have yet to conclude) the relationship between Capital and the impetus behind why/when we do things, especially as it pertains to artistic occupations. In other words, even though we might consciously believe otherwise, does art and creative work matter less when we aren’t paid to do it?

The meaning of my ‘Summer of Ishiguro’ (as I nicknamed it) is still shifting. I’m not sure how it will fit into the larger picture of my life, but I continue to ask myself the same questions that were activated then. At the end of the summer, I felt like a distance swimmer who had been in the open ocean a long while and had been gently deposited back on the sandy shoreline. All the time I spent in Ishiguro’s worlds, observing how his characters looked back and ruminated on their place in the world; how they realized or were reminded that they were running out of time; how they managed (or mismanaged) their memories and their actions made me more than ready to hit the ground running again as an artist and writer.

But I’m not done with Ishiguro—there’s one book I decided to save for later. An Artist of the Floating World is waiting on the shelf for me, when I’m ready for it.

Artblog has covered Kazuo Ishiguro before. See Roberta’s posts here and here.


kazuo ishiguro, never let me go, Nobel Prize for Literature, The Buried Giant, The Remains of the Day, The Unconsoled, When We Were Orphans



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