Glimpses of Late Style
In the Guardian, Decca Aitkenhead asked Kazuo Ishiguro about his obsession with a writer's best work coming in his youth and Ishiguro replied: ""Yeah, that's not quite my obsession so much as Martin Amis's. He keeps quoting me. Quite recently he was on the Today programme, and I was listening in bed and I was startled to hear him mention my name. When he got on to this topic about people fading with age, he said, 'Oh, Ishiguro has got a chart on his wall, showing what age certain authors were when they wrote their masterpieces.' And I remember him saying this on the South Bank Show as well." Ishiguro claims he offered it once as a joke and Amis happened to take it seriously, perhaps because it spoke of Amis's obsessions more than Ishiguro's.
Yet it could be a remark for Amis and Ishiguro's generation, the novelists who in 1983's Granta 7 were offered up as the great new writers of their time. Alongside Ishiguro and Amis were Salman Rushdie, and Julian Barnes, Graham Swift and Ian McEwan. Most would recognize that Rushdie's most important work included Shame, Midnight's Children and Satanic Verses: all written before he was forty five. Amis will perhaps be remembered for Money, London Fields and Time's Arrow - published in his thirties and early forties. Julian Barnes might have won the Booker for the recent The Sense of an Ending, but his international reputation would seem to rest on earlier work Flaubert's Parrot and The History of the World in 10 frac12; Chapters, both written before his mid-forties. Swift remains best known for Waterland and Last Orders, both published by the time he turned fifty. Of the writers on the list perhaps only McEwan's reputation seems undiminished. Whatever one thinks of the narrative tricks he often plays on the reader (and well noticed by James Wood in an essay in The Fun Stuff), however much one might feel the masterful short story writer becoming a skilful but contrived novelist, McEwan's books still matter. All written while McEwan was more or less in his fifties, Enduring Love, Amsterdam, Atonement and Saturday are novels of great skill if on occasion thicker novels than they have needed to be. We may disagree with McEwan's aesthetic choices, but it would be blinkered to propose that McEwan's work in recent years is no longer of interest or relevance.
Yet for most of the writers on the list (including Rose Tremain, Clive Sinclair and William Boyd) the earlier work has been the best known and the best received, and we offer this remark without making value judgements about personal likes or dislikes, more on the basis of how the books function in the literary culture they enter. Most of the writers above are still likely to receive a review in the Guardian, London Review of Books, the Times Literary Supplement, the New Yorker and New York Review of Books,but with as much emphasis on the earlier work as the novel under review. When Adam Mars-Jones (a very fine critic and another of the Granta 1983 writers) wrote on Amis's Lionel Asbos, he bashed the book with other Amis tomes. "To skimp on the details of what you hate, to be drawn mistily to what you find sympathetic - this is hardly the CV of a satirist. It's closer to a letter of resignation. If this is Amis's final dismissive visit to old territory, conducted in a spirit of sod-you-all, then it goes to show he's long gone." (London Review of Books)
If the sense of fading powers alarms Amis more than most, it perhaps resides in both the youthfulness of his success (he published The Rachel Papers when he was twenty four), and the youthfulness of his worldview. He is often at his most impressive when suggesting high energy; when offering perceptual vigour. Ishiguro is more the opposite. If he admits that he has "never felt that I have a particular facility at writing interesting prose. I write quite mundane prose" (Paris Review), it lies partly in a tone of aloofness. Amis's sentences demand immediacy, and they match his perspective on the world, which seems narrowly anxious, afraid of age, ugliness, humility and younger competitors. Ishiguro's style seems serene, accepting, enigmatic and Confucian in its respect for older generations. Ishiguro may, like many of the others writers we have talked about thus far, have won with insouciant ease much acclaim early on, but there is a reserve in the work that suggests he is neither a slave to the zeitgeist nor to the preoccupations of the young. Even in his first novel A Pale View of Hills, Ishiguro deflects the story away from the Japanese narrators' two daughters living in Britain, and towards the mother reminiscing about a woman she knew in the past back in Japan. Early on we find one of the daughters has committed suicide; the other is visiting her mother for a few days. The immediacy of these young lives though is all but ignored for a reflective tale about the widowed Etsuko remembering both the friendship with a mother who neglects her daughter in Nagasaki, and her father-in-law's concerns back then with a young teacher who seems to have rejected the older man's values, someone that printed an article dismissing the earlier generation's sense of honour which led them into war.
Ishiguro intriguingly claims the obtuseness of the novel came from events in his life. Working with the homeless in Glasgow, he said he noticed that many would be talking about "a mutual friend, and he's getting angry about this friend's indecisiveness about a relationship he's in. He's getting absolutely furious. Then you realize that he's appropriating the friend's situation to talk about himself." "I'd spent a lot of time working with homeless people, listening to people's stories about how they'd got to this place, and I'd gotten very sensitive to the fact that they weren't telling those stories in a straightforward manner." (Paris Review) If Ishiguro's prose lacks punch, then what it loses in energy it gains in meditative forcefulness: in a prose style that is temporally flexible rather than descriptively assertive.
A good example of this flexibility comes in the opening paragraph of 'A Family Supper'. "Fugu is a fish caught off the Pacific shores of Japan. The fish has held a special significance for me ever since my mother died through eating one. The poison resides in the sexual glands of the fish, inside two fragile bags. When preparing the fish, these bags must be removed with caution, for any clumsiness will result in the poison leaking into the veins. Regrettably, it is not easy to tell whether or not this operation has been carried out successfully. The proof, as it were, is in the eating." Another writer might defer the mother's death for later. There is more than enough tension and excitement in the description of the Fugu, and we could have been left to wonder exactly who would become its victim. The last line of the paragraph could have passed for a witty aside. Instead, by inserting the mother's death into the second line of the story, Ishiguro all but says that we are not concerned here with suspense; we are interested in memory. What matters is the narrator's relationship with time, not the narrative accoutrements of tension.
If Ishiguro seems the most meditatively forceful of contemporary British writers, no matter McEwan's interest in the past in Atonement and On Chesil Beach, for example, or Swift's in Waterland and Last Orders, it rest in his casual disregard for engaging the reader with the properties of narrative explanation. When McEwan says he seeks to achieve "a naked hunger in the reader", and Wood says in McEwan's novels there are secrets, not mysteries, that his "estrangements are, more often than not, visual surprises, designed to keep the reader in his expert grip, and to keep meaning under control" (The Fun Stuff), we can say Ishiguro is often more interested in mysteries than secrets.
In 'A Family Supper' we never hear more about the Fugu fish that kills the narrator's mother, and though it is stated early on that the death was nothing more than a misfortune, a remark later in the story, a failure to recognize his mother in a picture, and the suicide of his father's business partner, might make us wonder. As the Japanese narrator tells us that his relationship with his parents was strained, that he was living in California when his mother died and only found out about the death two years later, so we realize that the explanation of her demise is not so much questionable as unverifiable. It seems entirely likely that his mother died simply by eating a deadly fish out of politeness, as we're told, but it is as though Ishiguro wants us to accept this is as the likely scenario but not quite the inevitable one. The remark comes from the father who says, "I hadn't meant to tell you this, but perhaps it's best that I do. It's my belief that your mother's death was no accident. She had many worries. And some disappointments."
The mother's despondency would seem to be confirmed later when the narrator looks at a picture of an old woman in a white kimono, as if she had wizened in her son's absence. Both his father and his sister talk to him about the business partner's suicide. The father says "after the firm's collapse, Watanabe killed himself. He didn't wish to live with the disgrace...we were partners for seventeen years. A man of principle and honour. I respected him very much." The sister talks more specifically. He didn't only kill himself. "He took his whole family with him. His wife and his two little girls...Those two beautiful little girls. He turned on the gas while they were all asleep. Then he cut his stomach with a meat knife."
However, perhaps the colleague's suicide shouldn't allude to the mother taking her own life, but instead merely that this is how the father would prefer to see it: as if she died an honourable death after the fall out with their son. There are no details offered in the story of the meal that might have given credence to the father's view. If this cautious woman who had always avoided the dish then decided to eat not only the flesh but also the liver, this might have justified the father's claims. As the Daily Telegraph reports in a story about this deadly dish, some diners are more reckless than others: "A 35-year-old woman eating at the Fugu Fukuji restaurant, in Tokyo's upmarket Ginza district, in November displayed the symptoms of poisoning. She had apparently asked the chef to serve her the liver of the fish, something that particularly brave diners do, often encouraged by others in their party."
Ishiguro's is mysterious writing indeed, and taking into account what he says about the way he structured A Pale View of Hills, it isn't revelations that are important, but the allusive and the reverberative. We read 'A Family Supper' aware that point of view counts: a deliberately pale view that allows for multiple possibilities, but none of which especially undermines the likelihood of the mother's death being simply a misfortune, even if the story equally refuses to accept this death as an unequivocal accident. Ishiguro balances this probability with another possibility through the presence of a narrator absent when his mother died, with a relationship with his family so removed that he is on the other side of the world when she passes away, and where he doesn't hear of her death until he returns to Tokyo two years later. He gleans the information from his father; but it is of course his father who will tell him a different version later. Equally, there are two versions of Watanabe's suicide, the father's and the sister's. Interestingly neither version of the story contradicts the other; they are simply different perspectives on the events.
This issue of perspectives is also there in the perception of the sister: the father presumably sees a young woman well brought up as her parents learnt from the mistakes in the narrator's upbringing, but the narrator is privy to a young woman who has, away from her father's gaze, a modern outlook. She smokes, has a boyfriend and might even leave for the States. While in their father's company, she moves "obediently" and shows signs of "nervousness", we are told that she "relaxed quite visibly when he had left the room." Ishiguro manages to generate ambiguity without necessarily undermining truth. We can assume that the mother died eating the Fugu without reducing it to a melodramatic death wish. It need be no more than a weak will to live rather than a strong desire to die. Watanabe's suicide can be an act of great dignity, but it is even more a horrific slaughtering of his family. The sister can be seen as obedient and dutiful, but it would be wrong to assume that this is central to her personality. Ishiguro creates the space for alternatives.
We might assume a particular perspective's validity, but that doesn't mean Ishiguro entirely wants to undermine the other angles. In one Ishiguro story, 'Cellists', Decca Aitkenhead reckons, "I'm still not sure why he seems to feel such compassion for his character in [the collection] Nocturnes who considers herself a virtuoso cellist but has never dared test it by learning to play. She is a hauntingly sad character, but portrayed sympathetically, and Ishiguro agrees that he is not mocking her." This doesn't of course lead us to think that Ishiguro believes her attitude to music is correct; simply that, given the nature of her personality, it is what she has chosen to do, and appears justifiable to her. As Ishiguro says, "A lot of my friends are in that situation. They've been convinced since they were young that they were geniuses. I remember one friend wrote to me once, with a quote saying, is there life after potential? He was having one of these great crises, and sometimes you get addicted to the idea that you have tremendous potential. It's a position I feel a lot of sympathy for, because - well I have a lot of sympathy for people who do want to do something." (Guardian) Ishiguro doesn't assume their position is either useful or useless; it is simply theirs.
In the first story in Nocturnes, 'Crooner', the young musician narrator Jan manages to meet the title character, Tony Gardner, in Venice. Gardner is a hugely popular singer much loved by Jan's mother, and admired by Jan himself. Gardner involves him in serenading the crooner's wife, with the performance a swan song for their marriage. While initially the narrator thinks Gardner's performance is a sign of true devotion, it is, he finally notices, a moment of accepted pragmatism. Gardner needs a new younger wife to hang his arm around, and Lindy, some years his junior, will have the chance to marry again before she is over the hump. "Twenty seven years is a long time and after this trip we're separating. This is our last trip together." The narrator is bemused when Tony adds that the reason Lindy was crying during the serenade was "because she still loves me as much as I still love her." Yet needs must, and Gardner is going to make a comeback and requires a younger woman to do so. Equally Lindy needs to find another man: "You've seen her," Tony says, "she's still a beautiful woman. She needs to get out now, while she has time. Time to find love again, make another marriage. She needs to get out before it's too late."
Ishiguro doesn't present Gardner as a great hypocrite, but instead as a pragmatist; as if Ishiguro wanted to keep in check the ready reader response that allows us to judge, and asks instead for us to accept another's motives. The narrator might be hurt and troubled by the gap between the songs he has heard and the singer he now knows, but the story contains within it the possibility that this is a maturity lesson learnt by the narrator more than the exposure of a big star. Talking about the songs that he's been listening to for years, the narrator says, "And what do all these songs say? If two people fall out of love and they have to part, then that's sad. But if they go on loving each other, they should stay together for ever." If we accept that in 'A Family Supper', Ishiguro offers the mother accidentally poisoned by the puffer fish as the plausible narrative within speculative interpretations, then here he offers the general value that people who love each other ought to stay together, but acknowledges that there are reasons which could cause people to split up. Ishiguro presents through Gardner's rationale a marriage grounded not only in love but predicated on notions of success. Lindy was a waitress in a small diner waiting for her big break: to marry a man of wealth and fame. Initially she married Dino, a lesser musical mortal than Tony, but a rung on the ladder nevertheless, before leaving him for Gardner. We can view the lives of the rich and famous here as appalling, but that isn't how Ishiguro presents them. He finds a balance between their practical goals and the narrator's romantic ideals. "I heard a few months later, in the autumn, that Mr and Mrs Gardner got their divorce...It all came back to me then about that evening, and it made me feel a little sad thinking about it again. Because Mr Gardner had seemed a pretty decent guy, and whichever way you look at it, comeback or no comeback, he'll always be one of the greats." This how the story ends: with sadness the great equalizer. All three characters Lindy, Tony and the narrator, will be sad - if in their own way.
The stories in Nocturnes don't quite constitute a novel and don't quite pass for a collection either. Ishiguro says, "it isn't a novel. I didn't want the stories to interweave as they would in a novel. So yes, they're short stories. But I've always said I don't want them published separately, I don't want them split up. I think that's a bit unreasonable of me because they would probably work alone, but I personally always thought of them as a single book. It's just a fictional book that happens to be divided into these five movements." (Guardian) Thus when Lindy shows up in the fourth story, 'Nocturne', recently divorced from Tony Gardner, we should be wary of reading the first story through the additional information provided by the later one. Here she is getting plastic surgery, the now single, aging woman perhaps hoping to improve her chances of marital success with a bit of facial restructuring. We could read Gardner's comments in 'Crooner' where Tony claims Lindy needs to get out before it's too late (that he is breaking up with her as much for Lindy as for himself) as personally very convenient. But it is as though it isn't only that Ishiguro wants his stories to be read discretely; it is also that he is a writer suspicious of perspectives that allow the reader authority over a character's point of view. His purpose is often not to show the wrong-headedness of someone, but their own personal right-headedness. When in 'Crooner' Gardner offers his rationale, it is a plausible account of a break-up, not an ironic one of a man who excuses himself for terrible actions.
If Gardner wants a divorce; in another story in Nocturnes, 'Come Rain or Come Shine', Charlie wants narrator Raymond to try and help keep his relationship together. Charlie and Emily have been a couple for many years, since college, and Raymond is their old friend from those days. Drifting, unfocused, and threatening to do something with his life like a cloud that never breaks, Raymond is the career catastrophe Charlie is looking for. Raymond's been teaching English all over for years, while Charlie has been more focused on getting on: when Charlie is out of the country it is for "high-powered meetings"; when Raymond travels it is to teach so he can earn less a crust than a few crumbs. Charlie believes he knows what will save their relationship: Raymond sharing Emily's company for a few days while Charlie's abroad working. "...beside me, let's face it, you don't look like the highest of achievers. That's why I'm asking you, asking you to do this for me." As in 'Crooner', the narrator is expected to help out: in 'Crooner' Jan uses his musical talent to end softly a marriage; here Raymond has to use his social incompetence to rescue a relationship. But in both stories Ishiguro creates in Gardner and Charlie characters that have their reasons, and he gives credence to the pragmatism of Gardner and the desperation of Charlie.
Just as Ishiguro accepts in 'A Family Supper' the father's beliefs in traditional values as he wishes his daughter to stay at home and look after him, and can accept the father's perspective on Watanabe's suicide and the slaying of Watanabe's family, so Ishiguro can create space for the views of Charlie and Gardner. It doesn't mean this is where the story's meaning lies, but Ishiguro is a fine writer showing meaning in one place and sympathy elsewhere. In other words, he can show that there ought to be values in love greater than career and financial gain in 'Crooner', feelings that should go beyond being a winner or loser in 'Come Rain or Come Shine', and something more than honour and traditional family values in 'A Family Supper'. Yet Ishiguro says nevertheless we can offer sympathy without condoning a value, evident in his remark about friends who talk of potential going unfulfilled, and the Cellist who never plays in 'Cellists'. If Aitkenhead can't quite understand why he shows compassion towards this character is it because she expects a sympathetic figure to carry a story's value system as well? It is quite straightforward for a writer to create characters whose values are easily accepted or easily rejected by the reader. Have someone rescue a young boy from a river and he is a hero; have someone beat their son and he is a villain. However, fiction often gets interesting when the gap between values and sympathy opens up. Indeed perhaps sympathy isn't quite the word when the reader so obviously sides with the moral values of a character. In 'A Family Supper' we might share the values of the narrator and his sister, but maybe we don't quite sympathise with them: as if sympathy is a characteristic of otherness, a quality at one remove that affiliates us with others but within the context of distance.
It is in this one remove that many refuse sympathy, evident in Aitkenhead's remark, but where others offer it. If we call someone compassionate, it is often because of the fellow-feeling the person provides where others might not. If for example we care nothing for the man who has hit his child is it because our values are so ensconced that we cannot deviate from them for the purposes of sympathy? For some writers and readers certain actions are unforgivable; for others forgivable if not condoned. If Ishiguro seems a sympathetic writer it lies in his ability to find many things acceptable without assuming they are 'valuable': that they contribute to the making of a value. The father's beliefs in 'A Family Supper' are condonable but not valuable: we can understand and even, if perversely, sympathize with them, but there is nothing to suggest they are morally meaningful: values that the narrative position accepts. In 'Crooner' again Tony Gardner and his wife Lindy are sympathetic characters as we comprehend the purpose behind their actions, but they are hardly practising values the story supports.
This is perhaps where it might be useful to distinguish between identification and sympathy. We often say that we identify with someone's values (we share them), but when we say we sympathise with someone's values we are usually saying that we comprehend why someone possesses them, but they are not our own. Returning to our example of the father who beats his child, we obviously would be unlikely to identify with him, but some writers will nevertheless create alongside the horrific actions, a sympathetic presentation. They will provide reasons why the father does what he does, leaving us in no doubt that the action is wrong, but that the character is not entirely unsympathetic. There will be motivating factors and mitigating circumstances. If Ishiguro often feels a wiser writer than many of his contemporaries it lies in this ability to see that identification with one person needn't militate against sympathy for another. When in 'A Family Supper' we get two versions of Watanabe's suicide, we would be inclined to identify with the sister's account while merely sympathizing with the father's. "Sick", she concludes, while the father ends his account by saying "I respected him very much." The father's omitted that he also killed his family, but ends his comments with consideration. The daughter ends hers rudely, but has given us the details. We are likely to share the daughter's point of view, despite her strong language, and sympathize with the father who lost a work colleague whom he cared about. If we read the story identifying with the father and sympathising with the narrator and his sister, we are surely misreading the tale, but if we read it and assume the father is a foolish fossil we haven't respected the nuances in Ishiguro's telling.
Indeed the father in 'A Family Supper' is the sort of character Ishiguro often illustrates in his work: the father-in-law in A Pale View of Hills, the painter in An Artist of the Floating World and the butler in Remains of the Day. These are all men out of their time, who have been caught in the flow of history and who attached notions of honour and duty that were slightly removed from socio-political realities. In A Pale View of Hills eventually the father-in-law Ogata-San confronts his son's friend Matsuda whom he feels has turned against him, the friend who wrote negatively about the war years. The friend says, "Ogata-San, be honest with yourself. In your heart of hearts you must know yourself what I'm saying is true. And to be fair, you shouldn't be blamed for not realizing the true consequences of your actions. Very few men could see where it was all leading at the time..." Our identification is with this character who has been only a name occasionally mentioned in the first two thirds of the novel, but there is sympathy for Ogata-San, evident in Matsuda's tone, and evident also in Ishiguro's approach more generally. He might be a man denying the political realities, but it is not a denial for personal gain, but for a society he believes one ought to be living in.
The painter in An Artist of the Floating World may be more ambitious than dutiful, but again here is a character capable of our sympathies on occasion, but hardly our identification. Remains of the Day is a first person tale, but narration often feels unreliable when we can't quite side with the narrator's viewpoint. In both An Artist of the Floating World and Remains of the Day we distance ourselves from identification and position ourselves sympathetically. This is evident in conversational comments Stevens makes in the latter book: "The fact is, Mrs Benn, throughout the war, some truly terrible things had been said about his lordship - and by that newspaper in particular. He bore it all while the country remained in peril, but once the war was over, and the insinuations simply continued, well his lordship saw no reason to go on suffering in silence." That Darlington has flirted with far-right politics leaves us seeing Stevens as a loyal figure but a misguided one.
When Ishiguro talks about his time with homeless people in Glasgow, this obviously gave him a perspective on the world that made the generally political give way to the politically specific. "Politics was very much alive there, but it was real politics. It was a different planet from student politics, which tended to be about whether or not you were going to protest the latest NATO move." (Paris Review) This didn't lead however to Ishiguro becoming a socially-oriented novelist, focusing on the world of the poor. It instead gave him an angle that seemed twofold. Firstly, he could see that the poverty he witnessed was not part of his general life, and, secondly, that he noticed those who were involved in their own experiences, nevertheless adopted a narrative form at one remove as they would talk about others whilst indirectly talking about themselves. Here we have the socio-political realities allowing for the specific, yet also the narrative approach demanding removal. His work has often possessed both a manifold sympathy and emotional distance.
It is interesting that this narrative form of speaking about oneself through another is exactly what Ishiguro believed Amis happened to be doing when he talked of writing and the ageing process. By crediting the idea to Ishiguro, Amis could see his own failing powers as a general notion: one that afflicts most writers, and certainly those of his generation and the writers we earlier mentioned. Yet of all the figures in that 1983 edition of Granta, perhaps Ishiguro is the writer most capable of producing what Edward Said calls, out of Adorno, 'late style'. "Does one grow wiser with age, and are there unique qualities of perception and form that certain artists acquire as a result of maturity in the late phase of their career?" (On Late Style) Even as a young man there was much in Ishiguro's work indicative of late style as meditative reflection. He has never been a writer of the moment but of musings and memories, someone whose work often suggests the writer's purpose is to capture fragments of experience abstracted and recalled. McEwan may be the writer who has most successfully lived up to early promise as ongoing international presence, and Amis most clearly the figure refusing to go gently into the mature night, but Ishiguro is the one whose work seems to beckon a burgeoning late style. As Said says, "literary modernism can be seen as a late-style phenomenon insofar as artists such as Joyce and Eliot seem in a way to have been out of their time altogether, returning to Ancient myth or antique forms of such as the epic or ancient religious rituals for their inspiration." Ishiguro's interest in looking back perhaps lent itself well to a novelist who was a success at the age of twenty seven, but he might still be a novelist of much interest into his late years: a writer potentially capable of ever greater abstract fragments and recalled pasts.
© Tony McKibbin