Kazuo Ishiguro and the Art of Narration

This piece, by Richard Skinner, was originally published on The Thought Fox

Kazuo Ishiguro | Faber Academy writing coursesIn December 2010, Kazuo Ishiguro accepted an invitation from myself and my co-tutor to speak to the students on the Writing a Novel course at the Faber Academy. It was a riveting two hours for the students and us tutors alike. During his talk, he offered access-all-areas to his thoughts on writing and his work practices, which was inspirational and which provoked a lot of discussion for weeks afterwards.

One of the key points dealt with is his use of the ‘unreliable narrator’ – the literary trope for which he is perhaps best-known. The point he made was that unreliable narrators are often a result of people reassessing their lives and the disappointment of it and, if the feeling of disappointment was too great, narrators might choose to leaven it in order to make it manageable. He went on to say that he auditions all his characters before deciding which one to offer the role of narrator. Imagine the Sherlock Holmes stories with Holmes himself as the narrator, he said – they just wouldn’t have worked. The point of the Holmes stories is that we are in the same boat as Watson with regard to the amount of information we have. Like Watson, we are in the dark most of the time. With regard to his own work, think of The Remains of the Day and how different it would have been had Miss Kenton narrated the story. Her self-awareness and emotional articulacy, which Stevens so obviously lacks, would have meant that the pleasure of the text would have to have come from some other place entirely. So, adopting different characters as narrators produces different kinds of books.

The other key point he made is that he feels each of his novels has grown out of its predecessor. He feels that writers have to learn ‘on the job’, but that they should treat every book as their masterpiece. There are a finite number of books in a writer, he said, so they need to pay attention to the shape and single impact of each narrative. Ishiguro clearly practises what he preaches: He has won the Booker Prize once – with The Remains of the Day – and no less than four of his six published novels have been shortlisted for Booker Prize. Four. No one (with the possible exception of Peter Carey) has had a greater hit rate at that particular prize and he is one of the most highly-regarded writers in the world. His advice and insight was so inspiring that my class and I decided to go away, revisit his work and have a mini-conference on it at the end of the course. To prepare for that, I thought it would be interesting to read his novels in the order he wrote them, which took me three months and which is one of the most rewarding reading experiences I’ve ever had.

The narrators of Ishiguro’s first three novels – A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World and The Remains of the Day – all share a very profound unreliability. Etsuko, Ono and Stevens are all ordinary figures living in extraordinary times and places and, although the stories they tell are complex, the stories themselves feel curiously incomplete and their conclusions are highly ambiguous. These three narratives, all set just before or after the Second World War, are deeply embedded in their historical moments but their narrators chose, for whatever reason, to tell the story at a tangent to those moments in history. The impression is that Etsuko, Ono and Stevens are traumatized, and their sense of self as narrators is paralysed. Indeed, the sense is even stronger than that – it is as though these characters are ‘haunted’. It is almost as if, as individuals, they are not proper, rounded subjects but merely ghostly actors and performers inhabiting roles that are allocated to them by the context in which they find themselves. And yet, whatever was the cause of their original trauma remains absent from their account, either because it is beyond their ability to describe or because they cannot recall precisely. They are ghostly presences telling a story that is uncertain in its source, detail or outcome. The effects for the reader of this careful attention to how a story is narrated are stunning.

Among those ‘And Now For Something Completely Different’ moments in an author’s career, perhaps none has been more dramatic than The Unconsoled, about which Ishiguro said: ‘The Unconsoled received a hail of abuse, but it was what I needed. I was ready to embrace controversy. I’d just had a bestselling novel [The Remains of the Day], won the Booker Prize and the film of it had just been nominated for eight Oscars. I could easily have continued producing well-shaped novels that would get kind reviews, but I felt if I was going to do something different and difficult, now was the time.’

What can one say about this novel? It is delightful yet frustrating. It doesn’t obey the laws of Euclidean geometry. Its forebear is clearly Kafka, and it shares certain similarities with Murakami’s wild-goose-chase novels, yet it is a one-off. I think the key to reading this novel is not to ask too many questions of it because, if you do, you can only expect to get the wrong answers. It is a Derrida-esque story of endless delay and deferral and is highly ‘overdetermined’ in the sense that its plot possesses a multiplicity of causes and suggests a plurality of meanings. Rather than searching for answers to questions that an implied reader imagines are being asked, it is perhaps more useful here to accept that there might simply be nothing to say. Avoiding such over-interpretation may hopefully lead to an ‘excess of wonder’, a position vis-á-vis the text that leads to an exciting awareness of our role in finding and joining in the play of meaning. Not least of these is an amusing running joke whereby certain places and many of the minor characters are named after footballers who have appeared in World Cup finals or who have appeared in Josef von Sternberg’s film, Der Blaue Engel.

When We Were Orphans is my particular favourite of the novels. As a result of his thoughts on the Sherlock Holmes stories, perhaps Ishiguro was keen to attempt a novel narrated from the detective’s POV, but we remain in the dark as ever regarding how Christopher Banks actually solves any crimes. Indeed, in place of being aligned with a narrator who can never quite grasp the reasoning process of the great detective (e.g. Watson), our perspective is shifted to a detective-narrator whose subjectivity and emotion often overwhelm the rational aspects of his role as detective. Banks’s narrative has all the trappings of the detective story, but none of the internal logic. He is another ghostly, haunted narrator, an actor who wrongly interprets the reality around him. Like Stevens, Banks is unable to grasp the political complexity of Britain’s position in the 1930s. Banks and Stevens are both confronted by the slow realisation that their social roles impose a restricted perspective on reality, one which limits their worldview and contributes to the lack of self-awareness in themselves and the sense of puzzlement they instil in others.

Along with The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s sixth novel – Never Let Me Go – is his most commercially successful and it was also made into a well-liked film. Both novels also share a similar mode of narration in that both stories are narrated as though being spoken rather than written. There are no lines in either book that would not sound out of place if recited. There is no ‘artfulness’ in the narration (indeed, Ishiguro told us that he goes to great lengths to make sure that every word in his books can be easily translated). However, the narrator of Never Let Me Go – Kathy H – is not so much an unreliable narrator, as an inadequate narrator. Unlike Stevens, she does not keep her feelings hidden but she is instead openly puzzling about feelings that have not been made clear to her. The reader feels this narratorial flatness very keenly and it was interesting to hear Ishiguro himself tell us that he had, in fact, abandoned Never Let Me Go not once, but twice. In the novel’s first manifestation, the young people in the novel were students and it wasn’t until, many years later, he heard a radio piece on cloning that he hit upon the idea of turning the students into clones. The novel then miraculously came to life.

For me, however, it’s the least interesting of his novels, precisely because the narrator is less unreliable than usual. My favourite novels of his are those that are set in the far east. They are the ones that play with unreliable narration to the most startling, dazzling effect. After moving through the upper echelons of pre-war English society; the strange, dislocated vistas of an unnamed Eastern European state and a dystopian vision of the near future, and even after having spent most of his life in the UK, one senses that a greater part of his narrative heart still beats somewhere in the orient.

Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s long-anticipated seventh novel, The Buried Giant, will be published by Faber in March. 

Richard Skinner

Richard Skinner is Director of the Fiction Programme at Faber Academy. The next Writing a Novel course starts in January.