The Unconsoled | Critical Review by Stanley Kauffmann

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of The Unconsoled.
This section contains 3,079 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Stanley Kauffmann

SOURCE: Stanley Kauffmann, "The Floating World," in The New Republic, Vol. 213, No. 19, November 6, 1995, pp. 42-5.

In the review below, Kauffmann suggests that The Unconsoled builds on Ishiguro's first three novels and should be interpreted in terms of the earlier works.

Those who were lucky enough, or smart enough, to read Kazuo Ishiguro's first three novels in order of publication came to the third one, The Remains of the Day, with an advantage over the rest of us. Ishiguro was born in Japan and he has lived in England since he was five. (He is now 41.) To those who began with the third book, including myself, Ishiguro's huge cultural shift made that very English novel remarkable for what I would now call misconstrued reasons: we thought it an extraordinary feat of osmosis. But viewed through the perspective of his first two books, The Remains of the Day, wonderful anyway, seems even better.

Ishiguro's first novel, A Pale View of the Hills (1982), focuses on a Japanese woman now living in England, one of whose daughters has recently committed suicide and whose other daughter is in difficulties. The story interweaves the woman's past life in post-war Nagasaki with her subsequent English life and brings the braiding up to the present. The book concludes with a sudden, startling enigma. (That puzzle, though presumably this was not in Ishiguro's mind at the time, prefigures his latest, fourth novel.)

In his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World (1986), that world is the pre-war "night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink" in a Japanese city. This world was the chief background for the youthful paintings of the now-elderly painter who is the protagonist. But the phrase has taken on another resonance. Like the first book, the "present" of the novel is post-war, the protagonist and his artist-contemporaries feel some guilt about their work before the war that may have inflamed jingoistic feelings. One of the painters commits suicide in remorse. The "floating world," particularly as dangled before us by the title, comes to reflect other glints, other kinds of delusory gratification.

Ishiguro's first two books are masterly, in several ways. In each, the control is flawless without seeming arbitrary: every incident, every comma, appears to fit. Balance and rhythm are just, and in a gentle, oblique way, the story amplifies in texture. Remarks, observations, small incidents heighten our interest without the use of anything as crass as overt suspense. Yet the salient quality of these books is their method of characterization. Ishiguro doesn't use much physical description or interior delving. These people become familiar by the shapes of their lives—the way they choose and care, their daily routines, their harboring or shedding of grievances, even their liking of particular foods and their skill in cooking.

With many novelists, including some great ones, we sense that the author is carefully presenting his characters; at its crudest, it's the puppetmaster putting on a play. With Ishiguro, it's quite different. In these two books, he doesn't present his characters, he nestles among them. He watches them, respects them, obeys them, and conveys to us quietly what they tell him. He seems almost to chat with them from time to time "off-stage."

The quietness is the key. The children in these two books make some noise, but only the children. Ishiguro treats them with cunning, as citizens of a tangential world distinct from that of their parents and elders. Sometimes they permit their elders to enter, sometimes not; and often they are rackety. Except for their racket, the air of these two books is quiet. One of Ishiguro's triumphs is that their considerable range of emotion is brought close without a lot of fuss.

To arrive at The Remains of the Day (1989) through the avenue of the first two books is, peculiarly, to be both unsurprised and newly impressed. The "Japanese" qualities of the first two books—the taciturnity, the subtle brush strokes, the aim to evoke form rather than create it—persist. We cannot be quite so acutely aware of these qualities without knowledge of the earlier books; in this aspect the third novel grows directly from the first two. Yet, along with those persisting qualities from the past, Ishiguro is a secret member of a household in an utterly different culture. His Japanese past helped him to get there.

Darlington Hall, his main venue, has its own intricate grid of protocols. They have some analogies with Japanese social behavior, but it would be gross to call the two sets similar. Still, the third book has no whiff of exploration or discovery: Stevens, the butler, is as intimate to Ishiguro as any character he has written. This conviction is continually certified throughout the book because we see and hear everything through Stevens. Without tremor or cleverness, the book exists through the existence of Stevens. This fact becomes all the more telling, more moving, when we realize that through his eyes and ears we are seeing and hearing more than he ever comprehends.

About The Remains of the Day it is possible to risk the word "perfect." The book's special beauty is that it is a political allegory, bitter and sad, without losing any ground as a full-bodied novel. It has been compared favorably with Henry James; I would add Evelyn Waugh, Henry Green, Ivy Compton-Burnett and Anthony Powell. Ishiguro's book belongs with the best of English fiction that treats the English class system with combined satire and relish, with perception of both its cruelty and its rigorous ethos, as a distillation of English history.

Passage through the first two Ishiguro novels is a fruitful way to reach the third. Passage through all three of those novels is helpful, though in a quite different way, for the fourth. To begin with a blunt fact: we know, when we pick it up, that The Unconsoled is a departure for its author because of its size, 535 pages. His longest previous book was 245 pages. Familiarity with his previous style—laconic loveliness, space compacted for intensity—makes us immediately curious about the differences we will discover.

They start to appear at once. The setting is Europe. On the first page a man named Ryder, whose first-person narrative this is, arrives at a hotel in an unspecified city. (It remains so.) The magazines in the lobby rack are in several languages, and the names we begin to hear are German. After Ryder has registered, he is taken up in the elevator by an old porter, Gustav, who carries his bags and doesn't set them down as they ascend. His face is growing red with the strain: Ryder urges him to set down the bags. "I'm glad you mention it, sir," says Gustav, then launches into a four-page explanation of the portering principles involved and the resolution of the porters in this city to abide by them. He even mentions the café where the porters meet to discuss these things. He concludes: "I'm sure Miss Hilde will vouch for what I'm saying." Then Ryder notices a young woman behind him. She, too, then speaks at length—about the attractions of the city and about the preparation of Ryder's schedule, though we don't yet quite know why there is a schedule.

Sensors flash in us. We have recognized already that the style has changed: the loquacity of those monologues is in stark contrast to the honed dialogue in the previous books. But more basically, the criteria of realism have shifted. Gustav's and Miss Hilde's comments are so lengthy that the elevators would have had to climb to the top of the World Trade Center, slowly, for those two to have time to speak them. Miss Hilde's could not possibly have been unnoticed by Ryder when he entered the elevator. Ishiguro patently wants these factual distortions to strike us: traditional realism is not to be this book's habitat. Yet the details are veristic.

This contradiction, plus the first tremblings of mystery around the seemingly commonplace, plus the scent of Middle Europe in the atmosphere, make our literary radar signal: Kafka. But this perception doesn't take much subtlety on our part. Ishiguro wants us to know that he has taken a master for this book. (Later he calls one of the streets in this city Walserstrasse. Robert Walser, the Swiss author who began publishing a few years before Kafka, was often compared to his junior; when Kafka's work first appeared, some readers thought that Franz Kafka was a pseudonym for Robert Walser.)

Before the first chapter is ended, Ishiguro has fixed his book in the realm of paradox that uses veristic minutiae to tack down the edges of billowing non-realism. Erich Heller says: "Kafka's style—simple, lucid, and 'real' in the sense of never leaving any doubt concerning the reality of that which is narrated, described, or meditated—does yet narrate, describe or mediate the shockingly unbelievable." This might have been Ishiguro's motto for his book. We learn that Ryder, whose first name is never mentioned, is an English pianist; he is to appear in a few days in a concert over which the city is making a to-do. A great deal happens in those few days, all of it couched in that ballooning/contracting sense of time, that melting/solidifying sense of place that quickly become integral in the book.

Another surreal element is soon added. The day of his arrival, when Ryder wanders into the square where the porters' café is located, he sees a woman around 40 and her small son seated there. Gustav had told Ryder that they might be there, his daughter and grandson, Sophie and Boris. She waves at Ryder, which surprises him, and when he goes over, she addresses him by name. In a moment Sophie asks Boris to go off for a bit; then she talks to Ryder about a house she is buying for him and her and Boris. Instead of asking what in the world she means, Ryder slips, slides, into acceptance of this new circumstance in his life:

She began to give me more details about the house. I remained silent, but only because of my uncertainty as to how I should respond. For the fact was, as we had been sitting together, Sophie's face had come to seem steadily more familiar to me, until now I thought I could even remember vaguely some earlier discussions about buying just such a house in the woods.

Other instances of Ryder's malleable consciousness soon occur, not as if he were being dragooned into accepting something but as if he were vaporously recalling it. This phenomenon strongly suggests another influence on Ishiguro: Pinter, especially Old Times. In Pinter's play, states of being, consistent in themselves, overlap other, contradictory states of being and memory in the same person—a kind of interior cubism. After these overlappings have gone on for a bit in the play, a woman says:

There are some things one remembers even though they may never have happened. There are things I remember that may never have happened, but as I recall them so they take place.

This is one of the insistent modes of Ishiguro's novel. (It's worth noting, not as proof but as linkage, that Pinter was for a time involved in the screen adaptation of The Remains of the Day.)

The café encounter is the merest corner of the long, complexly layered journey-saga that Ryder undergoes before the evening of the concert, and it doesn't end there. The hotel manager, Hoffman, his wife, and their pianist son Stephan; the conductor Brodsky and his estranged wife; some boyhood chums, now grown, from his English school-days—these and many, many more wander in and out. Almost everyone whom Ryder meets wants something from him: Hoffman wants him to look at his wife's albums of clippings about Ryder's career, Stephen wants Ryder to listen to his playing, Gustav wants Ryder to say something in public at the concert about the conditions of the porters; and more.

In the course of the book Ryder travels about on foot, by car, by tram, and he moves, suddenly and almost every time, from crowded streets to lonely country-side, from busy rooms into straitened corridors, all these transitions melding into a vivid but intentionally unreliable continuum of place. Added to this kaleidoscopic geography are multiple points of view—in a first-person narrative. A man who is driving Ryder somewhere parks in front of a house and asks to be excused for a minute while he goes inside. Ryder, sitting in the car, then sees and hears the conversation deep within the house.

These dissolvings of one place into another, this super-vision, suggest film. (The English paperbound editions of Ishiguro's work mention his "keen interest in the cinema.") The book has other filmic touches, of Bergman particularly. When the child Boris wanders in the hotel corridors, we think of The Silence; with the quasi-phantom classroom, Wild Strawberries. Several film references are frank. In Ishiguro's city there is Sternberg Garden; the city's "most senior" actor is named Jannings; a modern composer is named Kazan. Valentino and Groucho Marx are used as points of reference. 2001: A Space Odyssey is mentioned a few times. (With the wrong cast. This is deliberate, I'm sure, but no reason for this "mistake" is apparent.)

Like Kafka before him, Ishiguro conveys the immanence of a kind of spectral humor throughout, and sometimes that humor bulges into the foreground. (Just before the concert, Brodsky, the conductor, is in a car accident, pinned by his leg. The doctors have to amputate the leg to free him, but the leg they cut off is wooden. He appears on stage at the concert using an ironing board as an improvised crutch.) Unlike Kafka, however, Ishiguro, no hunger artist, frequently uses food for homely sensuality, even more than in his first two books. From the mention of strudel in the first chapter to the closing scene on a tram where a lavish buffet break-fast is being served, food figures.

The incongruence of that setting for a buffet is part of another technique in the book: disproportion. Of the numerous instances, here are two. It's disproportionate that, on the very evening of the recital, just before Ryder is to play, Hoffman insists on showing him his wife's albums; or that, for other reasons, Ryder gets lengthily sidetracked before he is to go on. And after all the disproportions, after all the frustrations and divagations, the story winds its way to the concert itself. Which, unsurprisingly, does not proceed as planned. The book leaves us with Ryder presumably en route to his next engagement in Helsinki.

It also leaves us with an ache of disappointment that has been growing in us as we read. Very early we realize that, as against earlier Ishiguro, we are not to savor character development. The author cannot nestle among his characters here, because there are none: there are only supposedly signifying figures. Neither are we to be absorbed in deepening narrative; one episode follows another with no cause except the author's mandate. We read along because we expect that all these teasings and suggestings, in the hands of a fine writer, will lead to thematic, aesthetic completion. But Ryder simply passes through it all on his way to Helsinki. None of it, not Sophie or Boris or anything else, affects him lastingly. Central though he is, Ryder is only one more of the book's charade figures.

But what is the charade about? Erich Heller observed that "there is only one way to save oneself the trouble of inter-preting The Trial: not to read it." Ishiguro lays the same exigency on us, but without much reward. This is not to belabor him with the need to equal Kafka: it is to point out that, for all his skill, he has followed his model incompletely.

Finally, desperately, we ask: Is this whole book a dream? That facile raison d'être must be considered, especially since the book is laced with sleep. Chapter Two begins: "When I was roused by the bedside telephone, I had the impression that it had been ringing for some time." Chapter Ten, too, begins with the telephone waking him. Parts Two and Three and Four begin with nearly identical sentences about waking with the fear of having slept too long. But, among other questions about such an interpretation, did Ryder dream all those extensive monologues that other people deliver? (He never speaks one himself.) After a while they seem less like instruments of prose than like elements in graphic design, as a designer might use blocks of black, except that in this case we must traverse them, inch by inch. They crush the suggestion of dream with their sheer black weight.

Anyway, to tag this book a dream is not to justify it, only to alter its unfulfilled debt. We may indeed be such stuff as dreams are made on, but before our little lives are rounded with a sleep, those dreams affect us with agony and exultation. Ishiguro's book does not. It parades its episodes before us. We feel little.

And the title doesn't help. The Unconsoled explains nothing. The word "consolation" occurs only a few times, in connection with Brodsky, his music, his lady love, and a wound of his that will not heal. (Hinting at Amfortas in Parsifal?… But enough puzzle-solving.) The people in this book are no more stringently unconsoled in any sense than many of us.

The book's most plausible meaning is its very existence. To put it otherwise, it opens a new territory in Ishiguro's interests, even if it doesn't prevail in that territory. If Ishiguro's two "Japanese" novels help us to appreciate The Remains of the Day, then all three of his preceding novels, taken together, are the best available justification of the fourth. He has moved from the taciturn beauty of the earlier books to a larger scope, a much more explicitly intricate structure—a move from Japan and Britain to the heart of Middle Europe. Previously, he dealt with the psychological and spiritual aftermath of World War II in Japan, then with English confusions and self-betrayals in that war. Now he moves to the continent, to the involuted psyche and spirit that was the root of much of that war, that bred most of our culture and also of our horror.

Ryder, the English artist, enters a shadowy European city. Ishiguro, another English artist, enters the morass of the European novel. We may wonder what will happen to the rest of Ryder's career. With a great deal more hope, we may ask the same question about the extraordinary Ishiguro.

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This section contains 3,079 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Stanley Kauffmann