Kazuo Ishiguro | Critical Review by Hermione Lee

This literature criticism consists of approximately 11 pages of analysis & critique of Kazuo Ishiguro.
This section contains 3,107 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Hermione Lee

Critical Review by Hermione Lee

SOURCE: Hermione Lee, "Quiet Desolation," in New Republic, January 22, 1990, pp. 36-9.

In the review below, Lee discusses the relative influence of Japanese and English culture on Ishiguro's first three novels.

On the strength of three dazzling short novels, Kazuo Ishiguro is now, at 35, a famous prize-winning writer in Britain. (Hardly anyone in America had heard of him until this year, but that's changing.) Still, I notice that people are always getting the titles of his books slightly wrong. Is it A Pale View of the Hills? The Artist of the Floating World, or Artist of the Floating World, or The Artist of a Floating World? The Remains of the Day sometimes loses its first definite article. Like all slight but persistent mistakes—Ishiguro's characters are much given to them—these are symptomatic slips.

For Ishiguro's titles do indeed contain evasive articles. "An" artist (unlike Joyce's definitive portrait of "the" artist) is open to amendment and uncertainty, and the floating world he portrays, and betrays, is "transient, illusory." It's not "the hills," but "hills"—some, where?—and it's not they that are pale, but the view of them, as if paleness were a quality of the haunted, ghostly viewer, who describes herself as having "spent many moments—as I was to do throughout succeeding years—gazing emptily at the view from my apartment window … a pale outline of hills … not an unpleasant view." The "remains" are ambiguous, too: Are they waste, ruins, leftovers, or are they what is salvaged? Is this a metaphorical day, as in "our day is done," or is it "a day in the life"?

The titles hover on the borders of allegory. The openings of the three novels give off a similarly puzzling and contingent air:

Niki, the name we finally gave my younger—daughter, is not an abbreviation; it was a compromise I reached with her father. For paradoxically it was he who wanted to give her a Japanese name, and I—perhaps out of some selfish desire not to be reminded of the past—insisted on an English one. He finally agreed to Niki, thinking it had some vague echo of the East about it.

                                  [A Pale View of Hills]

If on a sunny day you climb the steep path leading up from the little wooden bridge still referred to around here as "the Bridge of Hesitation," you will not have to walk far before the roof of my house becomes visible between the tops of two gingko trees. Even if it did not occupy such a commanding position on the hill, the house would still stand out from all others nearby, so that as you come up the path, you may find yourself wondering what sort of wealthy man owns it.

But then I am not, nor have I ever been, a wealthy man.

                     [An Artist of the Floating World]

It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days.

                           [The Remains of the Day]

All three speakers introduce themselves by way of fine distinctions between appearances and actuality, intentions and achievements. The effect is punctilious but cryptic. All three demur from the positive: the apparent nickname, the commanding house, the preoccupying journey are not straight-forwardly arrived at. Something is being denied or held off. The artist's invitation into his floating world is itself a "bridge of hesitation," picking its way through hypotheses, negatives, qualifiers, so that "you may find yourself wondering" about the status, the emotions, and the reliability of the narrator. The opening of A Pale View of Hills names "compromise" and "paradox" as its subjects, and tells us that a short name—like a short novel—need not be an "abbreviation" of these subjects, a lightweight version of something larger, but may be a very exact expression of them. And the "confession" of the third narrator immediately induces uncertainty ("seems"? "likely"? "really will"? What is the problem, what is he not telling us yet?), not least because of its peculiar formality, its air of being written in translation.

Part of Ishiguro's appeal is the novelty he seems to provide of a "translation," a little bridge, between Japanese culture and English writing. But the abbreviation at the start of the first novel sets up the paradoxes here. The Japanese-looking name is actually a mixed product of the narrator's desire to get away from Japan to England, and of her husband's romantic attraction (like the attraction some of Ishiguro's Western readers feel?) to "an echo of the East." What looks to a Western reader like a Japanese text may have a Western content for an Oriental reader. Ishiguro was born of Japanese parents in Nagasaki in 1954, but they came to England when he was only six, and he has only once gone back. So far he has made three variants of his translated identity. A Pale View of Hills poises itself between England and Japan, An Artist of the Floating World is set entirely in Japan, The Remains of the Day entirely in England.

A Pale View of Hills is told by Etsuko, a Japanese widow living alone in an English village, haunted by two layers of memory, which are hesitantly and evasively broached. The more recent retrospect is on the visit of her younger daughter, Niki, the entirely Westernized daughter of an English father. The visit follows the suicide of Etsuko's older daughter, Keiko, Niki's half-sister, who had left home some years before in a state of very serious depression, and was found hanging in her rented room. After leaving her first husband, a conventional Japanese businessman, Etsuko brought Keiko to England when she was seven. She approaches her unacknowledged guilt about what she may have done to her older daughter indirectly, by way of her more distant memories of a hot post-war summer in Nagasaki, when she was pregnant with Keiko.

In a surreal landscape of new apartments built over a wasteland of destruction, Etsuko remembers that summer's friendship with a single woman—a rather dubious, louche character—and her daughter. The woman, Sachiko, is waiting to be taken away from Japan by her American lover; her daughter, Mariko, a disturbed little girl, resents the lover, fastens all her affection on her cats, and is haunted by the sight of a woman drowning her child in the nightmare of wartime Tokyo. Child-murders and suicides push into the edges of the narrative. Sachiko drowns the cats; Mariko—possibly—kills herself. These images of despair are crosscut against older figures who are surviving out of total loss and destruction: the woman who runs a noodle shop and whose children were killed by the bomb; Etsuko's father-in-law, a well-intentioned retired teacher, who laments the lost spirit of Japan and is discredited by the next generation for doing what he thought was right.

In An Artist of the Floating World, that figure of the discredited old teacher becomes central. Masuji Ono, a "retired" painter whose life encapsulates, though he doesn't quite realize it, the history of 20th-century Japan, narrates his story piecemeal, with Ishiguro's characteristic strategies of pauses, repetitions, and slow accumulations of a half-admitted past. The "action"—it takes place in 1948 and 1949, in an unnamed but eloquently rendered Tokyo—is (as in all these novels) of a visit. Ono's married daughter comes with her little boy, Ichiro, to discuss wedding plans for her sister, whose previous attempts at marriage have been sabotaged, it seems, by Ono's postwar reputation.

As the difficult old man and the belligerent little boy establish a tender and funny relationship (Ishiguro writes extremely well about children), we begin to gather the salient facts: that his son and his wife have been killed in the war, that an old friend and mentor, Matsuda, is dying, that his patriotic work for the Empire ("artist and member of the Cultural Committee of the Interior Department") is now dismissed as a negligible ingredient in the dishonored past. As his grandson puts it, brutally: "Father said you had to finish. Because Japan lost the war."

Gradually, reluctantly, the old man's memory tracks back through an unsettling mist of self-deception. The story is of a series of bold moves for advancement. As a young man he defied a traditional, authoritarian father to become a painter, going to the big city in 1913 to work for a commercial artist's studio, where they turned out "Japanese"-looking geishas and cherry trees for foreign consumption. He left this trade for the studio of a distinguished painter, Moriyama, described as a kind of Japanese Degas, his subject the "floating world" of erotic beauty, the courtesans and pavilions and parties of a way of life that, like the old "pleasure districts" of the city, have been wiped out by the war.

Ono betrays his master, moving with the times (under the influence of the pragmatic Matsuda) from "escapist" romantic art to relevant social realism, and then, in the 1930s, to imperialist propaganda. (This is nicely illustrated by his reworking of a satirical painting of Japanese society, Complacency, which he turns into an advertisement for militant nationalism and retitles Eyes to the Horizon, with the caption "Japan must go forward.") Ono's opportunism (like the actor-manager in Mephisto) involves the betrayal of a friend and pupil for decadence and lack of patriotic spirit. It is a betrayal that haunts him. We are made to see, though—and it's the novel's most painful and delicate operation, as well as a form of comedy—that he has not been an evil or a dangerous man, only inadequate. As the dying Matsuda says to him:

There's no need to blame ourselves unduly…. We at least acted on what we believed and did our utmost. It's just that in the end we turned out to be ordinary men. Ordinary men with no special gifts of insight. It was simply our misfortune to have been ordinary men during such times.

Still, Ono does blame himself unduly. Like the writers of patriotic songs and the political leaders who are making their public apologies after the war by killing themselves (and this may be what Ono is about to do), he has internalized the country's shame, and is "floating" without the ballast of his self-esteem. What sounds at first like a carefully controlled voice turns out to be a man desperately trying to hold together his sense of himself.

Like all true novelists, Ishiguro is obsessional; and The Remains of the Day reworks his obsession with false control and self-deception. The novel is an extraordinary act of mimicry, an impeccably professional miming of the thoughts of an impeccable professional. There are close similarities with An Artist of the Floating World. Like Ono, the English butler Stevens has committed his life to an ideal of service, an ideal that is repeatedly analyzed in the course of his narrative. One of the pleasures of the book is that his profession is such an unlikely subject for a novel. Butlers in British fiction are a joke, associated with The Importance of Being Earnest, Jeeves, country-house thrillers, and "What the Butler Saw." Ishiguro's cunning is to invoke these associations—Stevens, after all, is a comic figure, pompous, funny, antiquated, and obtuse—and turn them to serious ends.

Stevens's burning question—we are asked to imagine it debated in the servants' halls in rather the way Japanese art students discuss the future of Japanese art—is, What makes a great butler? It seems a ludicrously quaint question to put at the center of a contemporary novel. But the debate, characteristically hovering on the edge of allegory, comes to be read, in part, as an analysis of "ordinary" people's political responsibilities.

Our butler has inherited from his father a belief that "greatness" in his profession consists not just of unflawed professional excellence, but of three deeper qualities: "dignity," either innate or acquired through "years of self-training and the careful absorbing of experience"; a life of service dedicated to "a great gentlemen" and through him to "humanity"; and, above all, the total "inhabiting" of the role, a professional being to be worn like a suit of clothes, not a "façade" or a "pantomime."

Like Ono's artistic creation, the butler's ideal of service is defined as a form of patriotism. No country but England has great butlers. And, like Ono's, his patriotism is entirely discredited by the end. Steven's "great gentleman," Lord Darlington, proves to have been a well-meaning but disastrous meddler in Anglo-German relations between the wars, a critic of the Versailles Treaty who became a dupe of the Nazis. Their ruthless "professionalism" gives another meaning to the word, and exposes it as a dangerous and dubious standard for living. Stevens's lifetime of commitment to Darlington (whose name has been as disgraced as the prewar Japanese leaders, as disgraced as Mosley) has involved getting rid of Jewish housemaids, waiting on von Ribbentrop, listening in on debates over the futility of democracy.

Now, in July 1956, the summer of the Suez crisis (like the bombing of Nagasaki in the earlier novel, it is not directly mentioned), Darlington Hall has been bought by a rich American. (Like England? Like Japan?) Stevens is a part of his new master's investment in a piece of authentic old England. He has been allowed out for a motoring trip, which is also a quest journey, through southwest England. On his quest, he encounters some rather artificial-sounding villagers, who discuss, inconclusively, the rights of ordinary British citizens.

Set at the terminal point of British imperialism, and, perhaps, of ordinary English people's faith in their leaders, The Remains of the Day reveals the vulnerability of societies based on traditional hierarchies and habits of trust. Stevens's bewildered, pathetic argument for the innocence of loyalty could apply to all who assume that those in authority are to be relied on:

One is simply accepting an inescapable truth: that the likes of you and I will never be in a position to comprehend the great affairs of today's world, and our best course will always be to put our trust in an employer we judge to be wise and honorable, and to devote our energies to the task of serving him to the best of our ability…. It is hardly my fault if his lordship's life and work have turned out today to look, at best, a sad waste—and it is quite illogical that I should feel any regret or shame on my own account.

Thus far, The Remains of the Day replays the themes of An Artist of the Floating World, with less complexity and less historical inwardness. There could be grounds for saying that, like an inferior butler whose role keeps slipping, it is only "pretending" to be an English novel. Really it's a Japanese one in disguise, and our formal, archaic butler is standing in for the classic Japanese figure of the ronin, the faithful servant left without a master. Certainly Ishiguro does invoke such Japanese items: Sachiko is a version of Madame Butterfly, and Ono speaks of gathering his men like an old warlord. In all three novels there is an un-English insistence on the link between paternal inheritance and honor. Ono's encouragement of his grandson's juvenile machismo is echoed in The Remains of the Day. Stevens's best example of "greatness" is his own father, flawlessly attentive to a general whose incompetence in the Boer War was directly responsible for the futile death of his older son, Stevens's lost brother. (He is one of several lost siblings who haunt Ishiguro's novels.) And Stevens is extremely proud of having been so committed to Lord Darlington's service that he was unable to be present at his own father's death.

The appalling paternal legacy of repression and stultification suggests not a "Japanese" novel dressed in transparent English clothes, but a novel whose crucial subject is something other—something more—than a political inquiry into habits of service. The Remains of the Day, unlike Ishiguro's other novels, is a love story. Stevens's country drive is in quest of the ex-housekeeper, Miss Kenton, who left the Hall some years before to get married, but whose letters have suggested that she may be unhappy. Stevens, as his father once did, is beginning to make mistakes in his work; he has too much to look after. Perhaps Miss Kenton—no, Mrs. Benn—might be persuaded to return? Through the refusals of feeling in Stevens's voice, we understand that she once tried to penetrate the "pretence" he "inhabits," to get through to the private self he is so committed to concealing. After their reunion, as his day closes, Stevens at last realizes what he has refused: his life itself, his only chance.

Since what has been suppressed is the true story, the cauterized narrative voice through which we read the suppressions is constantly stopping, going around, repeating itself, picking its way through a landscape of lost opportunities and stifled emotions:

But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such a moment turned out differently? One could presumably drive oneself to distraction in this way. In any case, while it is all very well to talk of "turning points," one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one's life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one's relationship with Miss Kenton: an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.

"Such evidently small incidents" are rendered with heartbreaking quietness. In one of these, Stevens and Miss Kenton look out the twilit gardens of the Hall, to see Stevens's old father, who has just humiliatingly tripped (with a full tea-tray) on the steps up to the summer-house, going up and down them in the dusk, trying to memorize them. Ishiguro can make such small incidents seem catastrophic. They take place in a dark landscape, often foggy or dusky, vaguely invoking regret and remorse. So, at the end of the novel, Stevens sits on Weymouth Pier, watching the lights come on and the crowds go by, weeping in the dark on his "bench of desolation."

Ishiguro often reminds me, as there, of Henry James, especially of Lambert Strether, urging others to take the second chance he never had: "Live all you can…. It's a mistake not to." To accuse Ishiguro of costive, elegant minimalism is to miss the deep sadness, the boundless melancholy that opens out, like the "deserts of vast eternity" his characters are reluctantly contemplating, under the immaculate surface.

(read more)

This section contains 3,107 words
(approx. 11 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Hermione Lee
Follow Us on Facebook