The Unconsoled | Critical Review by Roz Kaveney

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of The Unconsoled.
This section contains 705 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Roz Kaveney

SOURCE: Roz Kaveney, "Tossed and Turned," in New Statesman and Society, Vol. 8, No. 352, May 12, 1995, p. 39.

In the following negative review, Kaveney calls The Unconsoled a "talented mess of a novel."

Dreams are the most personal of universal experiences. Writers who deal in them may get credit for what is recognised or for what forces its way into the shared grammar of dreaming, but will be told there is no art in telling what everyone knows. They will be blamed for anything that seems too personal or feels like mere invention. Ishiguro's tortuous tale of missed appointments suffers, and occasionally succeeds, under all these rubrics.

Freud claimed all dreams for literary criticism, to be decoded as a poem full of hermetic symbolism. Jung added historicist New Criticism: your dreams are not your own, but merely inheritors of rules. They imposed a loss of innocence on the telling of dreams that is responsible for the sheer guarded mundanity of this novel. Ishiguro's discreet refusal of florid invention evades potentially embarrassing tropes at the cost of a deep dullness.

Ryder, an international virtuoso, arrives in a small town to play in a concert. The town combines an old quarter full of quaint bars where folksy Germanic porters engage in trials of strength with housing estates full of people Ryder knew in his suburban teens; its dignitaries and eccentrics are Mittel-European or middle-class English. He wanders around trying to honour commitments from which he is deflected, sometimes in the company of Sophie and her son, Boris, who may or may not be his wife and child.

Sometimes a gear shifts and he shares the consciousness of the underrated pianist son of the local hotelier, or the rehabilitated drunk conductor Brodsky. They perform, and are humiliated; Ryder never plays, practises, eats or sleeps, but wanders down irrelevant corridors or onto trams without destinations.

What is wrong with all this? Part of the trouble is what looks like awful literary knowingness. Ryder shares a surname with the narrator of Brideshead Revisited, another novel of going back and not doing that which you ought to have done. His name is also cognate with Ritter, the German knight: the chess piece that sets off in one direction and then turns in another. It is hard to be certain whether the S and B pairing of Sophie and Boris is intended to echo Carroll's Sylvie and Bruno, or whether this is simply the sort of book that plays so many irritating precious gambits that the attentive reader moves from closer reading to paranoia.

In The Remains of the Day, the butler protagonist spoke in a pompous idiolect that revealed him as an unreliable narrator. Hardly has Ryder arrived when he is subjected to a lecture from Gustav, the hotel porter and Sophie's father, on the duties of porters, delivered in a similar idiolect. The dignitaries fall into yet another one. It makes reading the novel rather like having Anthony Hopkins loom out at you from dark corners in a variety of thin disguises.

My own impression of high culture in dreams is that it mingles the imaginary and the well-known with things one knows exist, and can guesstimate the experience of Ryder and his colleagues only ever play or discuss non-existent music, which all sounds as if it is written by Michael Nyman. This is not credible: even in dreams, musicians have to play the Moonlight Sonata or the Maple Leaf Rag.

Ishiguro is representing as a realm a place that is actually a border post. He writes as if the rules of dream were constituted by the unconscious, rather than by the protocols of trade between the waking and sleeping self. This intermittently evokes how it feels to have an anxiety dream, but in 500 pages we expect more. Joyce alluded to the whole of western culture in the dream of Finnegans Wake.

The novel's various closures—the death of Gustav, the humiliation of Brodsky, the departure of Sophie and Boris—feel artificial. The only proper closure of a dream is to wake up, usually with nothing settled. Ishiguro has produced a talented mess of a novel that leaves one with the ill temper and headache produced by lying for too long in the wrong position.

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This section contains 705 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Roz Kaveney
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