Book reviews editor, Kate Whiting, is over-the-moon for one of her literary heroes. He's basically just a dude.
Back in the mid-Nineties Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize-winning novel The Remains Of The Day was a set text on the GSCE English Literature syllabus – as Never Let Me Go is today.
The way he so completely captured Stevens, the ageing butler, who was suppressing his feelings for the housekeeper Miss Kenton, sparked an enduring fascination with Ishiguro’s way of writing, which led me to study him at university and even move to Japan for two years, keen to see where he was born and the place his first two novels (A Pale View Of Hills and An Artist Of The Floating World) are set.
On the three occasions I’ve since met and spoken to him, I’ve gushed about my love of his work – and each time, he’s taken it in the most down-to-earth, gracious and good-humoured way.
Yesterday – following in the footsteps of writers from Samuel Beckett and Toni Morrison to Seamus Heaney and last year, Bob Dylan – this unassuming literary hero of millions was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature because “in novels of great emotional force, [he] has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”.
Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, elaborated: “If you mix Jane Austen and Franz Kafka, then you have KI in a nutshell, but then you have to add a little bit of Marcel Proust into the mix. Then you stir, but not too much. At the same time, he’s a writer of great integrity, he has developed an aesthetic universe all his own.”
Here’s why you couldn’t ask for a more noble, Nobel winner…
1. He’s completely humble
Before the world’s media descended on his London home yesterday, the 62-year-old, who was born in Nagasaki and moved to the UK with his family when he was five, didn’t even know the prize was being announced and thought it was “a mistake” he’d been awarded it.
In a phone chat to Sweden, posted on the Nobel Prize’s twitter page, he said: “I was sitting in the kitchen writing an email to a friend and the phone rang… we were trying to establish if it was a hoax or fake news… by the time the BBC called, I started to take it seriously.”
Calling it a “ridiculously prestigious honour”, he immediately began praising the Swedish Academy and told the Guardian he felt like “an imposter”.
2. His books tackle universal themes in a simple way
Love and relationships set against greater political or world events are at the heart of what he does. So Stevens has spent his life working for Lord Darlington, a Nazi sympathiser; the artist in An Artist Of The Floating World was painting propaganda for Imperial Japan in the run-up to World War II; and in 2015’s The Buried Giant, elderly couple Axl and Beatrice travel to see their son through a mythical Iron Age Britain on the brink of war.
Memory – whether real or self-delusional – and displacement in time or space, are also recurring themes, but, most importantly, his books are deceptively accessible, so you can read, understand and learn from them whether you’re 17 or 77.
He said yesterday: “One of the things that’s interested me always is how we live in small worlds and big worlds at the same time. We have a personal arena in which we try and find fulfilment and love, but that inevitably intersects with a larger world, in which politics, or even dystopian universes, can prevail.”
3. He’s also a musician and Bob Dylan’s biggest fan
“It’s great to come one year after Bob Dylan, who was my hero since the age of 13, he’s probably my greatest hero,” he said in the Nobel twitter interview, adding with a laugh: “I do a very good Bob Dylan impression, but I won’t do it for you right now.”
Ishiguro was a singer-songwriter before he turned to fiction; he plays guitar and piano and has co-written songs with jazz singer Stacey Kent. The Unconsoled and his 2009 short story collection Nocturnes all focus on music and musicians.
4. He always asks his wife if his writing’s any good
There was a 10-year gap between Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant (with Nocturnes in the middle), partly because his wife, social worker Lorna, vetoed an early version.
“Marriage and literary criticism don’t necessarily go together,” he told me in 2015. “She said, ‘You’ve got to start again’. The very fact that I showed her about 60 pages in was a sign that I thought there was something wrong.
“She’s always been my first editor. We’ve been living together since 1980, before I actually started to write fiction in any serious sense, so her attitude [back then] was, ‘You think you can write do you? Well let’s have a look at this’. This isn’t a unique experience, she’s put a stop to whole projects before.”
5. He speaks as meaningfully as he writes
Seven years ago this month, he took to the stage at the Vue cinema in London’s Leicester Square, alongside Andrew Garfield, Carey Mulligan and Keira Knightley, to discuss the adaptation of his dystopian masterpiece Never Let Me Go, which was premiering at the London Film Festival.
Despite the Hollywood glamour, every time he opened his mouth to speak, he managed to mesmerise the assembled media with simple, but thought-provoking insights as to why he wrote the heart-wrenching story about children bred as organ donors.
“I was interested in trying to find something that paralleled our natural human lifespan – we can’t really escape from the fact we’re mortal,” he said. “The question was, what’s important to human beings when time is running out? I was trying to look at the positive side of human nature, and things that become important are friendship and love.”
6. He’s got a brilliant sense of humour
And doesn’t take himself – or anyone else – too seriously.
The first time I met Ishiguro at a signing for When We Were Orphans at the London Review Bookshop, I told him I’d written my university dissertation on his books and he looked at me and said: “Thank you for spending so much time with my work…”
When I next met him at the publication party of his friend David Mitchell’s book The Bone Clocks, I told him about our previous conversation and that I suspected he had thought me a freak. He quipped: “I probably did!”
7. He’s not afraid to experiment
After the success of Remains Of The Day, which was made into a Merchant Ivory film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, The Unconsoled, his 1995 doorstep of a novel, completely divided critics, with New Yorker critic James Wood saying the 500-page tome “invents its own category of badness”. Ishiguro took the reviews on the chin.
In a Guardian interview, he said: “To some extent, there may have been an element of me saying that I’m a more complicated writer than you might think just from reading Remains: Don’t assume that I’ve always written like that or that I always will.”
8. He’ll make you cry – but just at the right time
Just try and get through Never Let Me Go or The Buried Giant (in fact, most of his books) without reaching for tissues. But he doesn’t cynically set out to tug at the heart strings.
“Emotion is something that shouldn’t be deployed lightly,” he told me in 2015. “I don’t like to write scenes where little animals die just to make people cry. There’s a temptation to do that, but I want people to be moved at exactly the right moment for exactly the right reason. It has to feel earned.”
9. He wants the prize to help the world
Yesterday he said: “I can’t remember a time when we so uncertain about our values in the Western world… I do hope things like the Nobel Prize will contribute to the decent values in the world and some sense of continuity and decency.”
© Press Association 2018