Friday, 26 March 2010

Kazuo Ishiguro: Setting and Authenticity

To Canterbury on Wednesday evening to see Kazuo Ishiguro in conversation with Andrew McGuinness at Christ Church University’s impressive new library. For some inexplicable reason, I was expecting something low-key and intimate. In fact, Ishiguro filled the very large St Augustine’s Hall with an audience of well over a thousand people. Nevertheless, an interesting evening. I was particularly struck by what Ishiguro had to say about setting.

Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954, but he was brought to England when he was five years old. Although his parents always planned to return to Japan in due course, they never did. So Ishiguro was brought up in England, received an English education and ended up, in some ways, more English than Japanese. But he says he retained strong memories of Japan. He grew up wanting to be, not a writer, but a musician. He developed his trademark sparse style, he says, through writing song lyrics. He also has a film buff’s interest in cinema (according to a recent profile of him in the Guardian, he has his own private screening room at his home in Golders Green). Perhaps it is this interest in film that makes him tend to talk about ‘location’ rather than ‘setting’ for his novels.

‘Some writers have an idea for a novel they want to write about nineteenth century France or pre-Revolutionary Russia,’ he said on Wednesday. ‘But I think more in terms of finding a story and then finding a location, both time and place, in which that story could best be told.’ McGuinness suggested that, in that sense, he was more like a film director searching out the best location for each scene he was shooting, an analogy Ishiguro did not dispute.

Ishiguro said his turning point, in terms of his development as a writer, came when he decided to write a story set in Japan. At the time he was studying creative writing at the University of East Anglia under the tutelage of Raymond Bradbury and Angela Carter. ‘The Japan I wrote about was the one I remembered from my childhood,’ he said. ‘I didn’t go back there, or carry out any research. I set the story in the version of Japan I had in my head. My own personal Japan.’ Both A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World are set in this half-real, half-imagined version of Japan that English readers find completely authentic. Haruki Murakami, though, has said it is a Japan that is ‘slightly different’ from reality.

Similarly, many readers consider Ishiguro’s Booker-wining The Remains of the Day to be a quintessentially ‘English’ novel set, as it is, in between-the-wars country-house England. But Ishiguro finds such talk amusing and mildly embarrassing. It is a Jeeves-and-Wooster England that he thought would make a good setting for the story he wanted to tell. There was no meticulous research, and he said he would hate to think of people holding up the novel as an authentic example of what life was really like.

Does that matter? It probably does to some readers. In the current issue of Prospect magazine, for example, Sam Leith makes some less-than-flattering comments on the setting of Tom Ford’s film A Single Man. Comparing the movie to ‘a two-hour perfume ad’, he goes on to say ‘it resembles no school, … no California, no Earth that any of us would recognise’. He defends Ford by suggesting ‘this is no doubt how the world looks to him’. But isn’t that what art is all about – seeing things through the eyes of the artist? Look at van Gogh. Look at Hammershoi. It is their distinctive depiction of the everyday that makes their work unique.

Okay, I’ve taken Leith’s comments out of context – he’s actually attacking what he sees as a general move towards style over content, towards what he calls ‘costume drama’. But it is Ishiguro’s deliberate use of his own personal ‘costume drama’ to tell a universal story that makes his writing so special (in my humble opinion). To quote Murakami again, taken from the Guardian profile I mentioned earlier, 'the place could be anywhere, the character could be anybody and the time could be any time. Everything supposed to be real could be unreal, and vice versa. It is a sensation I love and I only receive it when I read his books.'

Andrew McGuinness and Kazuo Ishiguro (courtesy KCC Libraries)

UPDATE: Andrew McGuinness plans to write more about his meeting with Kazuo Ishiguro here on his blog.


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Eryl Shields said...

Thanks Paul, this was really interesting.

ashmitasaha said...

To readers who are not based in England, your post comes as a disappointing revelation....when I read the novel, I actually thought that the Jeeves and Woosters of old England were for real.
Otherwise, Mr. Stevens' uptight behavior and his meticulous value scale are difficult to explain...
I penned my first impressions of the book here:

Paul said...

Eryl - it was an interesting evening; very thought-provoking.

Ashmita - The various elements of Darlington Hall are grounded in reality, at least to a certain degree. The way the working-class servants kept the upper-class households running day-to-day was certainly a reality (and Sarah Waters' latest, The Little Stranger' is a good representation of how that world began to disappear after the second world war). I think what Ishiguro was saying is that he intentionally used a time and place his readers already 'knew' from reading the Bertie Wooster novels and from watching TV programmes like Upstairs, Downstairs and so on and then used that almost mythical setting to tell the story he wanted to tell. He did not do any extensive social history research in the same way he didn't research the Japan that features in his first two novels. As with all fiction, authenticity is less important than finding a way to illustrate truth . . .

I enjoyed your review, by the way - though I'd give Remains of the Day a higher score than 3.5, personally! Lol.)

6:44 PM