The Genius of Kazuo Ishiguro, Nobel Prize Winner

Ellen Birch 26 October 2017

‘After all, there's no turning back the clock now. One can't be forever dwelling on what might have been’. Miss Kenton’s words in Kazuo Ishiguro’s masterpiece, The Remains of the Day, seem somewhat at odds with a writer endlessly concerned with time, memory and our relationship to the past. Indeed, judging from the regretful nostalgia that pervades his work, ‘turning the clock back’ seems to be Ishiguro’s speciality – though fortunately he will not be ‘dwelling on what might have been’ after the winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature was announced on 5th October.

The Swedish Academy’s choice may seem rather a safe bet compared with its controversial selection of Bob Dylan last year, but such comparisons should not overshadow Ishiguro’s achievement nor the extent to which the award is merited. It is the natural culmination of a career which has included a Booker Prize, multiple film adaptations and critical acclaim – not to mention deeply sensitive depictions of human experience. As the judges rather bleakly put it, he has ‘uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.’

Born in Nagasaki but a UK resident since the age of five, Ishiguro’s dual national identity is inseparable from his thoughtful portrayals of home and belonging, and it informs the expression of Japanese heritage in novels such as An Artist of the Floating World. Yet his literary-celebrity status here is strangely unmatched in his birthplace: even as their newspaper front pages boasted of a homegrown winner, thousands of Japanese readers took to Twitter to ask who on earth this writer was.

Hopefully the news will encourage them to dive into one of his books, as to do so is an experience like no other. Ishiguro’s ability to create utterly immersive settings like Hailsham and Darlington Hall draws you in before the richly realised characters even get a chance to hook you; it is no surprise, then, that devouring Never Let Me Go in one sitting is amongst my most vivid literary memories, a feeling no doubt shared with countless others.

Ishiguro is also impossible to pin down to a single genre: he has dabbled in sci-fi, historical fiction and even fantasy (his latest novel, The Buried Giant, features dragons and trolls). In fact, he has questioned the very concept of genre itself, suggesting it was ‘invented fairly recently by the publishing industry’, and this rejection of established literary norms reflects the refreshing originality of his entire approach.

What’s more, by all accounts the award could not have gone to a more decent person: the modesty of Ishiguro’s response – his disbelief at first led him to assume it was fake news – forms a stark contrast to what many see as the arrogance shown by last year’s winner in failing to accept the prize for months. And his talents go beyond writing to include screenwriting, graphic novels and even music – as Salman Rushdie’s congratulatory tweet put it, ‘he plays the guitar and writes songs, too! Roll over Bob Dylan.’

It is thus hard to conceive of a more suitable winner for the award, although a female victory would have been welcome – in 110 years just 13 women have received the highest accolade in literature. Nevertheless, few living authors embody the criteria outlined by Alfred Nobel (‘the most outstanding work in an ideal direction’) as well as Ishiguro, and perhaps few ever will. Ultimately it seems fitting, if not exactly fair, that a writer known for leaving his characters unfulfilled should himself achieve a happy ending.