Kazuo Ishiguro is the author of several award-winning novels, including A Pale View of Hills (1982), An Artist of the Floating World (1986), The Remains of the Day (1989), and The Unconsoled (1995). His most recent book, When We Were Orphans (2000), has been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.
In this conversation, Kazuo Ishiguro discusses a number of the enduring themes in his work. This interview, conducted by Nermeen Shaikh, was held following a discussion with Joan Acocella of The New Yorker at an event organized by the Asia Society in New York.
It has been suggested elsewhere that the creation of character, especially the examination of consciousness, is the greatest challenge facing novelists. This challenge is made more difficult for contemporary writers given the proliferation of popular media and images, which tend to make the examination of the interior lives of people more complicated. Would you agree with this?
Assuming that this argument is part of a more general concern about how the novel fits in with all these other media – television, cinema, computer games – I must say that on a day-to-day basis as a writer, I haven't felt that I am practicing a dying art form, or a form that is being pushed into a corner. I'm just young enough to have been brought up on television and movies as much as books, and I feel very comfortable in a world of movies and visual images, but in some ways – and that's my starting point – I feel that when I'm writing a novel, I'm actually tapping into this, what in the pejorative sense people might call the garbage and ephemera in people's heads. I feel I'm reasonably in tune with, if you like, the stereotypes and the common images that are held by people from advertising, movies, and other media. So if I use -- and I often do use – stereotype, it can actually be quite useful. It can be a kind of shorthand for atmosphere and mood and for deeper things as well.
So when writing a book like The Remains of the Day, it's not that I have a thorough knowledge of what servants' lives were like in the 1930s. What I do know is that there is kind of an international myth about the English butler and English country life that is one that has been fed all around the world, not through highbrow history books, but through popular culture. It's the butler as stereotype from plays, books and movies, and it's that stereotype, the myth that I'm able, then, to tap into and manipulate. The same is true of Shanghai in my new book. Of course there's a real Shanghai, or there was a real Shanghai that people lived in, including my father and grandfather, but of course I'm very aware that "old Shanghai," those two words, conjure up all kinds of stereotypes. If you walk around the Chinatowns on the West Coast, in San Francisco and Vancouver, for instance, you see that old Shanghai stereotype myth evoked over and over again.
I think writing in the world today, to some extent, is about being aware of what exists in people's heads, and sometimes undermining, sometimes manipulating, what exists there already. Certainly, I don't think we today have to operate like Victorian novelists, even in terms of description of places and scenes. There was a time, I think, when novelists had to describe everything minutely, particularly like a foreign scene or what a person looks like. Today, I think, we're bombarded with so many visual images, and the average person has seen images of Africa, historical images, everything, and there's no need to describe things in the minute detail that people like Henry James did (he would spend a page describing someone's physiognomy, for example). We simply don't have to do that. There are lots of shortcuts, so I don't feel it's a hostile environment at all, and I'm quite happy to be writing a novel in a world that is populated by movies and advertising and other images.
But do you think that the novel offers a unique form to talk about human consciousness and deep interiority, more so, for instance, than these other media?
Yes, I do. I feel very much that if I'm writing a novel, I have to offer an experience that cannot be easily replicated sitting in front of a movie screen or a TV screen. I often read books that I think are perfectly all right, there's nothing wrong with them and I can't criticize them in any way other than to say that after spending five, six hours reading a particular novel, the experience is almost identical to an experience I could have had in 40 minutes watching a quality episode of a quality TV series. That might have been good enough once, but I feel it isn't now, because it's easier to watch the television. I value books that take me some place and do something to me that I can't have happen in these other contexts, and when I write a novel, I try and do that. Whether that implies a certain subject matter that the novel is better at than others, I don't know. In my own case, I think I would find it easier to talk about the interior world of people in fiction than if I were a moviemaker. Then again, I'm sure a talented moviemaker could prove me very wrong there and say the techniques of filmmaking are very adept at that. But I somehow instinctively think that the novel is very strong at portraying the interior lives of people.
Although your novels tend to focus primarily on the development of characters and their psychological and emotional relationship with the past, there is at the same time in all of your work some kind of broader relationship to politics and some form of imperialism. Do you think that's a fair comment? As you were speaking today, it struck me that this might have something to do with where you locate the origin of evil, because you said that it's very easy to locate it in one place, but the nature of evil is, in fact, far more diffuse and hence far less identifiable. In your novels, for example, quite apart from the characters' individual relationships, there's also something happening on a larger scale that's entirely out of their control.
Well, that's a fairly accurate summary of how I feel about these things. I'm not denying that there are evil individuals who do horrible things, but the view that you can explain from this observation why awful things happen on a large scale in the world is not adequate. I think this is one of the lessons that we learned from this century we just had, as Joan [Acocella] pointed out. I think it is tempting to think of the Professor Moriarty type figure that you have in Sherlock Holmes, to try to identify a model for where bad things come from. I think there's a natural tendency for us to always seek a culprit, a human culprit, rather than to take some kind of collective responsibility for failures on the part of civilization as a whole. My feeling is that a lot of bad things happen because you have these larger things, and because individuals who aren't morally extraordinary, but who aren't morally bad either, become agents in these larger tides, whether it's imperialism or whatever. And most people are helpless but to go along with the sway or the tide, and that this is one of the painful things, it seems to me, we learn by looking at the 20th century.
Memory obviously plays a very important role in your work, but a particular form of memory, in my reading, and that is nostalgia. What does nostalgia mean to you?
Actually, I've been going around recently trying to give nostalgia a better name, because I think it is a much-maligned emotion, and I can see that in certain contexts, you can understand why it is maligned. In London, for example, there is a kind of unthinking nostalgia that evokes a time when Britain was more powerful, and I think it's for this reason that people think that sort of nostalgia is a dubious emotion. And I agree because it actually harkens back to a more comfortable, gracious life that was predicated on subjecting lots of other people to suffering. Now whether you're talking about the imperial past or the comforts that came from a class system that basically depended on the majority of people in Britain being either servants or factory workers, that kind of nostalgia is rightfully attacked as a nostalgia of a woolly thinking, dubious sort.
But I'm not really concerned about that kind of nostalgia. I think the pure, personal emotion of nostalgia is often the memory of childhood, or at least of a time when we thought the world was a nicer place than we subsequently found it. Because when we're young, as children, we are allowed to live in a bubble (provided we're lucky, of course, and increasingly there are children who don't have this). Adults, not just our parents, but strangers in the street, all instantly enter into a conspiracy to make a small child believe the world is slightly nicer than it really is. People will put on a smile or talk in a sweet voice… It's rather amazing walking down the street with a child and seeing the effect it has on people around you. Everyone instinctively wants to keep little children in this sheltered bubble and, of course, we all have to come out of that bubble. We must have all made that journey, some people traumatically, some people not so traumatically, but perhaps we all share, to a greater or lesser extent, some sense of looking back to that time when we thought the world was slightly nicer. I think that's the basis of a certain kind of nostalgia that can have a very powerful hold on someone's life. It can, sometimes, be a very humanizing thing. There are many accounts of soldiers – hardened soldiers, after days of battle –hearing some tiny fragment of a song or finding some little object that suddenly reminds them of this other life, and they suddenly break down in tears or whatever. It's that kind of nostalgia I'm interested in, because in some ways what idealism is to the intellect, I think sometimes nostalgia is to emotions, because it is basically about picturing a more perfect world. But of course, like idealism, it can lead to destructive actions as well as positive ones, but I think it is a big force in people's minds.
It is in my books a lot, and the latest book, When We Were Orphans, to some extent, is about an exaggerated account of a man suffering from this kind of nostalgia, where he cannot let go of that bubble and instead wants to go back into it.
The principal characters in your novels almost universally seem to be preoccupied with a quite abstract sense of duty and obligation. Do you think that's true, and if so, what exactly do duty and obligation represent to you?
Stevens, the butler [from The Remains of the Day], has a very exaggerated sense of obligation, but I'm usually concerned more with the general urge to make your life count for something that contributes to something larger, some kind of larger good. Certainly in my earlier writing, I was interested in people who, despite these very well-intentioned motives (wanting to contribute to the good of humanity, etc.), found themselves doing the reverse, because they just didn't have a clear vision of how the world was around them, and it seems to me that this can happen rather easily.
I think that's partly what interests me in people, that we don't just wish to feed and sleep and reproduce then die like cows or sheep. Even if they're gangsters, they seem to want to tell themselves they're good gangsters and they're loyal gangsters, they've fulfilled their 'gangstership' well. We do seem to have this moral sense, however it's applied, whatever we think. We don't seem satisfied, unless we can tell ourselves by some criteria that we have done it well and we haven't wasted it and we've contributed well. So that is one of the things, I think, that distinguishes human beings, as far as I can see.
But so often I've been tracking that instinct we have and actually looking at how difficult it is to fulfill that agenda, because at the same time as being equipped with this kind of instinct, we're not actually equipped. Most of us are not equipped with any vast insight into the world around us. We have a tendency to go with the herd and not be able to see beyond our little patch, and so it is often our fate that we're at the mercy of larger forces that we can't understand. We just do our little thing and hope it works out. So I think a lot of the themes of obligation and so on come from that. This instinct seems to me a kind of a basic thing that's interesting about human beings. The sad thing is that sometimes human beings think they're like that, and they get self-righteous about it, but often, they're not actually contributing to anything they would approve of anyway.
A number of your novels, as far as I can tell, end on a slightly redemptive note, despite the profound vulnerability and pathos that besets their characters. Is there any reason you choose to conclude your stories in this way?
Well, my novels usually end with kind of a partial accommodation on the part of the narrator of the painful things he or she has come to accept, that he or she couldn't accept earlier on. But usually there's still an element of self-deception or something left there, just enough to survive, because one of the sad things about people's lives is that they are rather short. If you make a hash of it, often there isn't time for another go.
The end of my second novel, An Artist in the Floating World, is a fairly kind of typical instance of what you're saying. The narrator's whole life has somehow been flawed, perhaps through no great fault of his own, but because he happened to live when he did, where he did, and he now realizes what actually happened. But at the same time, he's an old man now. It's too late for him to have another go, but a nation's life, a people's life, if you can say that, is much longer than any one individual's, so he tries to console himself by saying, "Well, at least the next generation will learn from these mistakes and do better. But for me, as an individual, time has run out."
There is something poignant in that realization: recognizing that an individual's life is very short, and if you mess it up once, that's probably it. But nevertheless, being able to at least take some comfort from the fact that the next generation will benefit from those mistakes. It's that kind of poignancy, that sort of balance between feeling defeated but nevertheless trying to find reason to feel some kind of qualified optimism. That's always the note I like to end on. There are some ways that, as the writer, I think there is something sadly pathetic but also quite noble about this human capacity to dredge up some hope when really it's all over. I mean, it's amazing how people find courage in the most defeated situations.
Although you said that you didn't read very much prior to university, what authors would you identify as the main influences on your work?
Well one of the paradoxes for me, because I am asked this from time to time, is that the authors I really like, I don't think have particularly influenced me, at least not as far as I can see. Dostoevsky is a big favorite of mine, but it's odd to think of him as an influence. I know lots of people think I'm influenced by people like Henry James and Jane Austen, neither of whom I like at all.
But I think it's perfectly possible that an author can be influenced a lot not by the writers he or she really likes, but by something they happen to read at a certain point. I have been influenced by things I just happened to read and thought, "This is really good," and I adopted it and it stayed in my writing. An example of that is Proust. I've only ever read the first volume of Proust. I haven't got beyond 'Combray', or Swann's Way anyway, I just got a bit beyond 'Combray', and to be honest, I find much of 'Combray' very dull, that's why I haven't gone on. But the 'Overture', the preface, is about 60 pages long, and I read that between my first and second novels, and I think it had a terrific impact on me.
It was a real revelation to me at the time because of the things I was trying to do. It was a real revelation that you didn't have to present like a solid scene followed by another solid scene, like in the theater – which is more or less what I was doing in my first novel. That in fact you can actually mimic the fluidity of the mind, particularly when it's remembering, and you can just have a fragment of a scene that dovetails into a fragment from another moment that's 30 years separated from it, and then you kind of move back into another scene, and you can have a larger scene, and then it would just go off on a tangent, before it's finished, into something else. This kind of very fluid way of dealing with narrative, just going from A to B in your work, and all the time with that tone and that texture that comes from this technique. I found that a tremendous revelation, so I adopted that at a very impressionable point in my writing life.
Sometimes when I glance at my earlier novels, I realize that this is the big difference between my first and second novels. The first novel is written much more script-like, you know, scene followed by scene after scene. An Artist of the Floating World, my second novel, is much more fluid. It does this kind of coming back, fading back and filling in gaps and referring to tangents, and I think that's something I've made central to my style and my technique, although I can't pretend that Proust is a big influence on me in general. I couldn't really take part in a discussion about Proust. But I do find this, and I think there are all kinds of influences I've picked up from people who aren't actually the big authors in my life.
Are there any contemporary authors you can identify as influences?
Not overwhelmingly. That's probably for other people to try and see, but I'm not that aware, I must say, of contemporary writers who have influenced me a lot.
Do you tend to read mostly contemporary fiction or 19th-century or a combination?
Well, I don't read a great deal, to be honest. When I'm writing, I don't like to read novels. I read nonfiction. I don't like to read novels, because I do find it infectious, both the style level and sometimes even in terms of theme and atmosphere. In a way I'm too impressionable when I read, and I did notice it creeping in, and several times in the past I've had to double-back and drop things because they were just temporary fads that I'd been kind of induced into because I was reading Conrad or something, and I suddenly went in that direction as well. For this reason, I don't read nearly as much as a lot of people I know, although there are plenty of people I like, but if you're actually talking about influences, I'm not that aware of influences.
What are you working on at the moment? You mentioned that you had three projects you were thinking about, in particular the story concerning East European emigres…
Yes, yes. I don't know if I will work on that as a full novel. I find that only when I actually really start to write fiction, even if it's like a dry-run thing, or little, small, short things -- not exactly short stories because it's not something that shaped. But I have to actually start writing something like actual proper fiction to know whether I really have a depth of interest in the project or not. I've often found it the case that at a distance, when you're just making notes or working things out, something looks like it will really appeal. But then as soon as you start to try and write it, when you start writing from the point of the view of the character, and start writing scenes and episodes, you exhaust your interest very rapidly and you discover it's a very superficial interest. I do find that you have to actually get in there and start writing fiction to discover if it's something you have a deep relationship with because you're going to be working on this thing for three years or something. It has to be something that you feel really deeply interested in.
So I know this sounds a bit odd, rather luxurious in a way, to say I've got three projects, but it's not like that. It could be that each of them will prove to be more shallow an interest than I think, but you kind of know when you start on something and you think, "Yes, this is it. I can dig and dig on this one."
So when things go quiet at the turn of the year, I'm going to see.
Interview conducted by Nermeen Shaikh of The Asia Society.