TagKazuo Ishiguro

The Buried Giant: the ferryman

This is the second in a series of posts on Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant; the first post is here, and there’s a more general post about reading Ishiguro here.

The Buried Giant is the story of Axl and Beatrice, two elderly Britons in a post-Roman land suffused with a ‘mist’ that induces (or perhaps simply is) a kind of amnesia. The couple decide to visit their son’s village – though they have not seen him in so long, they’re sure he waits for them – and their journey forms the basis of Ishiguro’s novel.

The world through which the couple travel is both literal and metaphorical, and these aspects are deeply intertwined. I’ll show you what I mean by talking about the quality (the atmosphere) of one scene in particular. Towards the beginning of the novel, Axl and Beatrice come across a ruined villa where they meet an old woman and a tall man. He is a boatman who ferries people to a special island, one where they must usually go alone and will generally not see another person for as long as they remain. The old woman was planning to go to the island with her husband, but (she says) the ferryman tricked them and she has been alone for forty years. Now, whenever the boatman comes to rest at this villa, the woman appears to taunt him (as he sees it).

There’s a pretty clear reading here of the ferryman being one who takes souls to the land of the dead. Yet it seems to me that this can’t be reduced to a straightforwardly literal or straightforwardly metaphorical reading. The situation has a ritualistic absurdity that makes it seem like something out of a folktale; yet it still feels functional within the world of the book – the boatman takes people to an actual place, but what manner of place? I’m finding it difficult to articulate exactly what I mean, because to do so I have to separate out qualities that are bound together. Perhaps I could say that this villa and its occupants are in a landscape that slides between the geographical and symbolic as you look at it, which means the ferryman and his journey can be real and metaphorical at different times.

This is a treacherous land to navigate!

Book details (Foyles affiliate link)

The Buried Giant (2015) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber hardback

Learning to read Kazuo Ishiguro

Recently I’ve started to read The Buried Giant, another novel that I thought might make the cut for next week’s Goldsmiths Prize shortlist. Reading Kazuo Ishiguro has very much been a learning process for me, and one that’s been documented on the blog – so I thought I’d take a look back…

NocturnesThe first Ishiguro book that I read was his novella collection, Nocturnes, shortly after its publication in 2009. Reading my review back now makes me wince – not because I didn’t get along with the book, but because I’m not happy with how the review turned out. For one thing, it’s snarkier than I would generally write – and snark, fun though it may be, is rarely conducive to careful thought. Sure enough, I did something that I now hate to see in discussion of books: I came up against something unexpected, and dismissed it out of hand without really thinking about it. I put my own terms of engagement ahead of the book’s.

I was under the assumption at the time that Ishiguro was a writer of transparent realism, but now I’m not so sure. And that means I’m on shaky ground treating something of his as ‘unrealistic’, especially without stopping to think what that means, and why the fiction might be that way. This is not to say that I would inevitably like Nocturnes more if I read it now; but I do think there was something fundamental that I didn’t (couldn’t?) appreciate about it.

Remains

At the time I wasn’t especially keen to read Ishiguro again, and it took a few years before I felt the time was right. I went for The Remains of the Day (1989), and was clearly much more receptive to what Ishiguro was doing. Yet I wonder if I didn’t still miss something. My review of Remains is framed as saying, “I can see the same techniques here as I did in Nocturnes, but in this book they work.” In other words, I was still reading from that assumption of transparent realism. Now, granted, transparent realism is what the novel looks like; and I think it’s fair to say that Ishiguro’s fiction has a ‘default’ voice. But, still…

I gather that The Buried Giant is a little different from Ishiguro’s work, and certainly it has garnered a variety of puzzled reactions, which is partly what leads me to suspect that there may be some thread in his writing that I’ve not yet appreciated. Perhaps what I need to do is step back and consider the individual writer – to see his books as Kazuo Ishiguro books first and foremost.

Book details (Foyles affiliate links)

The Buried Giant (2015) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber hardback

Nocturnes (2009) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber paperback

The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro, Faber & Faber paperback

Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day (1989)

I’ve been thinking back to that Leo Benedictus article on ‘hindered narrators’ which crossed my mind whilst reading The Quiddity of Will Self. In it, Benedictus refers to the previous generation’s idea of ‘a literary novelist: a titan of the typewriter [whose] own voice was all you ever got from them, even when they swathed it in a made-up “I.”’ I’ve often had trouble with that sort of writing myself; I tend to think that a first-person voice should be tailored to the narrator’s character. That was one of the problems I had with Kazuo Ishiguro’s novella collection, Nocturnes – each of its narrators had the same voice, and it was one which didn’t suit all of them.

It was time to try Ishiguro’s work again, and I went for his most lauded novel, The Remains of the Day. I found that same first-person voice here, but its slightly stuffy formality works perfectly for this narrator: Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall in Oxfordshire, whom we join in July 1956, as he’s preparing to take a drive to the West Country. He’s planning to visit Miss Kenton (now Mrs Benn), a former housekeeper of the Hall, who has written to Stevens after many years, describing how her marriage has foundered and hinting (so Stevens reads into the letter) that she may wish to return to Darlington; Stevens’ pretext for the journey is to discuss the latter with Miss Kenton, because he’s struggling to manage the Hall with the few staff he has left; but there are hints from the beginning (and growing throughout) that there may be a more personal dimension to their relationship than Stevens is willing to admit.

Something else that didn’t sit right with me in Nocturnes was a character who was effectively dismissed completely as a person by a supposed friend, and just accepted it – I simply couldn’t imagine someone in the present day being so yielding about that. Again, I find similar character traits in The Remains of the Day; and, again, they make more sense in this context. Stevens’ life and outlook are defined by service: his job, as he sees it, is to facilitate the work of the gentlemen he serves; the man Stevens might otherwise be himself is subsumed under that notion of duty. To his mind, the most fundamental quality of a great butler (not that he would be so bold as to consider himself ‘great’, you understand) is ‘dignity’ – the capacity to retain one’s composure whatever the situation; not to let one’s inner life become apparent to the outside world. There’s no doubt Stevens has this capacity: the most extreme example is probably when Stevens’ father (who at the time was working under him at Darlington Hall) has a stroke and dies below stairs whilst his son is attending to a conference of dignitaries; Stevens carries on performing his duties, keeps his emotions largely in check, and still feels a small sense of ‘triumph’ thirty years on at being able to maintain his dignity on that occasion.

Stevens’ relationship with Miss Kenton is similarly characterised by such ‘dignity’. Their conversations, as he recalls them, are stiff and rather cold; when she tries to inject some warmth into them, Stevens doesn’t respond to it, and Miss Kenton in her turn becomes barbed and distant in how she deals with Stevens’ professional requests – but, crucially, he can’t now recall whether some criticisms came from Miss Kenton or his old employer, Lord Darlington; this both underlines how Stevens’ work and ‘personal’ life are as one to him, and emphasises the mental filter through which we’re viewing events.

The theme of conflict between private and public life is reflected not just in the person of Stevens, but also in wider life at the Hall. Stevens remarks at one point that important political decisions may influenced at private gatherings in country houses – and it’s such a diplomatic conference that Lord Darlington organises in the 1930s in an attempt to avert war; one delegate warns another in secret that he may be the target of manipulation – and, in an illustration of the social forces at work, this is brought sharply into the public sphere.

But it’s Stevens who is ultimately the focus of Ishiguro’s novel, and we see a man who lacks vital self-awareness. He may be at pains to stress – may believe ardently – that he’s a servant; but his bearing makes it easy enough for some of those he meets on the road to mistake Stevens for a gentleman. He acts well enough like a lord in his own domain; is quite unaware of the effect that can have on others; and takes the view that ‘ordinary people [cannot] be expected to have “strong opinions” on all manner of things’ (p. 204). It’s only gradually that Stevens comes to realise some of his negative qualities, and something of what he may have missed out on in life – and, even then, it’s clear he’s only just beginning. At the start of the novel, Stevens is unsure how to feel about and respond to his new American employer’s banter; by the end, he’s coming to think that banter ‘is not such a foolish thing to indulge in – particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth’ (p. 258). It’s the first step on a new road for him.

After I’d read the prologue of The Remains of the Day, I was concerned that the novel might be too unsubtle in its depiction of Stevens. Now I see I was approaching the book in the wrong way: what Ishiguro does is take a character who might border on caricature and make a fully-fledged individual of him. So I’ve come to appreciate Ishiguro’s work that bit more with The Remains of the Day; it’ll be Never Let Me Go when I read him next, I think.

Nocturnes by Kazuo Ishiguro (2009)

41u0Zsi1iZL._SL160_AA115_My first Ishiguro book, Nocturnes is a cycle of ‘five stories of music and nightfall’ (says the front cover). I spent most of the book feeling curiously unsatisfied; and I still feel that way now I’ve finished it.  As far as I can see, the stories are linked so tenuously as to be hardly worth considering as a ‘cycle’. If Ishiguro has a wider point to make with them, I’m not sure what that point is. And if the tales are meant to be entertaining, insightful, or moving… well, bar a couple of moments, I didn’t really find them so.

To take each story in turn: we begin with ‘Crooner’, in which a guitar player in Venice encounters Tony Gardner, a faded American singing star. Gardner enlists the musician to help him give one last serenade to his wife, Lindy, from whom Gardner is about to separate, despite the couple still being very much in love. I don’t follow the logic behind the separation, but this sets up one of the recurring features of the five stories: people (and especially couples) behaving in ways that don’t make much outward sense.

In ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’, the narrator, Raymond, is invited from his life as a teacher in Spain to stay with old university friends in London . The couple’s relationship is strained, but Charlie believes that if, whilst he’s away at a conference, his wife Emily spends time with Raymond (the musical connection here is that Raymond and Emily shared a love of old Broadway songs at university), she’ll stop thinking that Charlie hasn’t made much of his life, because she’ll see that Raymond has achieved so much less.

Eh? I know it takes all sorts to make a world, different people react to situations in different ways; but how many people would really stand for effectively being dismissed like that, as Raymond does? And what sort of person would come up with a scheme like that in the first place? The whole thing gets more and more farcical, as Raymond reads Emily’s diary and tries desperately to cover his tracks. The tale goes so far into absurdity that it comes out the other side and ends up strangely believable; it reminded me of Roald Dahl’s work, which is no bad thing. It’s the absurd humour that makes ‘Come Rain or Come Shine’ one of the more enjoyable stories in Nocturnes.

Next is ‘Malvern Hills’, in which a struggling guitarist leaves London for the summer to help out at his sister’s Herefordshire café. He meets a Swiss couple whose attitude seems to change with each encounter; and discovers that the relationship between his sister and her husband may be more fragile than he thought. This story highlights one of Ishiguro’s weaknesses: his five first-person narrators sound very similar, which he might just about get away with in the right circumstances; but the narrators in Nocturnes are too diverse – the voice that suits middle-aged Raymond doesn’t suit the (presumably) young guitarist, for example. Ishiguro has more success in creating the voices of characters whose first language is not English; though, admittedly, that slightly formal, awkward manner of speaking is not too much of a stretch from (what I assume to be) the author’s ‘default’ style.

In the story ‘Nocturne’, we meet Steve, a saxophonist who’s reluctantly undergoing plastic surgery at an exclusive clinic, the operation being funded by his ex-wife’s new lover (again, this does not make a lot of sense to me). We learn about his dealings with the patient next door, a recently divorced Lindy Gardner (the only character to appear in more than one of these stories). There’s one very amusing scene where Steve and Lindy are trying to return a trophy that she’s pinched to give to him; but the rest – like so much of Nocturnes – feels quite flat.

Finally, ‘Cellists’ relates (at one remove) how a jobbing European cellist met, and became mentored by, the self-proclaimed virtuoso American cellist Eloise McCormack, who never played a single note on a cello in all the time he knew her. Again, I don’t follow the reasoning behind her behaviour, such reasoning as there is.

What does Ishiguro say about music in these stories? To be honest, the presence of music seems almost incidental (pardon the pun). My best guess is that Ishiguro aims to say that a shared love of music can be the glue holding together a foundering relationship, or the only thing left after a relationship is over, and variations on that theme. In which case, fine – but one could say the same about food, or books, or gardening, or myriad other things. I gain very little sense from these tales of what is special about music specifically.

What does Ishiguro say about human beings in these stories? The problem here is that the most significant relationships in Nocturnes are being examined from the outside; the enigmatic characters whom we’d like to know more about stay enigmatic, because the narrators can see no further into their minds than we can. The blurb mentions a theme of ‘the struggle to keep alive a sense of life’s romance’; I can see this in some of the stories, but I doubt I’d have picked it out as a ‘theme’ were it not for that hint in the blurb.

It’s a strange situation when the best parts of a book are the exact opposite of its dominant mood, but such is the case with Nocturnes. I don’t know if Kazuo Ishiguro has ever written comedy, but I’d love to read the results if he did. As for this book, however… aside from the odd hilarious scene in two of the tales, my overriding impression of Nocturnes is of a collection of stories that, rather politely, don’t say or do very much.

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