This is my first Kazuo Ishiguro and I am mighty impressed. The actual storyline of the book is good, but the subtle meanings are even better.
On the surface, this is the story of Axl and Beatrice, elderly Britons, trying to visit their grown son. But they, like everyone else in this land, have lost their memories and only have the vaguest recollection of their son and even their personal stories, including their shared history. So off they go on this very unclear quest and on their way, they meet up with a young boy (a Saxon), a soldier (also a Saxon), and Sir Gawain himself (a Briton). In the end, they do not find their son, but their memories are beginning to return and then Beatrice goes on a journey by herself to the island where the son lives. It turns out,
So, this book gracefully examines issues like how to deal with populations that live together, but have hated each other for generations; what is justified by war; the cleansing of the reputation of national heroes (a type of memory manipulation); the importance of memory to the human experience; and the deliverance of death. By the time I got to the end of the book, I couldn't believe how many thorny issues had been explored by this little fable and never once did I think I had been lectured to. In fact, what was interesting was how I couldn't decide the best answer to each issue. Is it preferable to lose your memory and live peacefully or retain your memory only to embrace hatred? Is the sacrifice of a innocents ever justified in order to end a war and does your answer change if the innocents belong to the group that "started it" (made me think about the discussion of the atom bombs used in WWII, but really, it's true of all wars). Should we abandon the whole concept of national heroes, even when very flawed people have done very heroic things? And is death a journey to be embraced or fought?
The more I've thought about this book, the more I've liked and admired it. Has anyone else read it? If not, please do and respond as quickly as possible.
Ishiguro, Kazuo. The Unconsoled.
I found this very fluent account of the narrator’s struggle to become orientated in a nameless town in possibly Germany to be compulsive reading. It is partly about memory loss and it recalled to me Karinthy’s Metropole,where a professor of linguistics ends up in a bustling modern city in central Europe in which nobody speaks any of the languages he knows. In The Unconsoled Mr Ryder, Ishiguro’s narrator-hero, is met with extreme politeness by hotel staff, but frustratingly he fails to get exact clarification of his mission. He is scheduled to address an audience in a small town where Mr Brodsky, a reformed alcoholic pianist has returned to perform some classical studies. Everyone in the town knows of Mr Ryder’s reputation and initially at least he receives nothing but generous plaudits wherever he goes. The reader, however, begins to doubt his sanity, since he fails to arrive for vital consultations and is easily persuaded to take on tasks for others - such as hearing Stephan, his host’s son, practice. What is almost a sub-plot involves Ryder in trying to make sense of the broken relationship between Leo Brodsky and Miss Collins. Complications multiply when we learn that Ryder’s parents are arriving to hear their son’s performance - pianistic or simply as Brodsky’s front man. Ultimately there is some doubt as to whether the Ryders senior have arrived or indeed whether they even exist within the book’s time frame.
The Unconsoled is a challenging book that deliberately frustrates its reader’s expectations. Dozens of unanswered questions are raised, many remaining unsolved at the end. Readers who like a tight plot and a tidy conclusion are unlikely to finish the book. For those who stay with it the book has many treasures and a great deal of humour - seemingly not aroused in Ryder, who incidentally has not only no parents, no wife, no son, and no first name. In place of a wife and family he becomes attached like a father to Boris, a charmingly unco-operative boy and to Sophie, the boy’s mother, a caring but frustrated picker-up of pieces dropped by her two male dependants, Ryder and Boris.
At times the book has the feel of a Lewis Carrol wonderland. Conversations mainly narrated via Ryder lead to further hints of past events; the interior becomes exterior; the unlikely is accepted as fact - when Ryder meets his old car and goes back in time to childhood for example. Some readers insist that the novel is surreal and many sequences do indeed have the floating quality of dream. We feel, Ryder feels, that we’ve been here before and there are deja vues galore. Those who seek a tidy plot should be warned that in The Unconsoled there are time breaks and time bends in this gallimaufry plunge into consciousness.
cached thread from google
Stewart 15th December 2005 03:00 PM
The Remains of the Day
A short monologue (about 250 pages) dictated by Stevens, the Butler of Darlington Hall in the 1950s who, on the recommendation of his new American employer, takes a trip out to the English countryside.
Of course, priding himself on his professionalism, he uses the trip for work purposes in the hope of recruiting a former worker back to Darlington Hall after he had convinced himself that, from her letter, she wanted to return.
So off he goes and all the while he recalls the major events of Darlington Hall during the 1930s as his employer, Lord Darlington, dabbles in politics and demonstrates Nazi sympathies - a man more influenced by others than someone to aspire to. All the while, of course, Stevens is the consummate professional and his attitude to his master is one of love and respect, a man whom he would obey without question.
The prose is sweet. Stevens’ voice is smooth, well constructed, and so utterly natural, and his musings over trying to come to terms with the world via such minor quibbles as perfecting the art of bantering demonstrate a wonderful character. Polite the whole way through his language only falters when it almost seems his emotions are about to better him and tears are ready to gush.
Written in the late 1980s this Booker Prize winner from Ishiguro is an interesting look at professionalism and I think, at least to me, it demonstrates how we need to find a balance between achieving our goals and being true to ourselves.
David 15th December 2005 03:10 PM
As I have mentioned elsewhere, this is one of my favourite books and a beautifully constructed novel. The skill in the narrative lies in the creation of Stevens' persona, tragically flawed in its emotional reserve, with its wonderful hints of the depths beneath (such as his fondness for romantic novels, poignantly prised from him by Miss Kenton). We see the truth behind his words, yet he does not, and it is that which imbues the book with such frustration and tenderness.
I have always been interested by the fact that this subject matter - an old-school butler lost in notions of respect for one's 'betters' and smothered in emotional reserve - was chosen by a writer of Japanese descent. The traditional Japanese culture bears strong parallels with the portrayal of Stevens and must surely have been part of his inspiration.
A great book and for once a very worthy Booker winner!
belinda 20th December 2005 09:44 PM
Ishiguro was a new writer to me this year. Personally I think he is one of the best writers out there. I can't say there is one novel I admire above all others.
What I do know is that I will read and re-read his novels over the years. The only one I felt fell short was 'The Unconsoled' where his touch felt less sure
If you have not read the book but only seen the film of 'Remains of the Day' - read the book, the film came nowhere near the pathos and dignity of the book.
Hilary 20th December 2005 11:30 PM
Dignity, that is exactly the word... I loved this book but have never read any others. What would you recommend first?
Stewart 21st December 2005 12:21 AM
Same here. I've now read The Remains of the Day, An Artist of the Floating World, and Never Let Me Go, and I've been nothing short of impressed and, in the case of my writing, inspired.
I now have A Pale View of Hills, The Unconsoled, and When We Were Orphans on my shelf waiting to be read.
Since the books are seen as very loose trilogies (so I've learnt) I would suggest, despite never having read it, A Pale View of Hills. It's better, I think, to start at the start and read this amazing author develop over his six books.
minxminnie 16th March 2006 05:53 PM
I've just read this book, picked pretty much at random from my TBR pile. I got through it in three days, despite being otherwise very busy - I was hooked from page one.
I found it sad, thought provoking, and very funny - especially when he was trying to learn to banter. I liked the narrative voice - in many ways he made me think of Christopher in "A Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime", with his passionless dissection of normal activities. I found it a bit hard to see what Miss Kenton saw in him!
Mr.InBetween 21st March 2006 12:56 PM
On a literary level it’s a hell of a book, but it is a…bizarre read. The way he captures the randomness and surrealness of dreaming is breathtaking.
But, as like watching the Kurosawa film “Dreams”, there is something unsettling about it.
Definitely worth a read, but not when one is desiring something like much of KI’s other work.
megustaleer 23rd March 2006 08:11 AM
This is another one that I read years ago, but it did leave a greater impression on me than many of the books I've read.
Stevens is a wonderfully drawn character, and it is heart-wrenchingly poignant that we can see so clearly the life he is missing by his inability to relate on an emotional level with the people who care about him.
What does Miss Kenton see in him? The same as the reader, I guess.
I expect she thinks that 'the love of a good woman' would be the making of him, and thinks she could be just the woman. She probably could have been, too, but unsurprisingly, Stevens doesn't catch on until too late.
I loved this book, but the only other book by Ishiguru that I have read is 'An Artist Of The Floating World', which I found a little difficult to follow, but well worth the effort.
Starry 23rd March 2006 09:15 AM
I thought I had replied to this already, but looks like I haven't. This is another book that instantly leapt into my 10 favourite books list.
Stevens has a narrow view on life and I think this is what makes it so compelling as I was constantly trying to see past his words to what was really happening. I don't think I have ever read a book which has so fully described a character, I feel like I know Stevens better than I know my own father and every detail illuminated the whole. The writing is breathtaking and I know I will need to read it again and again.
Grammath 23rd March 2006 01:19 PM
I'd like to add my praise for this superb and subtle book and for Ishiguro's body of work - or what I've read of it (this, plus "When We Were Orphans" and in the very dim and distant past "An Artist of the Floating World". The rest are on the TBR mountain).
Its a neat literary trick to create a character who simultaneously appears to be in confessional mode and yet the reader learns as much about him through what he doesn't say about himself and his Lordship's activities as what he includes.
I've read other books in a similar mould (I'm thinking of "Lolita" and John Lanchester's "The Debt to Pleasure") both fine works in their own right but not in the same league as "The Remains of the Day".
Again, my review is too long - I know I'm longwinded. So here it is in two parts:
Kazuo Ishiguro’s latest book is a collection of five stories centred around the theme of music. The full title of the book is ‘Nocturnes - Five Stories of Music and Nightfall’.
That Ishiguro should choose music as a subject around which to base his stories is not surprising: as a young man, music was Ishiguro’s first career choice. He played the guitar and piano and wrote songs, and he submitted demo tapes unsuccessfully to producers who - he self deprecatingly reflects - would grimace after less than a minute and send him on his way.
It was only after the success of his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, that Ishiguro gave up his musical ambitions to concentrate on writing. Since then, he’s established himself as one of the most respected British writers of his era. He won The Booker prize for The Remains of the Day which was made into a film. His six novels have certain themes in common - regret, nostalgia, wistfulness about actions not taken. He is also a master of the unreliable narrator. He usually relates his tales in the first person, in highly accessible, chatty but nevertheless elegant language. The simplicity of his prose belies the various narrators’ veracity - they are often deluded, as was Christopher in When We Were Orphans, or suppressing their real emotions, like Kathy in Never Let Me Go, whose facade of calm hid terrible depths of anguish.
Nocturnes is a departure for Ishiguro - the form of the novel gives him the space to allow the reader to see under the narrator’s story and spot the threadbare areas, the parts where the story as related doesn’t quite fit. In the short story, Ishiguro has less space and time to develop the narrator. The unembellished, at times starkly plain prose therefore has to be taken on surface value. There are still times in this collection where Ishiguro does manage to convey that the narrator is not what he seems - for example, the egotistical, lazy sponger in Malvern Hills who presents himself as an undiscovered genius. There are hints of it elsewhere - for example, in Crooner, one wonders whether the narrator, Janeck, is paranoid in his conviction that Vittorio the gondolier badmouths him behind his back, and in Malvern Hills, the resentful narrator broods that an old school teacher asked him ‘in lessons exactly the question she sensed I wouldn’t be able to answer’, raising suggestions that he’s blaming her for his own shortcomings. But elsewhere, the enforced brevity of the short story form is an obstacle to Ishiguro working his trademark magic.
Ishiguro’s writing is always a delight to read. His lack of unnecessary adornment means that his prose slips down like nectar. His narrat0rs are always intriguing and compelling, their stories related in informal language peppered with figures of speech like ‘As I say’, ‘Anyway’, ‘I guess’, ‘But here I am’ to make them echo the sprinkling of chatty phrases found in conversation. Because of this, the monologues capture the reader’s attention immediately; there is no sense of being talked at or lectured to. This immediate intimacy is so ubiquitous, however, that the narrators of the five stories sound similar to each other except when the reader is given insights into their personality, as with the would-be musician in Malvern Hills.
The five stories all feature small-time musicians or lovers of music. The music is never the central topic, though - it acts as a backdrop to standard Ishiguro themes of unfulfilled promise or lost opportunities, damaged relationships and melancholic memories. In Crooner, a guitar player from a previously Communist country who now plays in the piazzas of Venice meets an old American musical idol of his mother’s, Tony Gardner. Gardner asks him for a favour. It is only later that we learn what is really going on. In Come Rain or Shine, a successful Londoner invites an old university pal of he and his wife’s to come and stay. The friend, Raymond, who scrapes a living teaching English in Spain, is delighted at this opportunity to visit, holding special memories as he does for the musical tastes he shares with the wife. But the true reason he has been asked quickly becomes apparent. In Malvern Hills, the inconsiderate amateur guitarist mentioned previously comes to stay with his older sister in the cafe she runs with her husband in the Malverns. He meets a Swiss tourist couple (the male of which, Tilo, is depicted beautifully as a generous, jolly soul). The guitarist’s initial dislike of the couple changes when they admire his music, and as facts about the couple are revealed, a poignancy is evoked. Nocturne features another unsuccessful musician. He embarks on plastic surgery to try and save his career and win back his wife and meets the wife of Tony Gardner from Crooner in the hotel where she too is recuperating after cosmetic surgery. Cellists is centred around the relationship between a classically trained cellist and a mentor he meets in Italy.
My main cavil with these stories - and unfortunately it’s an insurmountable problem - is their implausibility. Ishiguro has always toyed with the improbable, and sometimes the reader puts the lack of feasibility down to the unreliability of the narrator. For example, in When We Were Orphans, the narrator returns from England to Japan where his parents disappeared twenty years previously, and tells us that the the powers-that-be pull out all the stops to help him search for his parents, even though neither he nor his parents have ever been particularly significant figures. He even says that resources are diverted from acute, violent ongoing problems to his long dead cause. In Never Let Me Go, the lack of plausibility of clones being raised in order to provide organs was an obstacle for me because it’s a risible idea that this would ever get past an ethics committee, but I told myself it might occur in places with less stringent human rights than the UK.
But in Nocturnes, the implausibilities become a great stumbling block because in the limited space, there is less possibility to develop other strengths of the story. Thus in Crooner, the whole premise of the tale is ludicrous because the reason Tony Gardner gives for his action is just not true (he says he will only have a chance of a come-back if X occurs - yet the reader knows well that this is not the case). The only alternative is that Gardner is being dishonest - in which case the whole pathos of the piece is ruined because he is no longer a man for whom we feel sympathy.
Similarly, in Come Rain or Shine, the whole farce depends on the reader believing the actions related could occur. That they’re preposterous is not the only problem - after all, much of farce is based on the unlikely. The other stumbling block is that surely once Ray has found out what his venal ‘friends’ think of him, he wouldn’t care a jolt about the small spontaneous act of vandalism that causes him to embark on his elaborate cover-up. The wife’s ‘concern’ is obviously a total sham and so Ray shouldn’t care about what she thinks - his act is understandable given what he has found out. It may be that Ishiguro intends the reader to think that the malevolent (and dishonest) husband was the one who wrote and planted the hurtful item that Ray finds, but this wouldn’t work because the wife would quickly find out and explanations would out.
Nocturne uses a similar element of farce, but again, the way it comes about is so contrived as to rob the end scene of any real humour it may hold. A man is caught on stage with his hand up a turkey - but the reason this happens is frankly too unlikely to be plausible.