Monday, 20 November 2017

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro

"An artist's concern is to capture beauty wherever he finds it"

Inspired by the announcement that Kazuo Ishiguro had, perhaps unexpectedly, won the Nobel Prize for Literature I decided to fill in a couple of gaps by reading some of his early work. I reviewed The Buried Giant on this blog a couple of years ago and vividly remember the first time I read Never Let Me Go. I also have less vivid memories of studying the Merchant/Ivory film adaptation of Remains of the Day at University. You could say I'm a fan. Anyhow I picked up a copy last week of the beautifully reissued 30th Anniversary edition of Ishiguro's 1986 novel An Artist of the Floating World which includes a brand new introduction from the author.

The novel was shortlisted for the Booker prize in 1986 and went on to win other awards and acclaim that year. In many it was An Artist of the Floating World which established Ishiguro as one of Britain's most important contemporary writers.

The book is set in post World War II Japan and tells the story of Masuji Ono, an ageing painter, who looks back on his life and career through conversations with his family, friends and old students. Memories are vague and recollections blurred leading the reader with a sense that Ono is an unreliable narrator at best.  Ishiguro's own perspective might provide some context here. As a British writer born in Japan to Japanese parents it is feasible that his own view-point of distant Japan is somewhat a 'floating world'. Nevertheless, Ishiguro writes convincingly and very effectively through the eyes of a much older man reflecting upon the life he has led. 

On the one hand this is a story about an artist; the prose is painterly, elegant and vividly captures the colours of a particular image of Japan in the late 1940s and 1950's. The 'floating world' in the title seemingly refers to a pre-war pleasure district of bars and geisha that represents a ephemeral and seemingly lost Japan; "The best things, he always used to say, are put together of a night and vanish with the morning. What people call the floating world".

On the other hand this is a story about Japan coming to terms with the societal and cultural impact of World War II and subsequent American protection. Ono laments not only the demise of his career, as artist and provocateur, but also of his position in a society which seems no longer to revere its elders. This is seen most strikingly in the attitudes of his own children and grandson with whom he struggles to connect. Post war Japan is presented by Ishiguro as a place of contrast where society looks both forward to the modernity of the USA but in also back to an ancient Japan from which to weave together a new country.

This is a smart and evocative read from one of our finest writers of literary fiction (and worthy winner of the Nobel Prize).   

I read this novel at home in Oxfordshire

An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro published by Faber and Faber, 239 pages.     

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