NEW YORK — Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japanese-born British novelist who in “The Remains of the Day,” ”Never Let Me Go” and other novels captured memory’s lasting pain and dangerous illusions in precise and elegant prose, won the Nobel Literature Prize on Thursday.
The selection of the 62-year-old Ishiguro marked a return to citing fiction writers following two years of unconventional choices by the Swedish Academy for the 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize. It also continues a recent trend of giving the award to British authors born elsewhere — V.S. Naipaul, the 2001 winner, is from Trinidad and Tobago; the 2007 honoree, Doris Lessing, was a native of Iran who grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
“Some of the themes that I have tried to tackle in my work — about history, about not just personal memory but the way countries and nations and communities remember their past, and how often they bury the uncomfortable memories from the past — I hope that these kinds of themes will actually be in some small way helpful to the climate we have at the moment,” Ishiguro said Thursday, speaking in his backyard in north London.
Ishiguro already was one of Britain’s most celebrated writers, winning the Booker for “The Remains of the Day,” receiving an Order of the British Empire medal and appearing frequently on lists of the country’s greatest authors. The academy called Ishiguro’s eight books, which also include “An Artist of the Floating World” and “The Buried Giant,” works of emotional force that uncover “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”
Many know him best for “The Remains of the Day,” a million-seller published in 1989 and, thanks to the Nobel, in the top 10 Thursday on Amazon.com. Ishiguro’s novel reads like a darker take on P.G. Wodehouse’s comic Jeeves stories, with a butler at a grand house looking back on a life in service to the aristocracy. The gentle rhythms and “Downton Abbey”-style setting gradually deepen into a haunting depiction of the repressed emotional and social landscape of 20th-century England and the deadly rise of fascism so many failed to perceive or prevent.
“What can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?” Ishiguro writes. “The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services.”
Ishiguro would explain that he saw the butler as a metaphor for both emotional and political detachment. An Associated Press review from the time noted that “Ishiguro neatly reverses the cliche of ‘what the butler saw’ by building a novel around what the butler didn’t see.” Salman Rushdie later wrote that “Just below the understatement of the novel’s surface is a turbulence as immense as it is slow; for ‘The Remains of the Day’ is in fact a brilliant subversion of the fictional modes from which it seems at first to descend. Death, change, pain and evil invade the innocent Wodehouse-world.”
The 1993 film adaptation by the Merchant-Ivory production team starred Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson and was nominated for eight Academy Awards.
Like “The Remains of the Day,” his 2005 novel “Never Let Me Go” is a story of deception and uncertainty. What appears to be a narrative of three young friends at a boarding school gradually reveals itself as a dystopian tale with elements of science fiction that asks unsettling ethical questions. The movie adaptation starred Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley.
“I’ve always liked the texture of memory,” Ishiguro told www.writerswrite.com around the time “Never Let Me Go” came out.
“I like it that a scene pulled from the narrator’s memory is blurred at the edges, layered with all sorts of emotions, and open to manipulation. You’re not just telling the reader: ‘this-and-this happened.’ You’re also raising questions like: Why has she remembered this event just at this point? How does she feel about it? And when she says she can’t remember very precisely what happened, but she’ll tell us anyway, well, how much do we trust her?”
The Swedish Academy stunned the literary world last year by giving the prize to Bob Dylan, while in 2015 it offered a rare spotlight for nonfiction writers by honoring Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich. Ishiguro’s preferred art form is fiction, but he works in other media. He has written several screenplays, including for the Merchant-Ivory release “The White Countess,” and has collaborated on songs performed by jazz singer Stacey Kent. He also contributed liner notes for Kent’s album “In Love Again.”
“Songwriting was an old passion of mine. Earlier in my life I’d been a singer-songwriter until I turned to fiction,” Ishiguro, who has called Dylan one of his early heroes, told the Independent in 2013.
Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki but moved to England as a boy after his father, an oceanographer, was invited by the head of the British National Institute of Oceanography. An admirer of “Jane Eyre” from early on, he also is a longtime fan of comics and said Thursday that he was “in discussions” about working on a graphic novel. “This is a new thing for me and reconnects me to my childhood, my Japanese childhood of reading manga,” he explained.
He studied English and philosophy at the University of Kent and found an early mentor in Malcolm Bradbury, who taught creative writing at the University of East Anglia. After a few false starts, Ishiguro completed his first novel, “A Pale View of Hills,” narrated by a Japanese woman whose daughter has committed suicide. Both his debut work and the Booker-nominated “An Artist of the Floating World” centered on Japanese characters.
“I discovered that my imagination came alive when I moved away from the immediate world around me,” he told the Paris Review in 2008, recalling that his fiction was well received in his creative writing class.
“When I tried to start a story: ‘I came out of Camden Town tube station and went into McDonald’s and there was my friend Harry from university,’ I couldn’t think of what to write next. Whereas when I wrote about Japan, something unlocked. One of the stories I showed the class was set in Nagasaki at the time the bomb dropped, and it was told from the point of view of a young woman. I got a tremendous boost to my confidence from my fellow students. They all said, ‘This Japanese stuff is really very exciting, and you’re going places.'”