Kazuo Ishiguro appears twice on the Klaw 101, at 96 with Never Let Me Go and at 62 with Remains of the Day. That latter novel was preceded by An Artist of the Floating World (#91 on the Guardian 100), an interesting book that seems in many ways to have been Ishiguro’s tuneup for Remains, as both revolve around older men who find themselves forced to reflect on the professional and personal decisions they made earlier in life.
The artist of the title is Masuji Ono, a widowed father of two who lost his wife in a bombing and his son in combat during World War II, who has made a name for himself as a painter of patriotic images in support of the imperialist regime that ultimately led the country into that conflict. Now retired, Ono finds his relations with his daughters strained, but seems vaguely unaware of why, as the younger daughter moves towards a potential marriage after an earlier match fell through unexpectedly the previous year.
Ono narrates the book and the reader spends most of it following his peripatetic thoughts, jumping back to his formative years as an artist, his heyday leading an artistic circle in the bars of the “pleasure district,” and through conversations with his daughters and old friends that gradually leave him reeling by forcing him to reexamine his legacy. Yet even as he moves towards a quiet acknowledgment of the current unpopularity of his prior position and role, he retains some pride in his choices – or chooses to rationalize them away:
…I start to think of Sugimura and his schemes, and I confess I am beginning to feel a certain admiration for the man. For indeed, a man who aspires to rise above the mediocre, to be something more than ordinary, surely deserves admiration, even if in the end he fails and loses a fortune on account of his ambitions. It is my belief, furthermore, that Sugimura did not die an unhappy man. For his failure was quite unlike the undignified failures of most ordinary lives, and a man like Sugimura would have known this. If one has failed only where others have not had the courage or will to try, there is a consolation – indeed a deep satisfaction – to be gained from this observation when looking back over one’s life.”
Remains of the Day succeeded because the main character was so well drawn and his cause for regret so subtle that the reader realized the cause for regret as the protagonist did, but in Artist, Ishiguro made the problem obvious to the reader as his main character fumbles his way towards the conclusion. Ono comes across as obtuse, not just in denial but simply unaware of how he’s seen or why his relations with family members, friends, or colleagues have changed over time. As Richard Russo’s Mohawk felt like a practice run for Empire Falls, this felt like a practice run for Ishiguro’s next novel, a fine read but nowhere near the quality of the two later novels of his that I’ve read.
Next up: James T. Farrell’s Young Lonigan, the first book of the Studs Lonigan Trilogy.