I couldn’t have been happier to hear that this year’s Nobel prize for literature has gone to Kazuo Ishiguro, best known for his novel Remains of the Day.
Ishiguro’s careful, attentive prose style, which evokes and rewards an equal care and attention from the reader, places him in the class of writers that (if my eavesdropping is any indication) many believe has vanished from the world, never to return. It’s not too much to say that Ishiguro is one of the writers who restored my faith in the possibilities of the contemporary novel. Like many of our readers, I received an early literary formation relentlessly focused on all things pre-1960, and while in some ways Ishiguro’s work hearkens back to earlier eras, in others it calls us to pay ever closer attention to our own time. For readers like us, Ishiguro bridges a divide.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his novel Never Let Me Go, a futuristic dystopia rendered in such a subtle and restrained way that at first you aren’t certain it isn’t just a British boarding-school novel. Slowly, it is revealed that the students are not just students, the school isn’t just a school, and the society echoes ours in ways that are at once disturbing and entirely believable. The novel troubles the waters of our placid convictions about what couldn’t possibly happen here in the enlightened, affluent West, yet without denying the reader a fully human story that affirms the value of connection, meaning, and genuine love. For the Catholic reader, the novel is also a storehouse of insight about questions of human dignity, bioethics, and the moral drama inherent in the last days of human lives.
You could almost call his approach one of anti-desensitization. Where many late-20th and early-21st century writers seem to proceed from an assumption that the reader is already too desensitized by violence and therefore assail the reader with a violence that mirrors the violence their characters suffer — an extreme correction of O’Connor’s dictum that for the hard of hearing you must shout — Ishiguro has a light touch with language and a delicate approach to the harshest details of his stories that demands a similar compassion from the reader, acting as a corrective to the desensitizing tendency of contemporary life.
More details about the prize and Ishiguro’s career here; also, check out this amazing conversation between Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman from a few years back, which covers, among other things, the question of genre, the boundaries between literary and fantasy fiction (Tolkien comes up!), how readership relates to age and class, and how we stretch the boundaries of reality anytime we set out to write.