Kazuo Ishiguro sprang to international prominence with the publication of his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, which won the 1986 Whitbread Book of the Year prize and was shortlisted for the Booker. It is about a Japanese painter who, having once enjoyed great popular success, finds himself the victim of a revisionist post-war culture, shunned and despised for the incorrect political choices he made in the ’30s. The Remains of the Day, out this fall from Knopf, works a similar theme, though this time our narrator is a very English butler called Stevens, who reflects upon the long years of service he gave to a nobleman prominent in British politics in the 1930s.
Stevens is a glorious creation, stiff on the outside, touchingly blind and pathetic within. He agonizes over the question of what makes a “great” butler, what is dignity, and how to acquire the ability to banter. It’s a mark of Ishiguro’s technical assurance and delicacy of touch that he can softly laugh at his character while at the same time suggesting the deep sadness of his frigid emotional nature. There is, too, at the heart of the novel a quiet examination of British anti-Semitism in the ’30s. Swift talked to Ishiguro in London.
Graham Swift You were born in Japan and came to England when you were five . . . How Japanese would you say you are?
Kazuo Ishiguro I’m not entirely like English people because I’ve been brought up by Japanese parents in a Japanese-speaking home. My parents didn’t realize that we were going to stay in this country for so long, they felt responsible for keeping me in touch with Japanese values. I do have a distinct background. I think differently, my perspectives are slightly different.
GS Would you say that the rest of you is English? Do you feel particularly English?
KI People are not two-thirds one thing and the remainder something else. Temperament, personality, or outlook don’t divide quite like that. The bits don’t separate clearly. You end up a funny homogeneous mixture. This is something that will become more common in the latter part of the century—people with mixed cultural backgrounds, and mixed racial backgrounds. That’s the way the world is going.
GS You are one of a number of English writers, your contemporaries, who are precisely that: they were born outside England. Do you identify with them? I’m thinking of people like Timothy Mo, Salman Rushdie, Ben Okri . . .
KI There is a big difference between someone in my position and someone who has come from one of the countries that belonged to the British Empire. There is a very special and very potent relationship between someone brought up in India, with a very powerful notion of Britain as the mother country, and the source of modernity and culture and education.
GS The experience of empire from the other end. Yet it’s true that in two of your novels, which you could loosely call Japanese novels, A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World, you have dealt with the ruins of empire, Japanese empire. These are post-war novels. Your latest novel, The Remains of the Day, is set in the ’50s, in postwar England. It seems to be as concerned as An Artist of the Floating World with mistaken allegiances and ideals of an imperial period: pre-war Britain in the ’30s, Japan in the ’30s. There is a similarity there.
KI I chose these settings for a particular reason: they are potent for my themes. I tend to be attracted to pre-war and post-war settings because I’m interested in this business of values and ideals being tested, and people having to face up to the notion that their ideals weren’t quite what they thought they were before the test came. In all three books the Second World War is present.
GS The Remains of the Day, has for its central character, a butler. One tends to think of butlers in literary association with detective novels or comedy, stage farces, but your butler is a very serious figure indeed. How did you alight on this character?
KI The butler is a good metaphor for the relationship of very ordinary, small people to power. Most of us aren’t given governments to run or coup d’etats to lead. We have to offer up the little services we have perfected to various people: to causes, to employers, to organizations and hope for the best—that we approve of the way it gets used. This is a condition that I want to write about. It struck me that the figure of the butler, the man who serves, someone who is so close and yet so very far from the hub of power would be a useful person to write through. And there’s the other reason that you’ve hinted at . . . It’s precisely because the butler has become such a mythical figure in British culture. I’ve always found that bizarre and amusing. This has got something to do with the fact that I come from a Japanese background. There are certain things that are very exotic to me about Englishness.
GS Although, you could say that the butler is a figure who leads, by necessity, a very stylized existence. Dignity is enormously important to this character. There is a resemblance with Japan—that feeling of dignity, service, life as a kind of performance. There is a strong echo of An Artist of the Floating World. The central character of that novel, Masuji Ono, is also concerned with dignity. Yet Stevens is a much less self-knowing and more pathetic character. He seems to have this terrible blindness about his own experience. The only thing which redeems him is the enormous importance he attaches to dignity. Do you think of dignity as a virtue?
KI I’m not quite sure what dignity is, you see. This is part of the debate in The Remains of the Day. Stevens is obsessed with this thing that he calls dignity. He thinks dignity has to do with not showing your feelings, in fact he thinks dignity has to do with not having feelings.
GS It’s to do with the suppression of feelings.
KI Yes, being something less than human. He somehow thinks that turning yourself into some animal that will carry out the duties you’ve been given to such an extent that you don’t have feelings, or anything that undermines your professional self, is dignity. People are prone to equate having feelings with weakness. The book debates that notion of dignity—not having emotions against another concept of dignity. The dignity given to human beings when they have a certain amount of control over their lives. The dignity that democracy gives to ordinary people. In the end, no one can argue that Stevens has been very dignified in one sense: he starts to question whether there isn’t something profoundly undignified about a condition he has rather unthinkingly given all his loyalty to. A cause in which he has no control over the moral value of how his talents are spent.
GS And that cause proves to be, however honorably it began, a mistaken one.
GS There is of course a whole other area, even more extreme and even more poignant. Stevens seems to have suppressed completely the possibility he once had of a love affair with the former housekeeper, Miss Kenton. He is now taking a rare holiday, to visit her. He hasn’t seen her for a long time. He’s going back to this crucial moment in the past. Yet, nothing he says actually constitutes an admission of his feelings over the matter. The novel succeeds in a very difficult area. That’s to say, you have a character who is articulate and intelligent to a degree, and yet he doesn’t seem to have any power of self-analysis or self-recognition. That’s very hard to get away with. Did you find it difficult to do?
KI He ends up saying the sorts of things he does because somewhere deep down he knows which things he has to avoid. He is intelligent enough, in the true sense of the word, to perceive the danger areas, and this controls how his narrative goes. The book is written in the language of self-deception. Why he says certain things, why he brings up certain topics at certain moments, is not random. It’s controlled by the things that he doesn’t say. That’s what motivates the narrative. He is in this painful condition where at some level he does know what’s happening, but he hasn’t quite brought it to the front. And he has a certain amount of skill in trying to persuade himself that it’s not there. He’s articulate and intelligent enough to do quite a good self-deception job.
GS You talk about the language of self-deception. That is a language that is developed with all your main narrator figures. It particularly revolves around the fallibility of memory. Your characters seem to forget and remember at their own convenience or they remember things in the wrong context or they remember one event elided with another. What is involved is a process of conscious or unconscious evasion. How knowing would you say this is?
KI Knowing on their part?
KI At some level they have to know what they have to avoid and that determines the routes they take through memory, and through the past. There’s no coincidence that they’re usually worrying over the past. They’re worrying because they sense there isn’t something quite right there. But of course memory is this terribly treacherous terrain, the very ambiguities of memory go to feed self-deception. And so quite often, we have situations where the license of the person to keep inventing versions of what happened in the past is rapidly beginning to run out. The results of one’s life, the accountability of one’s life is beginning to catch up.
GS After Stevens has visited Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper, he goes to sit by the sea and cries. This is a kind of facing up to himself, a kind of coming clean, but perhaps also a moment of another kind of dignity. There is a dignity that goes with the recognition of loss and failure. A dignity way beyond Stevens’s scheme of things, and yet he acquires it.
KI It’s the dignity of being human, of being honest. I suppose, with Stevens and with the painter, Ono, in the last book, that would be the appeal I would make on their behalf. Yes, they’re often pompous and despicable. They have contributed to rather ugly causes. If there is any plea on their behalf, it is that they have some sense of dignity as human beings, that ultimately there is something heroic about coming to terms with very painful truths about yourself.
GS You seem to have quite a complicated view of dignity. There is a kind of dignity in the process of writing itself. One could say that your own style has its dignity. I wonder how much you think that for the artist or the writer there is a perennial problem, which is not unlike Stevens’s. There is an inherent dignity; grace in art itself; yet, when it becomes involved in big affairs, politics and so on, this can be both an extension of the sphere of art and very ensnaring. Ono, in An Artist of the Floating World, has been an artist in a very pure sense. The ‘floating world’ is all about beauty and transience, pure art. It’s when he puts his talent in the service of politics, that everything goes wrong in his life. Was he wrong to have done that? Is it bad for art to be put in the service of politics? Is it right that art should concern itself with social and political things?
KI It’s right that artists always have to ask themselves these questions, all the time. A writer, and artists in general, occupy a very particular and crucial role in society. The question isn’t, “should they or should they not?” It’s always, “to what extent?” What is appropriate in any given context? I think this changes with time, depending upon what country you’re in, or which sector of society you occupy. It’s a question that artists and writers have to ask every day of their lives.
Obviously, it isn’t good enough to just ponder and sit on the fence forever. There has to come a point when you say, “No matter the imperfections of a particular cause, it has to be supported because the alternatives are disastrous.” The difficulty is judging when. There is something about the act of writing novels in particular, which makes it appropriate to actually defer the moment of commitment to quite a late point. The nature of what a novel is means that it’s very unequipped for front line campaigning. If you take issue with certain legislation that’s being debated, you’re better off writing letters to the press, writing articles in the media. The strength of the novel is that it gets read at a deeper level; it gets read over a long stretch of time by generations with a future. There is something about the form of a novel that makes it appropriate to political debate at a more fundamental, deeper, more universal level. I’ve been involved in certain campaigns about homelessness but I’ve never brought any of that into my novel writing.
GS Are you writing another novel?
KI I’m trying to get going. I’ve got books out of the library. It takes me a long, long time to start writing the actual drafts. The actual writing of the words, I can do in under a year, but the background work takes a long time. Getting myself familiar with the territory I’m going to enter. I have to more or less know what my themes are, what the emphasis will be in the book, I have to know about the characters….
GS Before you even put pen to paper.
KI Yes, I’m a very cautious writer in that sense. I can’t do the business of shoving a blank piece of paper in the typewriter and having a brain-storming session to see what comes out. I have to have a very clear map next to me.
GS Do you find that in practice you actually adhere to your plan?
KI Yes. More and more. Less so for my first novel. One of the lessons I tried to teach myself between my first and second novel was thematic discipline. However attractive a certain plot development, or idea may be that you stumble across in the process of writing, if it’s not going to serve the overall architecture, you must leave it, and keep pursuing what you wish to pursue. I had the experience in my first novel of having certain things upstage the subjects I really wanted to explore. But now I’m beginning to crave the brilliant messiness that certain writers can achieve through, I suspect, not sticking to their map.
GS From following their noses.
KI I have these two god-like figures in my reading experience: Chekhov and Dostoevsky. So far, in my writing career, I’ve aspired more to the Chekhov: the spare and the precise, the carefully, controlled tone. But I do sometimes envy the utter mess, the chaos of Dostoevsky. He does reach some things that you can’t reach in any other way than by doing that.
GS You can’t reach it by a plan.
KI Yes, there is something in that messiness itself that has great value. Life is messy. I sometimes wonder, should books be so neat, well-formed? Is it praise to say that book is beautifully structured? Is it a criticism to say that bits of the book don’t hang together?
GS I think it’s a matter of how it stays or doesn’t stay with the reader.
KI I feel like a change. There’s another side of my writing self that I need to explore: the messy, chaotic, undisciplined side. The undignified side.
—Graham Swift is a contributing editor of BOMB. He is the author of five critically acclaimed books of fiction, including the novels Waterland and Out of this World.