Issue 184, Spring 2008
The man who wrote The Remains of the Day in the pitch-perfect voice of an English butler is himself very polite. After greeting me at the door of his home in London’s Golders Green, he immediately offered to make me tea, though to judge from his lack of assurance over the choice in his cupboard he is not a regular four P.M. Assam drinker. When I arrived for our second visit, the tea things were already laid out in the informal den. He patiently began recounting the details of his life, always with an amused tolerance for his younger self, especially the guitar-playing hippie who wrote his college essays using disembodied phrases separated by full stops. “This was encouraged by professors,” he recalled. “Apart from one very conservative lecturer from Africa. But he was very polite. He would say, Mr. Ishiguro, there is a problem about your style. If you reproduced this on the examination, I would have to give you a less-than-satisfactory grade.”
Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki in 1954 and moved with his family to the small town of Guildford, in southern England, when he was five. He didn’t return to Japan for twenty-nine years. (His Japanese, he says, is “awful.”) At twenty-seven he published his first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), set largely in Nagasaki, to near unanimous praise. His second novel, An Artist of the Floating World (1986), won Britain’s prestigious Whitbread award. And his third, The Remains of the Day (1989), sealed his international fame. It sold more than a million copies in English, won the Booker Prize, and was made into a Merchant Ivory movie starring Anthony Hopkins, with a screenplay by Ruth Prawer Jhabvala. (An earlier script by Harold Pinter, Ishiguro recalls, featured “a lot of game being chopped up on kitchen boards.”) Ishiguro was named an Officer of the Order of the British Empire and, for a while, his portrait hung at 10 Downing Street. Defying consecration, he surprised readers with his next novel, The Unconsoled (1995), more than five hundred pages of what appeared to be stream-of-consciousness. Some baffled critics savaged it; James Wood wrote that “it invents its own category of badness.” But others came passionately to its defense, including Anita Brookner, who overcame her initial doubts to call it “almost certainly a masterpiece.” The author of two more acclaimed novels—When We Were Orphans (2000) and Never Let Me Go (2005)—Ishiguro has also written screenplays and teleplays, and he composes lyrics, most recently for the jazz chanteuse Stacey Kent. Their collaborative CD, Breakfast on the Morning Tram, was a best-selling jazz album in France.
In the pleasant white stucco house where Ishiguro lives with his sixteen-year-old daughter, Naomi, and his wife, Lorna, a former social worker, there are three gleaming electric guitars and a state-of-the-art stereo system. The small office upstairs where Ishiguro writes is custom designed in floor-to-ceiling blond wood with rows of color-coded binders neatly stacked in cubbyholes. Copies of his novels in Polish, Italian, Malaysian, and other languages line one wall. On the other are books for research—for example, Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945 by Tony Judt and Managing Hotels Effectively by Eddystone C. Nebel III.
You had success with your fiction right from the start—but was there any writing from your youth that never got published?
After university, when I was working with homeless people in west London, I wrote a half-hour radio play and sent it to the BBC. It was rejected but I got an encouraging response. It was kind of in bad taste, but it’s the first piece of juvenilia I wouldn’t mind other people seeing. It was called “Potatoes and Lovers.” When I submitted the manuscript, I spelled potatoes incorrectly, so it said potatos. It was about two young people who work in a fish-and-chips café. They are both severely cross-eyed, and they fall in love with each other, but they never acknowledge the fact that they’re cross-eyed. It’s the unspoken thing between them. At the end of the story they decide not to marry, after the narrator has a strange dream where he sees a family coming toward him on the seaside pier. The parents are cross-eyed, the children are cross-eyed, the dog is cross-eyed, and he says, All right, we’re not going to marry.
What possessed you to write that story?
This was a time when I was starting to think about what my career was going to be. I’d failed to make it as a musician. I’d had lots of appointments with A&R people. After two seconds, they’d say, It’s not going to happen, man. So I thought I’d have a go at a radio play.
Then, almost by accident, I came across a little advertisement for a creative-writing M.A. taught by Malcolm Bradbury at the University of East Anglia. Today it’s a famous course, but in those days it was a laughable idea, alarmingly American. I discovered subsequently that it hadn’t run the previous year because not enough people had applied. Somebody told me Ian McEwan had done it a decade before. I thought he was the most exciting young writer around at that point. But the primary attraction was that I could go back to university for a year, fully funded by the government, and at the end I would only have to submit a thirty-page work of fiction. I sent the radio play to Malcolm Bradbury along with my application.
I was slightly taken aback when I was accepted, because it suddenly became real. I thought, these writers are going to scrutinize my work and it’s going to be humiliating. Somebody told me about a cottage for rent in the middle of nowhere in Cornwall that had previously been used as a rehabilitation place for drug addicts. I called up and said, I need a place for one month because I’ve got to teach myself to write. And that’s what I did that summer of 1979. It was the first time I really thought about the structure of a short story. I spent ages figuring out things like viewpoint, how you tell the story, and so on. At the end I had two stories to show, so I felt more secure.
Was it during that year at East Anglia that you first wrote about Japan?
Yes. I discovered that my imagination came alive when I moved away from the immediate world around me. 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. Then I got a letter from Faber accepting three stories for their Introduction series, which had an excellent track record. I knew that Tom Stoppard and Ted Hughes had been discovered like this.
Is that when you began writing A Pale View of Hills?
Yes, and Robert McCrum at Faber gave me my first advance so that I could finish it. I had started a story set in a Cornish town about a young woman with a disturbed child, who had a murky background. I had it in my mind that this woman would alternate between saying, I’m going to devote myself to the child, and, I’ve fallen in love with this man and this child is a nuisance. I’d met many people like this when I was working with the homeless. But when I got this tremendous response to the Japanese short story from my classmates, I went back and looked at the story set in Cornwall. I realized that if I told this story in terms of Japan, everything that looked parochial and small would reverberate.
You hadn’t been back to Japan since you were five, but how typically Japanese were your parents?
My mother’s very much a Japanese lady of her generation. She has a certain kind of manners—prefeminist Japanese by today’s standards. When I see old Japanese movies, I recognize a lot of the women behaving and speaking exactly like my mother does. Japanese women traditionally used a slightly different formal language from men, and these days that’s gotten much more mixed up. When my mother visited Japan in the eighties, she said she was stunned that young girls were using male language.
My mother was in Nagasaki when the atomic bomb was dropped. She was in her late teens. Her house got kind of distorted, and only when it rained did they realize the extent of the damage. The roof started leaking all over the place, like a tornado had hit it. As it happened, my mother was the only one in her family—four siblings, two parents—who suffered an injury when the bomb dropped. A flying piece of debris hit her. She was at home recovering when the rest of her family went off to other parts of the city to help. But she says that when she thinks of the war, the atomic bomb wasn’t what frightened her most. She remembers being in an underground air-raid shelter in the factory where she worked. They were all lined up in the dark and the bombs were landing right on top of them. They thought they were going to die.
My father wasn’t typically Japanese at all because he grew up in Shanghai. He had a Chinese characteristic, which was that when something bad happened, he smiled.
Why did your family move to England?
Initially it was only going to be a short trip. My father was an oceanographer, and the head of the British National Institute of Oceanography invited him over to pursue an invention of his, to do with storm-surge movements. I never quite discovered what it was. The National Institute of Oceanography was set up during the cold war, and there was an air of secrecy about it. My father went to this place in the middle of the woods. I only went to visit it once.
How did you feel about the move?
I don’t think I understood the implication of it. My grandfather and I had been to a department store in Nagasaki to buy this great toy: there was a picture of a hen, and you had a gun, and you fired at the hen. If you hit the right part, an egg would drop out. But I wasn’t allowed to take the toy with me. That was the main thing I was disappointed about. The journey took three days on a BOAC jet. I remember trying to sleep on a chair and people bringing grapefruit around and waking me up every time the plane stopped for refueling. I was nineteen before I got on a plane again.
I don’t remember being unhappy at all in England, though. Had I been older, I think it would have been much more difficult. And I don’t remember struggling with the language either, although I never had lessons. I loved cowboy films and TV series, and I learned bits of English from them. My favorite was Laramie, with Robert Fuller and John Smith. I used to watch The Lone Ranger, which had been famous in Japan as well. I idolized these cowboys. They’d say sure instead of yes. And my teacher would say, Kazuo, what do you mean by sure? I had to figure out that the way the Lone Ranger spoke was different from the way the choirmaster spoke.