Floating in an Artist’s World

ArtistOfTheFloatingWorldI recently had a chance to re-read Kazuo Ishiguro’s An Artist of the Floating World, first published in 1986 and the book that really brought him notice (it won the Whitbread Prize). I initially read it when it was first published, and I think I was too dazzled by the existence of the book to fully appreciate its message. It was, after all, a novel by a British writer of Japanese descent, written in English and – most importantly – self-contained. By this, I mean that it was written from the perspective of a narrator who is very much a part of his society (Masuji Ono, a painter), and not from the viewpoint of an outsider – a white savior, a foreigner, a Westerner. Hell, I was just glad to read a novel about Japan that wasn’t about a white dude becoming a samurai. In other words, although written in English and ostensibly for an English-speaking readership, An Artist… was not written with an anthropological eye or a Japanese Tourism Board self-awareness, but in a straightforward manner – as an Englishman might write about English society. This is a difficult thing to pull off – a skill underestimated by native (monolingual, monocultural) English speakers, and makes An Artist…, despite its understated prose, a very ambitious novel technically.

Reading it now, the first thing I noticed was how indebted the novel is to, and clearly inspired by, post-war Japanese cinema. Kurosawa’s contemporary films color the book (especially Ikiru) as do the works of Ozu. There are shades of Mikio Naruse as well – in his looming, understated sense of desperation. As a young writer coming into his own in the 1980s, Ishiguro is very much a child of the videocassette era – both in his access to Japanese postwar cinema and its influence on his work, but also in his assumptions about what his Western readership would be familiar with (no need to explain what a tatami is, or even the machinations of an omiai for those versed in the Ozu canon).

Ishiguro would return to the themes of history and memory in later books, most notably Remains of the Day but also in When We were Orphans – reckoning with history, flux and moral reassessment in a rapidly changing world – and employ the same techniques (faulty memory, self-deception). But the reader leaves An Artist… with far more ambivalent feelings towards the narrator than, say, towards Stevens in Remains… a deeply sympathetic character (in the book, if not the film). Ono’s moment of self-revelation and confession happens for ulterior motives (he wants to marry his daughter off), he remains deluded and defensive about the way he sold out his student Kuroda, and he remains in denial as a propagandist. It is unclear if he really is in self-denial, or if that is a veneer. At the end of the novel, is Ono really irritated with his older daughter Setsuko, or does his irritation mask a deeper realization and sorrow? Do we, the reader, really see more than the narrator himself? Or are we so dazzled by the unreliability of the Unreliable Narrator, that we cannot see if he unrealiable to himself or not? And how does this affect our sympathies towards him?

Revisiting An Artist… today (post-Remains of the Day), the book reads as a defense of certain kind of art – subtle, unstable, transient art – an art whose insubstantial nature is its defense. That an art is ephemeral is all the more precious for it.

“I suspect the reason I couldn’t celebrate the floating world was that I couldn’t bring myself to believe in its worth. Young men are often guilt-ridden about pleasure, and I suppose I was no different. I suppose I thought that to pass away one’s time in such places, to spend one’s skills celebrating things so intangible and transient, I suppose I thought it all rather wasteful, all rather decadent. It’s hard to appreciate the beauty of a world when one doubts its very validity.”

Criticisms of Ishiguro have often been along the lines that he is unnecessarily subtle, delicate, ambiguous. That we wish sometimes that he would just say what he means, instead of having the reader tease out the meanings in the silences between sentences. But – at least in An Artist… – this would be too much of a contradiction. You cannot have a novel defending the fluidity, subtlety, ephemerality of art if it did not display those characteristics itself.