Why Ishiguro is our finest literary chameleon
Isaiah Berlin famously divided writers into two groups: hedgehogs and foxes. Hedgehogs, he thought, were writers who had a single defining idea that their work expressed. Dostoevsky and Proust were hedgehogs. Foxes, though, have too many ideas milling around to be defined by a single one. Shakespeare and Joyce were foxes.
Berlin’s animals came to mind when trying to pin down exactly the type of writer Kazuo Ishiguro, the new Nobel laureate in literature, was. In these terms, Ishiguro is certainly a fox, but that doesn’t quite get him right. It doesn’t do justice to his extraordinary ability to reinvent himself. It’s not just that he has a different idea each time; it’s that each of his novels reads as if written by a completely different person. He is a shape-shifter – not so much a fox among the hedgehogs, but a chameleon among the peacocks.
Ishiguro slips convincingly between genres, from the intricate perfection of the earlier historical novels – The Remains of the Day (1989) foremost among them – to the surreal Kafkaesque sprawl of The Unconsoled (1995), to the detective novel of When We Were Orphans (2000), to the understated science fiction of Never Let Me Go (2005) and, most recently, to the post-Arthurian fantasy of The Buried Giant (2015), replete with dragons, ogres and sprites. Until The Buried Giant, what connected all of these books was that they were written in the first person – but you could hardly imagine narrators with more varied experiences: a Japanese mother who has emigrated to Britain, an ageing painter in post-war Japan, a repressed English butler working for a wealthy American.
The chameleon Ishiguro seems to hide, to disappear into his work. He is consummately modest, unlike the peacock writers – Martin Amis, say, or Vladimir Nabokov – for whom, no matter what they write, or how brilliantly, there is always an element of authorial self-display.
A chameleon does something different with its colours, and Ishiguro is to be celebrated, not just because he is the chameleon par excellence, but because as a species they seem vanishingly rare. There are vastly more peacocks than chameleons out there, and part of the blame for this lies in the way creative writing is so often taught (it is ironic that Ishiguro is himself a product of a creative writing programme) and particularly the edict to “write what you know”.
This crumbly old cliché is often traced back to Ernest Hemingway, who, following its logic, ran around doing dangerous things so that he might write about them. It feels like sound advice. When we write about our own experiences they carry the ring of authenticity because, well, they actually happened to us. It allows us to accurately describe what things looked like, how things felt.
Sometimes, of course, what a writer “knows” is something outside of themselves. That thing can also be boring. Anyone who has slogged their way through the passages about farming in Anna Karenina can attest to the perils of authors writing what they know.
But the problem more usually is that the seam that ends up getting mined is the self. As a result, there is a vast amount of literary fiction that is essentially refracted autobiography.
The godfather of autobiography as literary fiction is Marcel Proust, who meticulously distilled his own life into the thousands of pages of In Search of Lost Time. Latterly, think of Philip Roth, or Karl Ove Knausgaard and his epic “auto-fiction”, My Struggle. If literature had been creeping towards peak peacock, Ishiguro’s Nobel win is a welcome tug in the other direction.
While there are other chameleonic writers of our time – Margaret Atwood, Julian Barnes, the late ELDoctorow, Colson Whitehead – none change quite so radically with each book as Ishiguro, and none makes such a virtue of their absence.
When you read an Ishiguro novel, there is very little flashiness, very little ostentation. Unlike most authors he does not have recognisable tics, nor is he concerned with interrogating the act of fiction-making itself.
Perhaps the quintessential chameleon is Gustave Flaubert. He swerved from innovative realism ( Madame Bovary), to sex and violence in ancient Carthage ( Salammbo), to ironical bildungsroman ( Sentimental Education), to full-on bonkers religious surrealism ( The Temptation of Saint Anthony), to patience-testing episodic satire ( Bouvard et Pecuchet).
Flaubert wrote that “an author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere”. Ishiguro certainly is that, but perhaps it suits his modesty more to think of him not as God but as his greatest creation: Stevens, the butler, from The Remains of the Day.
Ishiguro greets you at the door, invites you politely in, and, like a good butler (or a chameleon) blends into the background.
He has, above all, a highly developed sense of authorial discretion; he is at his best when you hardly notice him. Only in Ishiguro’s case, he is the butler who secretly owns the whole estate.
Shape-shifter: Kazuo Ishiguro has won this year’s Nobel prize for literature
Early work: Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in The Remains of the Day