Why Ishig­uro is our finest lit­er­ary chameleon

The Sunday Telegraph - - Arts - THE WEEK IN ARTS DUNCAN WHITE

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

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