Why Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel prize for literature

Quietly dreadful.
Quietly dreadful.
Image: AP Photo/Alastair Grant
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This post contains spoilers to Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel Never Let Me Go.

The Swedish Academy announced today (Oct. 5) that the Nobel prize for literature has been awarded to British writer Kazuo Ishiguro for his fiction.

The Japanese-born Ishiguro is most famous for his novel The Remains of the Day, which also won the Man Booker prize in 1989. The academy said in its announcement that Ishiguro was selected for his “novels of great emotional force” that have “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”

What makes Ishiguro’s work Nobel worthy? It would be foolish to imagine the inner-workings of the prize committee, but Ishiguro is clearly loved by his readers for the way he simultaneously captures the banality and horror of being alive. His novels are quiet and dreadful, finding a shared edge of quite boring and creepy as hell.

In an early passage in The Remains of the Day, we see a hint of what the academy cited, something shimmering below the tranquil surface of the profoundly obedient narrator Mr. Stevens, a butler:

You may be amazed that such an obvious shortcoming to a staff plan should have continued to escape my notice, but then you will agree that such is often the way with matters one has given abiding thought to over a period of time; one is not struck by the truth until prompted quite accidentally by some external event.

The novel is told through Stevens’s memories of serving at Darlington Hall, during and after World War II. As men of political importance stride in and out of the house, Stevens is preoccupied mostly with his duties and an unrealized flirtation with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton.

Ishiguro’s work is a mix of Jane Austen and Franz Kafka, with a little bit of Marcel Proust, said Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy in an interview after the announcement. She praised The Remains of the Day as a masterpiece, saying the novel starts as a P. G. Wodehouse comedy of errors and ends “as something Kafkaesque.”

This characterization is evident in a key passage of Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go, in which the main characters have been bred specifically for organ donation to keep the rest of society young. In this scene the reader learns the truth of their upbringing from a former school administrator, Miss Emily. She says:

Most importantly, we demonstrated to the world that if students were reared in humane, cultivated environments, it was possible for them to grow to be as sensitive and intelligent as any ordinary human being. Before that, all clones—or students, as we preferred to call you—existed only to supply medical science. In the early days, after the war, that’s largely all you were to most people. Shadowy objects in test tubes. Wouldn’t you agree, Marie-Claude? She’s being very quiet. Usually you can’t get her to shut up on this subject. Your presence, my dears, appears to have tied her tongue. Very well. So to answer your question, Tommy. That was why we collected your art. We selected the best of it and put on special exhibitions. In the late seventies, at the height of our influence, we were organising large events all around the country. There’d be cabinet ministers, bishops, all sorts of famous people coming to attend.

Like a polite stranger coming for afternoon tea, pathetically apologizing for imprisoning human clones between remarks on the furniture, Miss Emily represents so many of Ishiguro’s characters, shrugging with a sad smile that nothing can be changed. His protagonists are often the ones lost in a world full of rules designed to keep them ignorant and in check.

Ishiguro’s characters, too, are often mystified by their own memories. “He’s someone very interested in understanding the past, but he’s not a Proustian writer,” says Danius. “He’s not out to redeem the past; he’s exploring what you have to forget in order to survive in the first place, as an individual or as a society.”

Throughout his works Ishiguro manages a deft creep—slowly, yet precisely and painfully, making your stomach turn—through a “mist of forgetfulness,” as he might say. His fiction gives readers a pervasive sense of something felt but not known, or something once known, but lost.