How Kazuo Ishiguro's writing won him the Nobel Prize in Literature – according to research
Kazuo Ishiguro has been awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature and, as a long-term scholar and fan of Ishiguro, I feel compelled to join the celebration. The Swedish academy aptly described Ishiguro’s works as possessing “great emotional force” which “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”. But in an interview posted on the Nobel Prize website, Ishiguro offered a narrower statement of his interest in wordly connections, saying:
One of the things that’s interested me always is how we live in small worlds and big worlds at the same time: that we have a personal arena in which we have to try and find fulfilment and love, but that inevitably intersects with a larger world, where politics, or even dystopian universes, can prevail. So I think I’ve always been interested in that. We live in small worlds and big worlds at the same time and we can’t … forget one or the other.
This talk of worlds chimes nicely with my interest in Ishiguro’s work, too. Ishiguro’s novels are often preoccupied with the workings of their narrators’ minds: their memories and consciousnesses, and the way the world appears to them. And, like all written literary works, they are brought to life by readers’ minds, so that the worlds of the novel impact upon the readers’ worlds in myriad ways.
The Nobel committee’s reference to the “emotional force” of Ishiguro’s novels underscores one of the ways the fictional worlds of the novels might affect readers. For the last decade, I’ve been interested in researching the types of emotions evoked by Ishiguro’s writing and the way the language of the novels and the mental faculties of readers might contribute to these effects.
I’ve examined, for instance, readers’ experiences of empathy in response to the awkward and repressed characters of The Remains of the Day by listening to the way readers discuss the novel and examining the narrative style of the text. When readers talk with each other about the work, they attribute detailed mental states to the characters, saying things like: “I felt Miss Kenton wanted Stevens to say ‘marry me’” or “all Stevens cares about is being proper and going back to being dignified in front of everyone”.
Stevens, the butler-narrator of The Remains of the Day provides little insight into his own emotions and only describes the behaviour and speech of the other characters. As such, the novel requires readers to “fill the gaps” with inferences about the multiple characters’ feelings and beliefs, which encourages their deep emotional involvement.
My research has also focused on readers’ empathy with the cloned characters in Never Let Me Go, such as the narrator Kathy. I argue that cues in the novel’s language encourage readers to relate to Kathy but also disassociate from her, so that the novel generates conflicting emotions in readers.
This in turn involves them in the ethical dilemmas raised by the status of the clones in the novel. I’ve also considered the creation of suspense in Never Let Me Go and the way readers generate hopes and expectations as they read which interact with the events of the story.
For instance, many readers (myself included) hope that the clones will escape their fate as medical organ donors and somehow become motivated to break out of the system. One scene, in particular, when Kathy’s friend Tommy explodes with frustration and despair, suggests that an escape attempt may be imminent. Yet the clones are so institutionalised that they are incapable of conceiving of such freedom – and this demonstrates one of the differences between readers and the characters.
Tricks of the mind
Some of my recent work has also studied the peculiar effects of Ishiguro’s most unusual novel: The Unconsoled. On internet discussion boards, some readers report feeling decidedly odd and estranged as they read this novel; its absurd and counterintuitive worlds resonate long after they’ve closed the book. I trace this sensation to the writer’s use of sentence structure to represent the attention of Ryder, the main character, at critical points in the text.
In one scene near the end of the novel, Ryder desperately pursues his recently-bereaved partner, Sophie, and child, Boris, through the city streets. Sophie and Boris are represented as the focus of Ryder’s attention, appearing as the subject of his sentences and the goal of his actions, as in this example:
Sophie and Boris had already covered a surprising amount of ground, and although I walked as fast as I could, after a few minutes I had hardly reduced the distance between us.
He pursues them onto a tram, but then Sophie and Boris inexplicably fade from his attention and his chase ceases. He is distracted by features of the tram – “The carriage was divided into two distinct sections separated by an exit area in the middle” – and falls into inane conversation with a nearby passenger while his view of Sophie and Boris becomes obscured. He only approaches them two pages later.
The worlds of The Unconsoled deviate profoundly from the “norms” of human perception and behaviour and interact with readers’ attention to create unique tension during reading.
All of this research shows that the “emotional force” of Ishiguro’s novels lies in his masterful creation of worlds which provoke high levels of reader involvement and interrogation. Ishiguro attracts interest from many literary scholars, but there is still much to understand about his extensive body of work.
My own research into Ishiguro’s complex style is currently continuing with a book I’m writing called The Language of Kazuo Ishiguro. My interest in his work has long been driven by the impact Ishiguro’s narratives have on his readers. It’s wonderful to see this skill recognised and celebrated by the Nobel panel.Comment on this article
Sara Whiteley received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council.
University of Sheffield provides funding as a founding partner of The Conversation UK.