An Artist of the Floating World
By Kazuo Ishiguro
What I enjoy most about Kazuo Ishiguro novels is the manner in which he compels the reader to continue reading without much notion of what, exactly, they are reading. Last year, when I finally got around to reading Never Let Me Go, I was fascinated by the way in which he maintained interest without ever telling the reader what was going on. The first person narrative style assumes the reader is familiar with the world Ishiguro has created and thus it is up to the reader to piece much of the story together over the course of the novel. Certainly Ishiguro is not the first nor, by any means, the only author that maintains an element of mystery via exclusivity in his narrative, but he does it with such skill and grace I have been excited to read another of his novels ever since.
Ishiguro's 1986 novel An Artist of the Floating World (short-listed for the Booker Prize) is very similar to Never Let Me Go in structure and style, if not story. Set during the immediate post-war years in an unidentified city in Japan, the narrative focuses on an aging artist by the name of Ono who is struggling with his role as an artist during the war while trying to arrange a suitable marriage for his aging (she's... GASP! 26!) daughter. He worries that his past may have contributed to the failure of a past arranged marriage whose negotiations fell through for unknown reasons.
Much like Never Let Me Go, the entire novel is a joy to read on both a narrative and stylistic level. Ishiguro is a well-honed wordsmith. His sentences are pregnant with poignancy and wonderfully crafted works of art unto themselves. He writes sentences as silky smooth as the refined Japanese world of his story. I forget who said this, but an author once noted that a great work of fiction can be measured by opening a book to any page and reading that page (out of context) as a stand-alone piece of poetry. By such standards, Ishiguro is a genius.
But, in this novel at least, it is his dialogue that takes center stage. Ishiguro writes all the dialogue in a sort of refined, highly polished Japanese that leaves the reader wondering not what has been said, but rather what has been said while not being said. Young people let elders dictate the direction of the conversation, never contradict what his said and always downplay or deflect any praise given. The dialogue is worth the price of admission itself. Each dialogue is two, often three conversations at once and it's a joy to read between the lines and try to cut through to the core of what is being said.
Ono seems rather unsure of his ability to recall his past. He is often muddled about the order of events or the exact phrasing of something an old colleague might have said. This unreliability adds to the uncertainty of the narrative in that we cannot fully trust our protagonist, not because he may be lying but rather because he is simply fallible. It is therefore difficult for us to believe much of what he says and thinks about his own career. In this respect, Ono reminded me a lot of Barney Panofsky in Mordecai Richler's classic, Barney's Version... though with less lechery and more grace.
Ishiguro also explores the nature of art in society. He questions its importance (very important) and compares that to the importance of art through the eyes for the artist (inflated). As the story progresses we discover that Ono, despite what he has told us, is not the influential artist he seems to believe he is. While most certainly talented and well respected within a segment of the art world, he comes to realize that unlike politicians and businessmen, artists were never and would never be held accountable for the atrocities committed during the war, and for good reason. While artists did attempt to capture the over-arching emotions and ideas of a time, there is never a sense that the artist's neck is threading a noose via their work. Ono's sense of self-importance had lead him to believe that his art was something to be ashamed of and a serious detriment to his family's future when in fact very few people remember him at all. In time, Ono comes to terms with his marginality, an indication of his acceptance of the shift away from Imperial decadence that was occurring in post-war Japan.
In this respect, Ono represents the older Imperial generation while his daughters and grandson represent the newer, democratic generation unimpressed with the lavishness of their fathers. Throughout the novel Ono refers to something called the "floating world," a scene of opulence and self-aggrandizement throughout the 1920s and 30s that occupied the artistic world of Imperial Japan. In the wake of the war, there began a shift away from such a lifestyle toward simplicity. Due to this shift, there exists a latent tension (but in true Japanese style, no overt conflict) between generations as Ono cannot understand how Japan can change itself wholesale overnight from what it was to what it is. He insightfully muses that perhaps we are discarding the good with the bad and Japan shouldn't be so hasty to sidle up to the Americans.
This juxtaposition is best exemplified in the wonderful scenes between Ono and his eight-year-old grandson Ichiro. A fan of Popeye Sailorman (sic) and the Lone Ranger, the precocious (and mildly disrespectful) Ichiro is the very personification of the post-war Japanese infatuation with American life. He doesn't seem intimidated by his elders while Ono laments the fact that he is so very much out of touch with his grandson's world.
An Artist on the Floating World isn't covering new literary ground, but it is treading old ground with a fresh pair of geta. Kazuo Ishiguro, Japanese by descent but raised in England, has attested to the fact that he knows very little about Japan and cannot be considered a Japanese writer,. Nevertheless, this novel is an interesting insight into a very interesting period in Japanese history and Ishiguro has done well to characterize the period and its uncertainties and insecurities. Whether or not the novel is historically accurate (I cannot say whether it is or not) he captures the emotions of the time in a bubble and packaged them with a deft hand for our consideration.
And, after all, isn't that what art is for?