Review Of An Artist Of The Floating World

Copyright © by Jessica Schneider, 7/22/07


  Kazuo Ishiguro is a Master of the novel. No wait, I’ll go as far as to say he’s one of the best novelists ever to have written in the English language. I’ve just finished his 1986 published novel An Artist of the Floating World, and I have to say that it is one of the best books I’ve ever read about an artist. In so many ways, Ishiguro breaks all the rules when it comes to storytelling, and it is for that very reason why his prose is so great. I first encountered Ishiguro when I read The Remains of the Day, which was a great book. I was pleasantly surprised by how great the writing was, that I went ahead and sought out more of his books. Although I believe The Remains of the Day to be a great novel, as great as it is, An Artist of the Floating World is even better. It is a work that many dumb literary agents today would say, “nothing happens,” when in reality, the book is so jam-packed with things happening that I feel like I need to reread it just to make sure I got it all. It also is a book that breaks the clichéd rule of writers needing to ‘show and not tell.’ Ishiguro tells, and he tells well. People also seem to forget that what a character chooses to tell is also, in itself, an act of showing.

  The novel is set just in the aftermath of World War II, in Japan, and centers around the life of Masuji Ono, an artist who in a sense ‘sold out’ his talent for politics, politics that since the war, have become outdated. The ‘Floating World’ is actually the idea of the nightlife, of pleasure and drink, things viewed as ephemeral. It is Ono’s battle between these ideals that centers around the story, all the while filling the tale with details that bring out a realism in such a way like no other writer I’ve ever read.

  Ishiguro’s storytelling reminded me much of the films of Ozu, whose classics like Tokyo Story, Late Spring, and Early Summer center around family life, involving fathers and daughters. There is also a hint of Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, since both the film and this book involve a man reflecting back on his life. In addition to being an artist, Ono is also a father as well as a grandfather. Ishiguro inserts these little anecdotes that are missing from many contemporary writers’ work, giving the story a thickness and layering. For example, there is a touching scene in the novel where Ono asks his daughter to give his grandson sake, believing that by doing it the boy will learn a sense of male pride. His daughter refuses, saying the boy is only eight and too young, and so while at dinner, the boy must watch the bottle till its empty, never getting his ‘taste’ of his ‘male pride.’  The boy then, looks at his grandfather ‘knowingly’ and Ono can only respond with a smile, something that only they- grandfather and grandson- understand. The scene is then left as such, and the characters move on, as they would in real life.

  Some of the themes the book addresses are those in relation to the artist and how the artist views the world. How enclosed should the artist’s world be? Are they just these isolated beings meant to be separate from the rest of the world with only their art to bridge them? Ono spends much of the book shifting from memory to the present. While most books on artists focus on their clichéd ‘troubled lives’, this novel offers a more quiet, more realistic, and more powerful approach for addressing the themes that it does, very much like Wild Strawberries. 

  In one scene of the book, Ono tells his Sensei that, “it is my belief in that in such troubled times as these, artists must learn to value something more tangible than those pleasurable things that disappear with the morning light. It is not necessary that artists occupy a decadent and enclosed world. My conscience, Sensei, tells me I cannot remain forever an artist of the floating world.”

  But it also goes deeper than this with Ono, because he is also confronted with the fact that artists, at least those who are able to create great art, do so by expressing something of beauty. Beauty then, can be found at all levels, from the very rich to the very poor and underprivileged. Many artists also then use their art to express certain things about poverty as well as the underbelly of war- concepts that at one time were considered ‘inappropriate’ and ‘sordid’.  The novel put me in mind of a great scene in the Betty Smith novel A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, where the young Francie encounters the bias her English teacher has for the arts when she sees that Francie, a student of hers who has grown up in the very poor section of Brooklyn, New York, chooses to write short stories about her family life. The subject matter includes her father’s alcoholism, his death, poverty, and not having enough to eat. The teacher then refers to Francie’s stories as ‘sordid’, a word that the young girl does not know the meaning of. Looking it up in a dictionary, Francie becomes enraged by her teacher’s insults: filthy, squalid, disgusting, claiming that Francie should only write about things she considers beautiful, like flowers and god and sunsets.

  In An Artist of the Floating World, Ono is confronted with the fact that artists, just like politicians and businessmen, haven’t really seen poor places, and if they do it is at a ‘safe distance’, and thereby they learn to know the world by reputation. Ono is also one that holds the world in this manner, his views on art, as well as his relationships with his children. Ono is also confronted with the fact that his life’s work has amounted to nothing more than propaganda, and since his work has not been such to ‘define him’, (as any great artist’s work does) he is left then to question his place and purpose as both artist and man.

  The novel ends in a similar way to The Remains of the Day, in that both times the central character is looking back (and out) on his life, as he sits on a bench and observes the passers by- a great image of a man confronting his own loneliness. I recall a similar thing in one of Ozu’s films, and it for this reason why I can see the connections between those films and Ishiguro’s works.

  As great as I found The Remains of the Day to be, An Artist of the Floating World is a bit richer and more complex a tale, for it deals with the inner self of a single character and his accomplishment set against all that is around him. While The Remains of the Day also does such, An Artist of the Floating World touches on more philosophical revelations that distinguish it from the other novel. If you’ve not read Ishiguro, I recommend reading The Remains of the Day, followed by this. Ishiguro is a great writer, and not only is this book a must read, but it is a must read twice.

[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Monsters & Critics website.]

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