Review of An
Artist Of The Floating World, by Kazuo Ishiguro
Copyright © by Dan Schneider, 1/15/08
Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1986 novel, An Artist Of The Floating World, which won that year’s Whitbread Prize, may be a great novel, but it just misses out on that elite company. Of course, the fact one can make arguments pro and con means the book is worlds above the tripe one would read were the author’s surname Oates, Boyle, or Eggers. The reason for the miss, in my mind, is that the novel never fully soars- it never takes that Keatsian leap into the subconscious, to wrench the reader into an experience he or she can get nowhere else. It is consummately written, and its lead character and narrator is very interesting. There really is no fat to trim, yet….there simply are no indelible scenes nor moments that one will recall years later.
As example, I still recall the scents of the Williamsburg neighborhood that Francie Nolan describe sin Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows In Brooklyn, even though its been several years since I read that book; I still can recall the final metaphoric scene in Charles Johnson’s Oxherding Tale, even though a decade or more has passed since I first read it; and I can still envision the final moments of Captain Ahab in Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, despite over two decades’ passage since I first scanned those words.
Nothing like that occurs in Ishiguro’s novel, although his proponents for greatness could claim it’s simply not that sort of novel. In a sense, that’s true. It is a complex psychological novel that slips easily in and out of the past, even as its first person narrator- a painter named Masuji Ono, is never not the speaker. Of course, the three aforementioned books are also complex novels with psychological heft, which would seem to invalidate the argument pro-Ishiguro readers make, but claimants might also argue that this book is an old man’s recitation of his claims to existence, and not a book that reveals the road one travels to get to a certain place, for the artist Ono is already there. In that sense, it strikes commonalities with films such as Ingmar Bergman’s Wild Strawberries, Akira Kurosawa’s Ikiru, and Theo Angelopoulos’s Eternity And A Day.
The book takes place in four long chapters, of decreasing length; although each later chapter gets more and more philosophical as its written length decreases. Slowly, through the vagaries of Ono’s mind and memories, a picture of his life emerges, which shows him maturing from an anomic young artist, stuck on hedonistic pleasures, adrift in the ‘floating world’ of drink and sex, to a devout supporter of Japan’s nationalistic fervor of the early 20th Century, to an older man, narrating the tale from the fall of 1948 through the spring of 1950, living in an unnamed Japanese town, reflecting on how that support has led to his own scorn by post-war and American-occupied Japan, as well as the effect of even knowing him has had on former colleagues.
We get to know some of those colleagues, through flashbacks, as well as Ono’s family- his daughters, sons-in-law, and grandson. That Ishiguro had to be influenced by the great family-oriented films of Yasujiro Ozu is manifest- from names of Ono’s two daughters, Setsuko and Noriko (named after the main characters of Ozu’s Noriko Trilogy: Late Spring, Tokyo Story, and Early Summer, as portrayed by actress Setsuko Hara), to his impish grandchild Ichiro- Setsuko’s son, an impish hellion, straight out of many an Ozu film. As the book starts, the retired Ono is negotiating to marry off Noriko- the younger daughter, and pondering the possible extent that he sullied his art and reputation during the expansionist years of Japan in the 1930s, by making his paintings too propagandistic.
In reality, he was no pro-militarist, merely a naïve nationalist who turned away from a youth of painting geishas as an apprentice in the workshop of Master Moriyama- a real artist, then graduating to the studio of Master Takeda- the equivalent of America’s modern MFA writing mills, along with a slow painting colleague called ‘the Tortoise,’ whom he later became estranged from. The Tortoise’s estrangement is nicely portrayed, and with sketchy recalled realism, as Ono moved toward political art, while the Tortoise stayed true to himself- even if he may not have been as talented as Ono. Ono then worked with a politically oriented colleague named Matsuda in producing propaganda. All of this suggests that, despite some fame, Ono was never really a great artist, but more of a talented ‘hack for hire.’ When we learn of two of his most famous works, this is confirmed. One is called Complacency, which shows complacent, middle-aged men of means and poor young men holding sticks, in a kendo (martial arts) stance, ready to fight each other, against the backdrop of the Japanese coastline. To further illustrate that it is propaganda, not art, words appear, telling the viewer that the young and poor are ready to fight. Another similar work is called Eyes On The Horizon. It depicts Japanese soldiers greedily eyeing China, with the motto: ‘No time for cowardly talking. Japan must go forward.’ Yet, in this way, we see that while Ono’s art and actions helped support a negative thing, he was really inspired by noble intentions to fight sloth and poverty. This helps redeem him in the eyes of the readers, as well as some of the characters in the novel, who view him less harshly than they do more blatantly political leaders.
Even as he regrets his past, Ono finds a sorrow in his progeny’s too easy acceptance of Westernized life- from his daughters’ attitudes toward life to their husbands’ acceptance of American domination to his grandson’s acceptance of American pop cultural iconography, like the Lone Ranger and ‘Popeye Sailorman.’ When some colleagues of his are found to have committed suicide as a way of rejecting their past actions during the war, Ono’s family- despite mixed feelings for him, thinks he may follow suit, for he was a man of influence, as the suicides were. He reassures them that he is not the suicidal type. Even from the book’s first pages, where Ono recounts such mundanities as how he and his wife- who is never named in the novel, and deceased in the present tense of the novel, won a sort of ‘auction of prestige’ to purchase the home of an even more well known and wealthy artist, Akira Sugimura, after his death, we know that is not in the man’s character. The very detail with which he speaks of his home- its interior, meaning, and acquisition, speaks volumes of the narrator’s values and character, however tangentially.
Yet, Ishiguro never has a scene where such traits are overtly manifested. This is in keeping with his tenet of not needing to reveal everything to a dumbed down audience. Another example of this is where Ono gets the brush off from an ex-student admirer of his named Kuroda, who is later jailed for his association with Ono, after Ono has denounced him, as a member of the Cultural Committee Of The Interior Department and the Committee Of Unpatriotic Activities, not seemingly realizing what is in store for Kuroda, his most talented student. We never get a face to face meeting between the two, so we avoid the melodrama immanent in such a confrontation, we are left to guessing the mysteries as to why Kuroda turns on Ono, and details of how he suffered, but we also have Ono in the dark, which allows him to avoid truly dealing with the consequences that his pre-war and war year agitprop wrought to his nation and closest circle. Another student of Ono’s, Shintaro, also asks the old man to not vouch for him when he pursues a job opportunity with the Americans.
This allows a very interesting thing to occur to Ono, by book’s end: nothing. Well, that’s not technically true. He does move and ponder, but there is no transformative event. Ono represents anti-catharsis, which is different from stasis. Stasis implies that nothing truly happens to a character which could move him to growth or regression. In anti-catharsis, all the tools and moments are there for the character to gain insight into himself, but he refuses to take the plunge. To beg the cliché, his is an unexamined examined life. Ono sought to seek, but then restrained himself when real opportunities arose. He even, at times, chalks up old conversations as possibly not occurring, and insisting others occurred, such as an old neighbor’s, Dr. Saito’s, knowledge of his art and past. The reader never knows whether or not Ono is correct in his recollections, nor whether counterclaims by his daughter are, yet, because the book is so interesting, it does not matter, in terms of drawing a reader in.
Much of Ono’s current life is sketchy, because he is so mired in his past. His wife is dead, killed by a bomb that hit their home during the American air raids, and we learn that he had a son, Kenji, who died in the war, crossing a minefield. We know his oldest daughter is Setsuko- mother to Ichiro, and married to Suichi, a war veteran who has come to resent his father-in-law’s political beliefs and the death they helped to facilitate, and his youngest daughter is Noriko- who resents her father, and derides him every chance she can. Ono is negotiating her second marriage attempt (called a miai), after one failed a year earlier, possibly due to Ono’s post-war notoriety, but claimed to be because Noriko’s clan was of a lower class than the would-be groom’s. There is a scene where Ono tries to inculcate Ichiro into the manly world of sake drinking, but is rebuked by his daughters. They claim Ichiro is too young, but it is an old custom in Japan that young boys start drinking sake. This moment illustrates Japan’s break from the pre-war old, the rebellion of Noriko against her father’s lingering flaw of Epicurean decadence (which she believes led him to his disastrous career in agitprop), the bond between the two male characters, and a more modern sense of parental responsibility. That so many factors are at play show that Ishiguro is a top quality artist, for his handling of such multiple facets is rather seamless.
Ono’s memories are also questionable, such as his standing up to his imperious father, who wanted him to abandon art. From what we learn of the later Ono, such scenes of early impudence seem emotionally unlikely, which makes Ono a classic unreliable narrator. In the memories of his father, Ono even lets a fact slip through, when his father claims a priest diagnosed him with this flaw: ‘A weak streak that would give him a tendency towards slothfulness and deceit.’ That Ono eventually gave up real art to pursue nationalistic sloganeering fits in well with this claim of the priest’s.
Technically, Ishiguro does well in shifting the narrative, with Ono going on digressions, only to abruptly catch his wanderings, stop, and almost apologize to the reader for his indulgences, as well as admit to not being sure of certain things. In other scenes, Ono assumes the reader knows of a person or area of the town, which more easily gets the reader to accept his askance digressions as part of an ongoing or long-term dialogue he has been having with the reader; one which may extend back beyond the book’s opening scenes. Ishiguro also portrays the realistic and universal ways that humans react to each other. As example, there is a slightly retarded man, whom all in the town still refer to as ‘the Hirayama boy,’ despite the man being in his fifties During the war, it’s likely the retard was patted on the head for his rote recitation of nationalistic songs. Now he is attacked, yet goes on singing them. That such a character floats into the tale Ishiguro tells shows him as a true observer of life- one of the prerequisites for mastering narrative.
Later in the book, another example of realistic character building occurs, with the mention by Noriko’s new husband, Taro, of a dim and slow co-worker he and his colleagues have called ‘the Tortoise,’ just as Ono and his artist colleagues had, years earlier, named their own slow-painting colleague. Yet, look at this passage, as Ishiguro deftly show’s the son-in-law’s condescending disdain for his father-in-law, while also bringing into question the reality of the earlier ‘Tortoise’ Ono claims to have known:
‘Is that so?’ I exclaimed with some surprise. ‘That’s very curious. I myself once had a colleague who had that nickname. For much the same reasons, it would seem.’
But Taro did not seem particularly struck by this coincidence. He nodded politely, and said: ‘I remember at school, too, there was a pupil we called ‘the Tortoise.’ In fact, just as every group has a natural leader, I suspect every group has its ‘Tortoise’.’
Ono goes on to accept his son-in-law’s claim, and relate it to his own slower student, Shintaro, but look at the economy and power such a moment has, especially since Taro is a new character, to the reader, by the time this scene occurs in the third chapter, yet he has adopted his wife Noriko’s benign contempt for Ono, and belittles him without Ono’s recognition of his dissing. Yet, since we have seen how many of Ono’s memories come into question, it is legitimate to wonder if his original ‘Tortoise’ was ever really named that, or even existed. He may have been a legitimate person, but Ono may have imbued his past with a colorful character that is a generic representation of the common bumbler, just to build up his own ego. These plausibilities add to the narrative and the construction of an interesting character.
The book then ends on a terrific note, at a time when Ono is reflecting on his life- due to Matsuda’s death, and one which again invokes the ending of an Ozu film, as a contented, seemingly reconciled, Ono just relaxes one day, and looks toward the future. It is an end that is filled with a few images, but, if in a film, would be shot from a retreating focus on Ono, to engage the wider goings-on of the world:
I smiled to myself as I watched these young office workers from my bench. Of course, at times, when I remember those brightly-lit bars and all those people gathered beneath the lamps, laughing a bit more boisterously perhaps than those young men yesterday, but with much the same good-heartedness, I feel a certain nostalgia for the past and the district as it used to be. But to see how our city has been rebuilt, how things have recovered so rapidly over these years, fills me with genuine gladness. Our nation, it seems, whatever mistakes it may have made in the past, has now another chance to make a better go of things. One can only wish these young people well.
Yet, as well as this end works, it recapitulates the book’s biggest weakness: it simply never takes off into a higher plane. An Artist Of The Floating World is immaculately wrought, but its very understated nature undermines its claims to greatness, for by its end it recapitulates one thing that is troubling: not only has Ono not gotten any greater insight into himself, but neither has the reader. Yes, we know more of his externals, but his interior landscape is still a mystery. And there are ways, in fiction, that one can give a reader insight that still eludes a character. Ishiguro’s choice to not follow such a path may have been deliberate, but it also may be the slight Achilles’ Heel of the book.
However, this novel is well worth a read, and the passage of time, and the sticktoitiveness of some of Ishiguro’s subtle scenes and intricate words may prove my initial assessment wrong, even to myself. It may indeed have a staying power as long as the adventures of Captain Ahab and the White Whale. Here’s hoping.
[An expurgated version of this article originally appeared on the Hackwriters website.]
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