Ishiguro becomes the 114th Nobel Laureate, and the 11th from the United Kingdom to win the Prize
Kazuo Ishiguro's Nobel Prize win is a sign of good during uncertain times
Kazuo Ishiguro has won 2017’s Nobel Prize for Literature. The announcement was made in Stockholm by Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy, who said that Ishiguro "in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world".
Describing the 62-year-old as a cross between Jane Austen, Franz Kafka and Marcel Proust, Danius praised him as a "writer of great integrity," before concluding: "We hope it will make the world happy."
Ishiguro becomes the 114th Nobel Laureate, and the 11th from the United Kingdom to win the Prize: the last was Doris Lessing in 2007.
Born in Nagasaki in 1954, but resident in England since he was five years old, Ishiguro is the author of seven novels, including A Pale View of the Hills, When We Were Orphans and Never Let Me Go. His most recent book was 2015’s The Buried Giant, which Danius declared her personal favourite.
Asked if Ishiguro’s pathos was apposite for our troubled time, Danius noted that his books "explore what you have to forget in order to survive."
It was a sentiment echoed by Ishiguro himself. Speaking to the BBC, he said of his win. "The world is in a very uncertain moment and I would hope all the Nobel Prizes would be a force for something positive in the world as it is at the moment […] I’ll be deeply moved if I could in some way be part of some sort of climate this year in contributing to some sort of positive atmosphere at a very uncertain time."
Uncertain times are Ishiguro’s forte. His most famous work is probably The Remains of the Day, which won the Booker Prize in 1989, and was made into an Oscar-winning film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.
Set partly during the build-up to the Second World War, the plot is driven gently by a delicate story of unrequited love between Stevens, a dignified but emotionally repressed butler, and his cherished colleague, Miss Kenton. Running parallel to Ishiguro’s excavation of their suppressed relationship are revelations of a different sort: of the Nazi sympathies of Stevens’ erstwhile employer, Lord Darlington.
The novel typifies many of Ishiguro’s literary virtues: a prose style whose elegant surfaces both conceals and reveals human secrets, frailties and desires to the eagle-eyed reader. Danius called The Remains of the Day "a true masterpiece which starts out as a PG Wodehouse novel and ends as something Kafkaesque." Other terms commonly applied to Ishiguro’s writing include ‘exquisite’, ‘understated’, ‘heartbreaking’, and ‘grace.’
It was not always so. Recalling reviews of his earliest works, Ishiguro told an audience at 2015’s Hay Literary Festival: ‘It was only when I started to publish and started to read the reviews – because it was a novelty that someone with a Japanese background was writing novels in English – all the metaphors tended to be Japanese-y. They would talk about a very still pond. With carp.’
One could also add ‘diverse’ to the list of Ishiguro critical epithets. From the beginning, he has been unafraid to experiment with form and genre, incorporating elements of science fiction into Never Let Me Go and fantasy into The Buried Giant.
"I was shocked by the level of sheer prejudice that exists against ogres," he told the Hay Festival in 2015. "In the end I became quite militant on behalf of my ogres and pixies. If there are battle lines being drawn along literary snob lines, I’m going to stand on the side of the ogres. I’m against the imagination police telling me what I can and can’t do in my writing.”
Although not a shock on the scale of Bob Dylan’s triumph last year, Ishiguro’s win did come as a surprise – not least to Ishiguro himself, who told the BBC that he initially thought the news was a hoax. He added: "It's a magnificent honour, mainly because it means that I'm in the footsteps of the greatest authors that have lived, so that's a terrific commendation."
The favourites in the days before the announcement had included the South Korean poet Ko Un, Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o and, with some irony given Ishiguro’s birthplace, Japan’s Haruki Murakami.
Other commentators speculated that a woman might win after the Nobel Committee Tweeted a picture of the 14 female Nobel Laureates. Canada’s Margaret Atwood was among those touted, not least because her dystopian masterpiece The Handmaid’s Tale has enjoyed fresh attention after a highly-praised television adaptation.
Speaking after the announcement, Sara Danius deflected potential criticisms of the selection of an English-speaking, European male writer. Over the past 50 years, just 16 Nobel Laureates have hailed from outside Europe and the northern United States; of these, just eight have been women. "We are always on the lookout for new and interesting writers," Danius said.
Early reaction has combined surprise, happiness and a series of jokey references to Dylan’s victory last year. A photograph of Ishiguro holding a guitar has already done the rounds on Twitter.
At 62, Ishiguro is about median age for a Nobel Laureate. Never the most prolific writer (he averages a novel every seven years), he clearly has more new works in him yet. Despite once saying that most novelists peak at 45, he is already looking to fellow Nobel Laureate, Bob Dylan, for help with the ageing process.“There’s another kind of late style which I rather like – people like Leonard Cohen, or Bob Dylan about 10 years ago,” he said two years ago. “They seem to go out of their way to embrace the ageing process and beautify it without quite evading the inevitable sorrow and patheticness of ageing."