Ishiguro’s 20th century evening
LODESTAR - Danton Remoto (The Philippine Star) - August 15, 2020 - 12:00am

I finally picked up from Kinokuniya bookstore Kazuo Ishiguro’s Nobel Prize for Literature lecture published by Faber and Faber. Called “My Twentieth Century Evening and Other Small Breakthroughs,” it is a helpful book for all aspiring writers of fiction.

Instead of giving a lecture bristling with critical theory, Ishiguro talks about his beginnings as a writer and his creative process. At the age of five, he came to England with his parents and sister in April of 1960. They lived in Guildford, Surrey, 30 miles south of London. His father was an oceanographer who came to work for the British government. The machine that he went on to invent is today part of the permanent collection at the Science Museum in London.

The family thought it would only be a temporary stay. They were always prepared to return to Japan. His parents clung to the ways of the old homeland. The young Kazuo, meanwhile, was living in two worlds.

“All our neighbours went to church, and when I went to play with their children, I noticed they said a small prayer before eating. I attended Sunday school, and before long was singing in the church choir, becoming, aged ten, the first Japanese head cChorister seen in Guildford. I went to the local primary school – where I was the only non-English child, quite possibly in the entire history of that school – and from when I was eleven, I traveled by train to my grammar school in a neighboring town, sharing the carriage each morning with ranks of men in pinstripe suits and bowler hats, on their way to their offices in London.”

Outwardly he had become very English indeed: polite, proper and restrained.

But at home it was different. His parents had different rules, expectations and language. They thought they were coming home to Japan, and so his parents’ attitude was more of  visitors, rather than immigrants.

“The assumption remained that I would return to live my adult life in Japan, and efforts were made to keep up with the Japanese side of my education. Each month a parcel arrived from Japan, containing the previous months’ comics, magazines and educational digests, all of which I devoured eagerly. These parcels stopped arriving sometime in my teens – perhaps after my grandfather’s death – but my parents’ talk of old friends, relatives, episodes from their lives in Japan all kept up a steady supply of images and impressions.”

And these images and impressions would be stored in the house of memory Ishiguro built in his mind. It became the Japan of memory, rich with details even if he never returned to the old country again. “The fact that I’d never physically returned to Japan during that time only served to make my own vision of the country more vivid and personal.”

Did these memories inflect his early work? Not at all. He took a postgraduate course in Creative Writing at the famous University of East Anglia, with Malcom Bradbury as a tutor, as well as the formidable English novelist Angela Carter. Paul Bailey was the writer-in-residence. He submitted a radio play that the BBC had earlier rejected. UEA accepted it, and with five other students, they formed that year’s cohort. He wrote stories that were decidedly English but found something lacking in them.

And one day soon, “the emotional construct put together by a child out of memory, imagination and speculation” began to appear in his fiction. It was first evident in his 1982 novel, “A Pale View of Hills,” which deals with the memories of Etsuko, a Japanese woman coping with the suicide of her daughter, Keiko. His next work, “An Artist of the Floating World” published in 1986, details the life of the old Masui Ono, who recalls his former career as a political artist for imperialist propaganda. Both novels deal with a Westernized Japan that is leaving behind the bitter memories of the Second World War and hurtling into the comforts and alienation of the First World.

He muses: “I’m now sure that it was this feeling, that ‘my’ Japan was unique and at the same time terribly fragile – something not open to verification from outside – that drove me on to work in that small room in Norfolk… I was getting down on paper that world’s special colors, mores, etiquettes; its dignity, its shortcomings, everything I’d ever thought about the place, before it faded forever from my mind….”

Now how did he make the leap from these two early Japanese novels to the writing of “The Remains of the Day,” the Booker Prize-winning novel that sealed his global reputation?

He was ill one day and found among his bedclothes the first volume of Marcel Proust’s “Remembrance of Things Past.” He was thrilled not only with the marvellous prose but also the technique of Proust.

“The ordering of events and scenes didn’t follow the usual demands of chronology, nor those of a linear plot. Instead, tangential thought associations, or the vagaries of memory, seemed to move the writing from one episode to the next…. I could suddenly see an exciting, freer way of composing my… novel; one that could produce richness on the page and offer inner movements impossible to capture on any screen.”

He thought of writing a novel whose shape follows the narrator’s thought associations and flow of memory. Ishiguro was influenced not just by other writers, but by music as well. He was writing “The Remains of the Day” when he knew that something was amiss. Should he show emotion in the life of Stevens, an elderly British butler torn between duty and love, at the novel’s end?

He listened to Tom Waits’ song, “Ruby’s Arms,” about a soldier leaving his girlfriend one early morning to go to the train station. “And there comes a moment, midway through the song, when the singer tells us that his heart is breaking. The moment is almost unbearably moving…” This moment in the song allowed Ishiguro to finally write the novel’s last scene, where he “had to allow a vast and tragic yearning to be glimpsed underneath.” Life as an iceberg then, only the tip showing above the sea, while a whole unseen world lives in the depths below.

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Danton Remoto’s novel, “Riverrun,” will be published this month by Penguin Random House. His email is and his website is

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