Books remaining: 17. Weeks left to read them: 32 (surely doable).
The best things … are put together of a night and vanish with the morning.
The Curing of a Bibliomaniac Part 9: An Artist of the Floating World (Kazuo Ishiguro, 1986)
Amid the debris of postwar Japan, over two years between 1948 and 1950, Masuji Ono is spending his retirement navigating his youngest daughter’s lengthy and delicate marriage negotiations.
Engulfed by memories of war and the choices it led him to make, the ageing artist worries that the mistakes of the not-at-all distant past will jeopardise his family’s future.
I prepared myself for something dense and literary. I thought it might take weeks to get through this slim 200-page volume (Mrs Dalloway, anyone?) but was surprised to realise that despite nothing particularly exciting happening, just a little seed of a mystery kept me curious enough to polish it off in two days.
Masuji’s frequent digressions into the world of his memories continually interrupt the details of unfolding events.
He checks himself constantly, almost apologetically, drawing back to the tale at hand, leaving the reader to ponder the connections between these memories and the present. We don’t know what Masuji has done, or whether we are simply attaching too much significance to the wanderings of an old man.
There is certainly a satisfaction and dignity to be gained in coming to terms with the mistakes one has made in the course of one’s life. In any case, there is surely no great shame in mistakes made in the best of faith. It is surely a thing far more shameful to be unable or unwilling to acknowledge them.
This story’s simplicity belies the complicated darkness of the subjects at its core – war, what men will do in the name of country and the reverberations of these actions across generations to come.
A gentle humour lightens it, particularly in the passages involving Masuji’s headstrong grandson Ichiro and Masuji’s indulgent humouring of him. These breaks strengthen the sense of family bonds that are all Masuji has left in an otherwise empty life and alleviate the alienation a reader might feel towards a character who is otherwise remote. The growing sense that some ominous revelation is imminent keeps you reading, worried for this gentle protagonist and his tiny family.
The writing, refined and careful, fits so nicely into my preconceptions of Japanese culture that I am surprised to read that Ishiguro came to Britain when he was five years old and lives in London.
Sparsely elegant prose evokes the disarray of not only the world Masuji lives in, but increasingly, the disturbed peace of his mind.
If you were to come out of Mrs Kawakami’s as the darkness was setting in, you might feel compelled to pause a moment and gaze at that wasted expanse before you. You might still be able to make out through the gloom those heaps of broken brick and timber, and perhaps here and there, pieces of piping protruding from the ground like weeds. Then as you walked on past more heaps of rubble, numerous small puddles would gleam a moment as they caught in the lamplight.
And if on reaching the foot of the hill which climbs up to my house, if you pause at the Bridge of Hesitation and look back towards the remains of our old pleasure district, if the sun has not yet set completely, you may see the line of old telegraph poles – still without wires to connect them – disappearing into the gloom down the route you have just come. And you may be able to make out the dark clusters of birds perched uncomfortably on the tops of the poles, as though awaiting the wires along which they once lined the sky.
By contrast, he creates a sense of powerful nostalgia the world Masuji once lived in, which he and his fellow art students strived to capture for their teacher.
We lived throughout those years almost entirely in accordance with his values and lifestyle, and this entailed spending much time exploring the city’s ‘floating world’ – the night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink which formed the backdrop for all our paintings. I always feel a certain nostalgia now in recalling the city centre as it was in those days; the streets were not so filled with the noise of traffic, and the factories had yet to take the fragrance of seasonal blossoms from the night air.
Moments of wisdom seem the more precious for being unadorned.
My mother fell silent for some moments. Then she said: ‘When you are young, there are many things which appear dull and lifeless. But as you get older, you will find these are the very things that are most important to you.’
There is no flashy revelation in this book, only a sense of acceptance, and its quiet finish left me reflective.
I highly recommend it and will keep an eye out for The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s most famous work, which won the 1989 Booker prize. It’s also a rather-good-looking movie starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.
This book, incidentally, was on the 1986 Booker shortlist and won Whitbread Book of the Year, so is not to be sniffed at.
Keep or kill? Alas, though, I must be harsh, and so I will pass this on to illuminate someone else’s life (ideally).