As a writer, I’m more interested in what people tell themselves happened rather than what actually happened.
– Kazuo Ishiguro, Japanese-born British novelist, born November 8, 1954
When Kazuo Ishiguro came to San Francisco’s A Clean, Well-Lighted Place for Books in April 2005 – the Opera Plaza bookstore, one of my favorites, closed the following year – I made the pilgrimage across the Bay. I packed his five novels, including my first edition copy of The Remains of the Day purchased from Berkeley’s Black Oak Books – another favorite indie bookstore, which closed its Shattuck storefront in 2009, though reopened later on San Pablo Ave. That spring he had just come out with his latest book, Never Let Me Go.
I tried reading Never Let Me Go soon after his visit. I couldn’t get into it, much to my dismay. When the movie of the same name came out in 2010, I vowed I wouldn’t see it until I read the novel. I’ve tried picking it up a few times more, but I’ve still not seen the movie. I know it will be a matter of time when I’m in the right frame of mind to receive it. When I first started reading The Remains of the Day, recommended by my co-workers at the time, I had the same trouble losing myself in the world of the characters. To quote Ishiguro from a Paris Review interview published in the Spring 2008, No. 184 issue: “I’ve never felt that I have a particular facility at writing interesting prose. I write quite mundane prose.” True, I wasn’t pulled into his characters because of his prose. But I kept going on the journey – each novel is a journey. It wasn’t until I had read the last page and put the book down that I took in everything about the novel, what had transpired, what Mr. Stevens discovered about his life. And I told myself, his story was unassuming as you go along, but in its totality, the novel took my breath away. The feeling is not unlike stopping finally and looking back at one’s life and coming to an epiphany about all those years. The revelation can blow you away.
My favorite novel of his is When We Were Orphans. It came out in January 2000. I can’t remember if I read it before or after my son, Jacob, was born. At any rate, at the time I was overwhelmed with the thought of parenthood. So the nut of the novel (“Christopher Banks’s parents disappear when he is a child, and he grows up believing that he can find them and turn back the clock – that they’ll carry on where they left off, and he’ll pick up a kind of happy childhood again,” from Ishiguro’s own words in his interview in the Paris Review) resonated with me. What I appreciate about Ishiguro is reflected in the quote that opens this blog post. How we remember things can be quite different than what actually happened, and that is not only more interesting, it makes for more interesting people, characters. In fact, what we think happened is more important than what actually happened. “Memory is quite central for me. Part of it is that I like the actual texture of writing through memory,” Ishiguro once said.
Given the fact that his first three novels were set in specific locations and historical time periods, I was surprised to hear him talk at the San Francisco book reading about the constraints of specificity, of not wanting to do that with Never Let Me Go. He was going for universality, stripping away the distractions of time and location. I was somewhat taken aback because at the time I was near completing one version of my novel, which was a historical novel – specific time and place.
In an interview in the Atlantic Online in October 2000, he said: “It’s all very well to say that wars or revolutions are bigger, that a love story somehow becomes more profound if it’s set against the backdrop of the Cuban revolution or the Russian revolution, but that’s not always true. There is a difference between being big and being deep. To achieve depth in art and in fiction you have to look at small things, things that aren’t always obviously important in a history-book sense. I think that’s often what we go to novels for – that depth.”
While I appreciate what Ishiguro is saying here, the two need not be mutually exclusive. You can, and always should, look at small things. They need not get lost in wars or revolutions. At the same time, you don’t set a love story in a revolution in order to make it more profound. It’s that the love story cannot be told any other way. The revolution is integral to the love story and vice versa.
Talking about Ishiguro, remembering his novels, and reading his interviews make me want to reread his novels. I’m not sure I’d want to have tea with him – a bit intimidating – but I will raise a glass today in honor of his birthday!