An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro is an author I feel more familiar with than I probably should. I have watched Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go on film and am aware of his other books, but actually, An Artist of the Floating World is the first of his books I have properly read.

I am very taken with his direct, understated, elegant writing.

The year is 1948 and the artist of this story is Masuji Ono, a man trying to reconcile his past and present. His story is narrated in the first person and he tells it as if he is walking the reader around his city and his home – like a leisurely guided tour of his life. A tour that gradually develops a certain level of tension and discomfort. He speaks at the beginning of a bridge he needs to cross to get to his home, one of the grandest houses in the area, nestled up in the hills. This ‘Bridge of Hesitation’ is symbolic; there are other crossings he is trying to make; he has one foot, fond memories and his heart in the past, but a life and responsibilities, including a forward thinking daughter and grandson, in the present.

The past is pre war Japan, a time when he enjoyed an esteemed reputation as a painter and patriot; held in high regard by his students and community. A man with a good reputation and despite consistent claims that he was unconcerned about people’s opinions of him, it becomes obvious that this is not true. Masuji Ono is a man desperate to hold onto his version of the past. In trying to do this, a few inconsistencies start to creep into his recollections, a task for the reader is to decipher these – is he lying, is his memory failing, is he fooling himself? And if so, why. Does this dignified man have something to hide?

The present is Japan after ‘the surrender’ as he refers to it. His daily life is taken up with his two daughters and his highly entertaining and very Americanised eight year old grandson. The family are in the crucial phase of marriage negotiations for Ono’s youngest daughter, a time when it is customary to look into the background of the prospective bride and her family. There is unacknowledged anxiety around this process. Ono’s eldest daughter is indirect, polite and traditional in her communication style whilst his younger daughter is openly rude and dismissive.

Ono flicks back and forth in his narrative and cuts both an admirable and sad figure, there is a sense of loss on many levels and it is not easy to completely rely on him as a narrator.

He refers frequently to lighting – candles, lanterns, shadows, darkness, reflections – usually in describing a room or a place he is remembering from the past. While he is sensitive to that as a painter, it is also I think a way of linking his memories, of keeping them alive. He reminded me in this way of W.G Sebald’s Austerlitz who did the same thing with buildings and architecture. In both books the men also have the same sense of displacement and terrible loss – different countries, different circumstances – but the same war.

The Observer newspaper described An Artist of the Floating World as an exquisite novel – I thought so too.

1986, 206 pages

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12 responses to “An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

  1. I think I have to try this again. I borrowed it from the library and then return it back. oh well, at least I got The Remains of Days with me now. 😉

    I feel a little meh with Ishiguro’s writing. not sure why.

    • JoV – I must try Remains of the Day at some stage. If it is anything like An Artist of the Floating World, I think I will wait a while though. Although I really liked it, I can imagine it not being for everybody – there is something very introverted about it all, I found it quite beautiful but definitely not uplifting if that makes sense?

      I changed the background colour on my blog but didn’t realise it came up peach! Thank you for the compliment, I fear it might be a bit of an eyesore – I must revisit it. I love though how quite a few of us are embracing the new year with new a fresh blog look..

  2. Did you do something different to your blog theme? A nice pastel peach. A blog that you want to bite on!

  3. Tracey,

    Thank you for this very well-written post! You’ve summarized the story and discussed the conflicts of the main characters succinctly, which is an excellent refresher for me. It has been a while now since I read An Artist of the Floating World, so I’m glad to revisit it as a summarized review here. This book is probably Ishiguro’s most ‘Japanese’ novel. He is one of my all time favorite writers. And I can tell you, The Remains of the Day is nothing like this one. It’s thoroughly “English”. You must read it and see the film too… one of the best book and film in my all time list. Ishiguro was born in Japan but moved to England at age 6. So I feel most of his writing is more ‘English’ than ‘Japanese’. 😉

  4. Arti – You’re welcome and thank you! I’m especially interested now to read another of his novels especially as you speak of this being his most ‘japanese’ of novels. I haven’t read a lot of Japanese authors but the ones I have read have had a certain intensity which I recognised here as well. I can imagine Remains of the Day being very ‘English’ and am especially curious now to see how his writing compares in that book.

    Thanks for your thoughtful comments as always – reading something else by Ishiguro has jumped up my priority list as a result!

  5. I haven’t read too much about pre- and post-war Japan, and it sounds like I’ve missed out by not reading this novel. I’ll have to keep this one in mind. Will add your review to War Through the Generations.

    • Anna – I think it’s fantastic that you are continuing to update the reading lists for War Through the Generations – what a great resource for us all – thank you. I’m looking forward to joining the WWI reading this year as well.

      I think this is the first book of war time Japan I have read. I found the style quite distinctive and will be interested to see if other books set in Japan are similar.

  6. I’ve only read (and loved!) Never Let Me Go, but you make this sound wonderful. I feel as though I should read a lot more of his work so I’m adding this straight to the list. Thanks for the recommendation!

  7. Jackie – you are welcome and really hope you enjoy it. I’ll watch with bated breath to see if you do as I know you enjoy a good plot and this book could be described as meandering at times. But it is written is a concise way which helps to keep it on track. I found the subject matter in Never Let Me Go quite disturbing when I saw the film so may need to psych myself up to read the book – I can imagine it being brilliant though.

  8. Oh, it’s a long time since I read this Tracey but I am such an Ishiguro fan and I love this book. I think “elegant writing” is a perfect way to describe him, particularly his first three books BUT I have read all of his works to date (except for The unconsoled) and like them all.

    • whisperinggums – I think Ishiguro will be an author I will read a lot of as well. Wonderful to know you have enjoyed all of his books, I have When We Were Orphans sitting on my bookshelf – think I will read this one soon.Thanks for commenting and reminding me how much I enjoyed him.

      • A pleasure Tracey … When we were orphans is a fascinating work. I also really liked his most recent book, a collection of short stories called Nocturnes. (It’s the only one I’ve read since starting my blog).

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