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