Sir Kazuo Ishiguro (born 8 November 1954) is a Nobel Prize-winning British novelist, screenwriter, and short-story writer. He was born in Nagasaki, Japan; his family moved to the UK in 1960 when he was five. Ishiguro graduated from the University of Kent with a bachelor’s degree in English and Philosophy in 1978 and gained his master’s from the University of East Anglia’s creative writing course in 1980.
Ishiguro is considered one of the most celebrated contemporary fiction authors in the English-speaking world, having received four Man Booker Prize nominations, and having won the award in 1989, for his novel ‘The Remains of the Day’. Ishiguro’s 2005 novel, ‘Never Let Me Go’, was named by Time as the best novel of the year, and was included in the magazine’s list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005. Growing up in a Japanese family in the UK was crucial to his writing, as it enabled him, he says, to see things from a different perspective to that of many of his British peers. His seventh novel, ‘The Buried Giant’, was published in 2015.
Ishiguro’s novels are preoccupied by memories, their potential to digress and distort, to forget and to silence, and, above all, to haunt.
When he was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, the Swedish Academy praised Ishiguro’s work for unearthing ‘the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.’ If Ishiguro’s novels tend to defy genre expectations, with each new work veering from the conventions of the last, what haunts all of them is the abyss of memory and its potential to shape and distort, to forget and to silence. His protagonists seek to overcome the chasms and absences left by loved ones and lost family members by making sense of the past through acts of remembrance.
In The Remains of the Day we are offered the narrative of Stevens, a butler. The privileged, isolated world of Darlington Hall reveals a society seemingly detached from national and international affairs. Yet it gradually becomes clear that the late Lord Darlington was himself a Nazi sympathizer during the war, a fact that Stevens struggles throughout the text to reconcile with his own view of his employer as a great man. It is 1956 and Darlington Hall has a new master, an American businessman who encourages Stevens to take some time off. As he travels by motor car to visit former housekeeper, Miss Kenton, Stevens’ memories unfold in the form of a travelogue. Yet, Stevens’ flashbacks help us to make sense of his past and simultaneously expose that past as provisional, partial and unreliable. As the story progresses, we learn that Stevens helped his master entertain Fascist leaders like Mosley and that his visit to Miss Kenton (a former lover) has an ulterior motive. Stevens is a deluded character, and as such readers sympathize with, but cannot quite place faith in him. The stunning precision and clarity of Ishiguro’s prose in The Remains of the Day
belies the fact that it is also a fiction about imprecision and the distortions of language.
As the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature committee noted, Ishiguro ‘is someone who is very interested in understanding the past, but he is not a Proustian writer, he is not out to redeem the past, he is exploring what you have to forget in order to survive in the first place as an individual or as a society’.
- abyss – a very great difference between two people, things, or groups can be referred to as an abyss.
- belie – if one thing belies another, it proves that the other thing is not true or genuine.
- chasm – a chasm is a very deep crack in rock, earth, or ice.
If you say that there is a chasm between two things or between two groups of people, you mean that there is a very large difference between them.
- crucial – if you describe something as crucial, you mean it is extremely important.
- defy – if you defy someone or something that is trying to make you behave in a particular way, you refuse to obey them and behave in that way.
- delude – if you delude yourself, you let yourself believe that something is true, even though it is not true.
- digress – if you digress, you move away from the subject you are talking or writing about and talk or write about something different for a while.
- distort – if you distort a statement, fact, or idea, you report or represent it in an untrue way.
- enable – if someone or something enables you to do a particular thing, they give you the opportunity to do it.
- haunt – if something unpleasant haunts you, you keep thinking or worrying about it over a long period of time.
- imprecision – inaccuracy
- partial – you use partial to refer to something that is not complete or whole.
- peers – your peers are the people who are the same age as you or who have the same status as you.
- provisional – you use provisional to describe something that has been arranged or appointed for the present but may be changed in the future.
- reconcile – if you reconcile two beliefs, facts, or demands that seem to be opposed or completely different, you find a way in which they can both be true or both be successful.
- redeem – to make something or someone seem less bad
- to take some time off – the time when you do not go to work, even though these are usually working days.
- travelogue – a travelogue is a talk or film about travel or about a particular person’s travels.
- ulterior – if you say that someone has an ulterior motive for doing something, you believe that they have a hidden reason for doing it.
- unearth – discover (something hidden, lost, or kept secret) by investigation or searching
- unreliable – if you describe something as unreliable, you mean that you cannot trust it.
- veer – change direction suddenly
BOLLEN: You were born in California and grew up a child of the West Coast. Yet I would never describe your aesthetic or approach as Californian—and certainly not Hollywood. Was it a conscious decision to build a career outside of the industry?
IVORY: The conscious decision, early on, was that I was going to live in New York. That was it. I went to Europe in ’52 or ’53, and when I came back, I stopped in New York. I remember looking out of a window on a glorious October morning and there was New York. And I thought, “I’m coming here. This is for me.”
BOLLEN: Was your plan always to be a filmmaker?
IVORY: No, I thought I was going to be a set designer. That’s why I went to architecture school. I mean, I hardly knew how movies were made. The cult of the director and all that stuff didn’t exist then. That didn’t come until the 1960s French new wave. I scarcely knew what a director even did. I knew what actors did and I could imagine what a screenwriter would do, but I didn’t understand the whole setup, really, until I made my first feature. And that first feature was with Ismail Merchant.
BOLLEN: Then how did you end up making a documentary for your thesis?
IVORY: I had to write one for the program, and I thought, “Wouldn’t it be better if I just made a film?” I proposed it, and my teachers said, “Why not?” They weren’t that enthusiastic. They didn’t say, “Wonderful idea, Jim! Fabulous!” They weren’t going to fund it. My father paid for it. I thought it would be a kind of art film set in Venice, telling the history of Venice through paintings.
BOLLEN: With Venice: Theme and Variations , you were on your way to becoming a recognized documentarian.
IVORY: It was a film about the art, but it was also about the everyday city itself: the sunsets and gondolas and all the stuff that we know and I suppose is a big cliché. But it wasn’t to me. It was all glorious and new and something I wanted to get down on film. It had no sound so I had to create a soundtrack when I got back to school. After I finished it, they made me write a thesis anyway. [laughs]
BOLLEN: Then you made a second art film on Indian miniature paintings, which was also a critical success.
IVORY: I saw this collection of Indian miniature paintings in the gallery of a dealer in San Francisco. I was so captivated by them. I thought, “Gosh, I’ll make a movie about this!” It’s the arrogance of youth. Again, I knew nothing. Just like when I went to Venice, I didn’t know much about Venetian paintings. But there was beginning to be an awareness of India as a great sort of fabulous, distant land. And so, again, my father put up the money. The film was called The Sword and the Flute , and, like Venice, it was put on The New York Times best of the year list. It was because of the success of the first two documentaries that the Asia Society in New York got the idea to send me to Delhi to do a documentary about the city.
BOLLEN: Was that initial trip to India love at first sight?
IVORY: Oh, definitely. I adored it. And all the terrible things that can happen to people in India if they’re not careful didn’t really happen to me. I didn’t get sick or end up in some dreadful massacre. I just loved it and I quickly made a lot of friends. I met Satyajit Ray, who would later become extremely helpful to us.
BOLLEN: Is Delhi where you first met Ismail?
IVORY: No, there was a screening of The Sword and the Flute at the Indian consulate in New York. He knew the actor, who had done the narration for it, so he went to see it. Ismail came up to me afterward, and we became acquainted. Ismail had already been living in Los Angeles and produced a dance film [The Creation of Woman, 1960] that he took out to California and, lo and behold, got it nominated for an Oscar. He was only 23 or 24.
BOLLEN: So Ismail had the film bug early on?
IVORY: From the time he was a teenager, he wanted to get into film. He saw Satyajit Ray’s films and that changed everything for him. And he loved American movies, as they do in India. Anyway, I returned to India to shoot more footage, and Ismail had gone back home with all kinds of plans to make his own films in India. So we got together in India. He had planned to make a feature that didn’t work out. But he had read the novel The Householder by Ruth. It was Ismail’s idea to make it into a film because it was such a wonderful book. I read it and thought, “What do I know about middle-class Indian society?” But Ismail and Ruth knew everything about it. So I said okay. We also had Satyajit Ray’s crew because he wasn’t busy just then. So it sort of became a family thing.
BOLLEN: And thus began the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala triumvirate that would last for more than 40 years. You made a series of terrific feature films set in India. Was there any pressure in those years to migrate to Los Angeles and join the ranks of lucrative American filmmaking?
IVORY: Well, my father did think I should get interested in television. But I had very little interest in television in those days, and it wasn’t something I wanted to do. I really never thought about going to work on big feature films in Hollywood. But when we made The Householder, Columbia Pictures bought it. Who would have ever imagined?
BOLLEN: Were you offered a lot of projects after the success of Howards End and The Remains of the Day?
IVORY: We were on the edges of Hollywood and, after those films, they really got interested in us. We could make a box-office movie for very little money, which all the critics were crazy about. And what was our secret? Well, it’s only good for so long, as all directors know who make a successful independent film. Let’s just see what happens with the people who made Moonlight. Hollywood wants to exploit you, which is fair enough because they’re offering you money you’ve never had before.
BOLLEN: Can you tell in advance what’s going to be a success?
IVORY: I always assume that nothing that I make is going to be a success, that everything I make is going to be a failure—not a failure but not some huge box-office success. If something is an artistic success, I’ll be happy, but I’ll maybe be the only person that’s happy with that apart from Ruth and Ismail. Most of our films have not been big box-office films.
BOLLEN: I hope you don’t mind this question, but I wanted to ask how it’s been to make films after Ismail passed away.
IVORY: I’ve only done one.
BOLLEN: Did his death change your relationship to film?
IVORY: Not really. We had already begun to set up The City of Your Final Destination. Ismail and I had gone to Argentina to find locations and Ruth had written the script, so we were working on it. But then we left that to go and make The White Countess in Shanghai. It was there, at the very end of shooting, that Ismail broke his ankle. We finished shooting and came back here and had to edit The White Countess. But Ismail somehow never really recovered. He was walking around, but there was a kind of depression that set in. And a very good friend of ours who was a wonderful producer in France, Humbert Balsan, killed himself. That just devastated Ismail. Then Ismail got another one of his bleeding ulcers, and unfortunately we were in London when that happened. Twice before it happened when we were in Paris, and both times the French knew exactly what to do. The English somehow failed and Ismail died.
BOLLEN: Was he in the hospital long?
IVORY: Three or four days. They thought he was going to be okay, but they did something wrong or they failed somewhere.
BOLLEN: That must have been so devastating.
IVORY: Yes, it was terrible. I could have plunged into real despair or depression, but I had to finish The White Countess, and that kept me going. It was not an easy film to finish. It was an expensive film, and there was an awful lot to do. And then I was more or less okay by the next year, and we went off to Argentina, and from then on, I’ve been involved in the Richard project. It’s the only thing I’ve really wanted to do since.
BOLLEN: One final comment. I rewatched The Remains of the Day last week and found the final scene between Emma Thompson and Anthony Hopkins so debilitatingly sad. I couldn’t get Emma Thompson’s weeping face out of my mind for days. It was so clear they would never see each other again, and was it worth it to be reminded of what you didn’t have?
IVORY: There’s a funny story about that scene. The story goes that the head of Columbia Pictures, which made the film, was apparently watching it alone in the studio, and when that moment happened with their hands pulling apart, a scene everyone loves, he supposedly jumped up and said, “There goes 50 billion dollars!” [laughs] Because it has an unhappy ending.
- aesthetic – is used to talk about beauty or art, and people’s appreciation of beautiful things.
- debilitating – making someone very weak and infirm
- know-it-all – If you say that someone is a know-it-all, you are critical of them because they think that they know a lot more than other people
- lo and behold – used to present a new scene, situation, or turn of events, often with the suggestion that, though surprising, it could in fact have been predicted
- lucrative – producing a great deal of profit
- massacre – the killing of a large number of people at the same time in a violent and cruel way
- perils – the risks or difficulties that arise from a particular situation or activity
- sawmill – a sawmill is a factory in which wood from trees is sawn into long flat pieces
- set design – is the creation of theatrical, as well as film or television scenery
Useful phrases form conversation
- He has dignity.
- dignity – the state or quality of being worthy of honour or respect
- Arranged meetings with German politicians.
- He had a great affection for Miss Kenton.
- There was an unwritten rule in those days that if a servant or servants got married they had to leave service.
- He had deep feelings for Mrs Benn.
- For the remainder of his life he mused over this question and came to the conclusion that he was in error.
- mused over – ponder
- It is better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all.