Kazuo Ishiguro Awarded Nobel Prize in Literature

Kazuo Ishiguro in 2015.
Andrew Testa for The New York Times

The English novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, known for his spare, elliptical prose style and his inventive subversion of literary genres, was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature on Thursday.

Mr. Ishiguro, 62, is best known for his novels “The Remains of the Day,” about a butler serving an English lord in the years leading up to World War II, and “Never Let Me Go,” a melancholy dystopian love story set in a British boarding school. In his seven novels, he has obsessively returned to the same themes, including the fallibility of memory, mortality and the porous nature of time.

“If you mix Jane Austen and Franz Kafka then you have Kazuo Ishiguro in a nutshell, but you have to add a little bit of Marcel Proust into the mix,” said Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of The Swedish Academy. “Then you stir, but not too much, then you have his writings.”

Ms. Danius described Mr. Ishiguro as “a writer of great integrity.”

“He doesn’t look to the side,” she said. “He has developed an aesthetic universe all his own.”

In a statement released by his publisher, Mr. Ishiguro expressed astonishment at the award, calling it, “amazing and totally unexpected news.”

“It comes at a time when the world is uncertain about its values, its leadership and its safety,” he wrote. “I just hope that my receiving this huge honor will, even in a small way, encourage the forces for good will and peace at this time.”

In a career that spans some 35 years, Mr. Ishiguro has gained wide recognition for his idiosyncratic, emotionally restrained prose style. His novels are often narrated in the first person, by unreliable narrators who are in denial about truths that are gradually revealed to the reader. The resonance in his novels often comes from the rich subtext — the things left unsaid, and gaps between the narrator’s perception and reality.

The Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje, the author of “The English Patient,” said he was “thrilled” by the academy’s choice. “He is such a rare and mysterious writer, always surprising to me, with every book,” he wrote in an email.

Born in 1954 in Nagasaki and educated in Britain, Kazuo Ishiguro is known for, among other things, his lyrical prose, his acute sense of place and for his masterful parsing of the British class system.

Mr. Ishiguro was born in Japan, the son of an oceanographer, and moved to Surrey when he was 5 years old, and attended Woking Grammar School, a school that he told The Guardian was “probably the last chance to get a flavor of a bygone English society that was already rapidly fading.”

In an interview with The Times two years ago, Mr. Ishiguro said that he had discovered literature as a young boy when he came upon Sherlock Holmes stories in the local library. “I was around 9 or 10, and I not only read obsessively about Holmes and Watson, I started to behave like them. I’d go to school and say things like: ‘Pray, be seated’ or ‘That is most singular.’ People at the time just put this down to my being Japanese,” he said, adding that he was attracted to the world of Conan Doyle because it was “so very cozy.”

After studying English and philosophy at the University of Kent, in Canterbury, he spent a year writing fiction, eventually gaining a masters of arts in creative writing, and studied with writers such as Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter.

In his 20s, he wanted to be a singer-songwriter, a pursuit he failed at, but one that later helped to shape his spare, first-person prose style. He has written lyrics for the American jazz singer Stacey Kent and still plays jazz and acoustic guitar, “no worse than the average amateur,” he said.

“My friends and I took songwriting very, very seriously,” he told The Guardian in an interview. “My hero was and still is Bob Dylan, but also people like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell and that whole generation. We would endlessly discuss the relationship between words and music and how they had to come alive within the context of performance.”

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SOURCE: NY Times, Alexandra Alter and Dan Bilefsky