STOCKHOLM – Kazuo Ishiguro, the Japanese-born British novelist best known for “The Remains of the Day” and other works about memory’s pain and illusions, won the Nobel Literature Prize on Thursday.
The selection of the 62-year-old Ishiguro marked a return to citing fiction writers following two years of unconventional choices by the Swedish Academy for the 9-million-kronor ($1.1 million) prize. It also continues a recent trend of giving the award to British authors born elsewhere – V.S. Naipaul, the 2001 winner, is from Trinidad and Tobago; the 2007 honoree, Doris Lessing, was a native of Iran who grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe).
“Some of the themes that I have tried to tackle in my work – about history, about not just personal memory but the way countries and nations and communities remember their past, and how often they bury the uncomfortable memories from the past – I hope that these kinds of themes will actually be in some small way helpful to the climate we have at the moment,” Ishiguro said Thursday, speaking in his backyard in north London.
Sara Danius, the academy’s permanent secretary, praised Ishiguro as a mix of Jane Austen – “her comedy of manners and her psychological insights” – and the dark undercurrents of Franz Kafka. The academy called Ishiguro’s eight books works of emotional force that uncover “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world.”
In “The Remains of the Day,” a million-seller that came out in 1989 and won the Booker Prize, a butler at a grand house looks back on a life in service to the aristocracy. The novel’s gentle rhythms and “Downton Abbey”-style setting gradually deepen into a haunting depiction of the repressed emotional and social landscape of 20th century England and the deadly rise of fascism.
An Associated Press review from the time noted that “Ishiguro neatly reverses the cliche of ‘what the butler saw’ by building a novel around what the butler didn’t see.”
The 1993 film adaptation by the Merchant-Ivory production team starred Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson and was nominated for eight Academy Awards.
Like “The Remains of the Day,” his 2005 novel “Never Let Me Go” is a story of deceptive surfaces and uncertain memory. What appears to be a narrative of three young friends at a boarding school gradually reveals itself as a dystopian tale with elements of science fiction that asks deep ethical questions. The movie adaptation starred Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley.
“I’ve always liked the texture of memory,” Ishiguro told www.writerswrite.com around the time “Never Let Me Go” came out.
“I like it that a scene pulled from the narrator’s memory is blurred at the edges, layered with all sorts of emotions, and open to manipulation. You’re not just telling the reader: ‘this-and-this happened.’ You’re also raising questions like: Why has she remembered this event just at this point? How does she feel about it? And when she says she can’t remember very precisely what happened, but she’ll tell us anyway, well, how much do we trust her?”
The Swedish Academy stunned the literary world last year by giving the prize to Bob Dylan, while in 2015 it offered a rare spotlight for nonfiction writers by honoring Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich.
Ishiguro’s preferred art form is fiction, but he works in other media. He has written several screenplays, including for the Merchant-Ivory release “The White Countess,” and has collaborated on songs performed by jazz singer Stacey Kent. He also contributed liner notes for Kent’s album “In Love Again.”
“Songwriting was an old passion of mine. Earlier in my life I’d been a singer-songwriter until I turned to fiction,” he told the Independent in 2013.
Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki but moved to England as a boy after his father, an oceanographer, was invited by the head of the British National Institute of Oceanography. Although Ishiguro did not return to Japan until his 30s, his first two novels, “A Pale View of Hills” and the Booker-nominated “An Artist of the Floating World,” both centered on Japanese characters.
“I discovered that my imagination came alive when I moved away from the immediate world around me,” he told the Paris Review in 2008.
“When I tried to start a story: ‘I came out of Camden Town tube station and went into McDonald’s and there was my friend Harry from university,’ I couldn’t think of what to write next. Whereas when I wrote about Japan, something unlocked.”
Danius said the choice of Ishiguro did not show intention to avoid the controversy of giving the Nobel to Dylan.
“No, we don’t consider these issues. So we thought that last year was a straightforward choice – we picked one of the greatest poets in our time. And this year, we have picked one of the most exquisite novelists in our time,” she said.
Jill Lawless in London and Hillel Italie in New York contributed to this story.