The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro

Cover imageWhat’s your favourite book?   It’s a meaningless question of course.  If you’ve read a lot of books, you can’t really have one favourite.  But if I’m asked the question I’ve been known to answer The Unconsoled. I first read this some 16 years ago when it first came out, having heard Ishiguro talking about it on the radio.   I have just re-read it to see if I still rated it as highly.  I did.  It’s a long book, but I could hardly bring myself to put it down.

I was drawn to the book in the first place when I heard Ishiguro say that he had decided to write the book using the narrative technique of human dreams.  In a dream, he explained, a person can go through a door in one town and emerge in a different town (saving the many pages of rationalisation and explanation you might need to get a person from one place to another in a realistic novel).   These jumps happen frequently in the novel, as do other dream-like devices, such as one  person doubling up as another, or of a person standing outside a building being able to see what is going on inside, or a person or thing from the past turning up in a completely different context without this causing anyone any surprise.  But the novel isn’t in any way ‘dreamy’.   The dream-technique is used for compression, not for random weirdness, the writing is in Ishiguro’s usual spare exact stiff-upper-lippy prose, the characters are precisely and poignantly drawn, and even though the situations are often bizarre, the human relationships are painfully real.

The story is about an eminent pianist, Ryder, arriving in an unnamed European town (the town is unnamed but the characters have German-sounding names: there is a definite debt to Kafka in this book, and in my opinion, if not a debt then a faint kinship with the work of another of my  favourite writers, Philip Dick).  The town expects great things of Ryder, and he is very taken with the idea of himself as a great and important man, but what unfolds (for I guess some 200,000 words) resembles  one of those anxiety dreams (I have them frequently) in which you are trying to get somewhere, but are constantly thwarted by endless complications and obstacles (for example by a brick wall built for no reason right across a street).  Or the ones in which you are never quite sure what part you are supposed to be playing.

In the course of this, a whole cast of characters appears, mostly rather lonely and tortured souls, many of them so driven by a need to redeem themselves in the eyes of their imagined superiors, or their parents, or their own eyes, that they neglect and forget about those they are supposed to love.  (Themes apparent also in his previous novel The Remains of the Day).   There are many truly heartrending moments, for example when parents simply fail to see how much their children need their approval, but the book is also often funny enough to make you laugh out loud.  The banality of everyday thoughts are wonderfully mocked by having the vain and self-centred Ryder expressing them in the same pompous language that he uses to talk about his big projects, and often the book is simultaneously funny and excruciatingly sad.  Here is Ryder, who has promised to spend an evening playing boardgames with his little boy, but is distracted by… the need to read every word in the local paper:

Returning to my sofa, I saw that, by putting my plate down on a cushion beside me,  I would be able to eat and continue to read my newspaper at the same time.  I had decided earlier to examine the newspaper very carefully, scrutinising even the adverts for local businesses, and I now continued with this project, reaching over occasionally to my plate without taking my eyes off the newsprint.

There’s no way of doing the book justice in a summary, and I’m sure that, even on two readings, I have only understood part of what is actually there, but it certainly remains one of my favourite books, unsurpassed I think by Ishiguro himself, and I’m surprised it isn’t more famous than it is.

I particularly love the idea of using the narrative devices of dreams because my own view is that dreams are the original archetypal stories.   When people say they don’t have the imagination to write stories, I often wonder how it is that people can say that, when every night they weave themselves complicated intricate stories without even trying, rich in layers and layers of meaning, and often full of truths which waking minds just don’t grasp.  Freud saw dreams as the disguised representations of desires, but that’s only a little part of what dreams do.  In my experience dreams tell me who I am, and often direct a sharp light onto my own self-deceptions, my own little acts of cowardice.  And it is exactly that kind of light that The Unconsoled enlists to shine into the lives of its characters.

 

Out in Asimov’s: Day 29

A new story of mine – ‘Day 29’ – is just out in Asimov’s.   When I submitted it, Sheila Williams (Asimov’s editor) commented that they didn’t usually take horror stories    Funnily enough, it hadn’t really occurred to me that it was a horror story until that point.  Looking back, it occurs to me that there has been a strand of horror going through a number of my more recent stories, including ‘Karel’s prayer’, ‘The Dessicated Man’, ‘Greenland’.

Day 29 is one of those stories which evolve (it wasn’t planned as a horror story, so I suppose that’s why I didn’t notice it had become one.)   It’s core is a thought experiment (eloquently summarised by one reader here)  about identity, and about the extent to which our individual selves are the product of interaction with others.

The forests of Lutania owe something to The Snail on the Slope, by the Strugatsky brothers.  (Like their Roadside Picnic, this is a very nearly unreadable book, which nevertheless leaves a strange and very powerful trace in the mind, like a powerful and numinous dream which you don’t understand but can’t forget.   Remarkable books, even though you have to force yourself through them.)

I don’t know for certan, but I imagine I got the idea for the title  from Version 43 by my friend Philip Palmer.  In this novel, people travel between planets by teleportation, but with a 50/50 chance of arriving dead and mangled at the other end.

In ‘Day 29’, there is also a price to pay for travelling in this way: you lose your recent memories.  Everyone arrives at the other end having lost at least 29 days, and possibly as much as 40 days.

So you can be quite sure that anything you do in the last 29 days before you make the leap, you won’t remember.

The Holy Machine: the song

The Holy Machine is now also a song!

The Holy Machine – Southern Tenant Folk Union

(Song by P.McGarvey, published by Santa Mira Music/admin. Bug Music Ltd Copyright 2011: Johnny Rock Records.)

The Edinburgh-based group Southern Tenant Folk Union have included this as the final track on their forthcoming album ‘Pencaitland’, due out in June 2011 (see cover image below).   The whole album is well worth hearing.   I particularly liked the setting of the W.B.Yeats poem ‘An Irish Airman Foresees his Death’.

Album cover image

The Peacock Cloak: the picture

The Russian translation of ‘The Peacock Cloak’ appeared in Esli magazine accompanied by this picture by Eugene Kapustiansky, reproduced here by kind permission of the magazine and artist.  I think it’s great.  The eyes are just how I imagined them, alert and restless, and yet vacuous.   More information about the artist is below the picture.

The Peacock Cloak: Eugene Kapustiansky

Eugene Kapustiansky was born in 1946.  He graduated from the Art faculty of Moscow Polytechnic and worked in Moscow with journals including ProgressSoviet Writer and Soviet Composer. From 1991 he worked at the publishing house Friend as an art director, and then with the newspaper Izvestia.  He has been working with Esli since 2003.

The Time Traveller’s Wife

I watched the film ‘The Time Traveller’s Wife’ recently.  I wasn’t expecting to be crazy about it, having not been that taken with the book by Audrey Niffenegger (there was something about the authorial voice that jarred, though I admired the idea of it, and admired the feat of plotting a relationship between two people for each of whom the same life events occur in a different order).  There were some irritating things in the film too, but overall I enjoyed it very much.  It seemed to follow the novel pretty closely, but this is perhaps a story that benefits from not having to have a narrator.

The Time Traveller has an affliction which means that from time to time, suddenly and without warning, he flips forward or backwards in time, leaving an empty pile of clothes, to return again after an hour, a minute, a week…  His wife first meets him, many times, when he is an adult man and she is a little girl.   Then, when she is an adult, she meets him again, a man she has known and loved most of her life, but he doesn’t know her at all, because he hasn’t yet reached the age at which he first flips back to her childhood.   Watching the film, I felt there was something rather wonderful about this notion.  It was one of those ideas that prod away at the mind.

He dies quite young, but after he is dead , he comes back again a couple of times  – not a ghost, not an apparition, but completely alive and well, younger than he had been when he died, and able to tell his wife, the precise time in their mutual past from which he’s just flipped.   The first time he meets his daughter is when he has flipped forward from a time before she was born to a time in the future when he has already died.

And these dislocations too, prodded away at my mind all the next day.   Rather in the way of the bold, simple central idea of the novel Inverted World which I wrote about here recently, this simple device of a woman having a relationship with a time traveller was one of those ideas which I find satisfying because they are rich in metaphorical possibilities, but can’t simply be translated into a single ‘meaning’.

It made me wonder, for instance, whether all relationships are really relationships between time travellers, since we all travel back and forth between our present and our past, and are in some moments grownups and in others adolescents or children, so that ever day the relationship between two people presents endless possible combinations…

It made me think of Kurt Vonnegut’s Tralfamadorians, for whom time is essentially the same as space, so that the idea of a person not being alive for ever is no more distressing than the fact that a person does not exist at every point in space…

It made me think of the way that I am myself a time traveller, sometimes dealing with the world in front of me, but again and again sliding back to struggles from my past, or slipping sideways into imaginary or faraway places where I don’t  exist at all.

PS  And incidentally, to return to the theme of my previous post, the fact that time travel is impossible (let alone a genetic condition that causes time travel!) is entirely irrelevant to the question of the worth of this book.  Being possible or plausible in a literal sense, is not the only way in which a story can connect with real life.

“Sense of wonder”

Most people who read or write science fiction identify a “sense of wonder” as part of the original appeal of the genre.   This was certainly true for me.  Reading SF as a teenager with an as yet unjaded palette, I enjoyed the almost spinetingling sense of strangeness that it evoked.

I think one of the things science fiction can usefully do, is remind us that, outside the tiny tiny realm which has come to seem ordinary to us  as a result of habit and familiarity, this is a very strange universe.   (Science fiction has a particular way of doing this, but you could argue that all artistic-type activity ought to be aimed at tearing away the veneer of ordinariness.)

Science fiction can however contribute itself to a kind of dulling and deadening:  a kind of inflationary process exists which is in danger of debasing the currency of wonder.   The first time you see or read about a gigantic space ship, for instance, it inspires wonder.  When you have seen the same thing repeated over and over again, it grows tedious – and just making the spaceship even bigger does not help.  As Ian Sales says:  ‘Scale is not sense of wonder, and a lot of sf confuses the two.’    I wonder if it is possible that a failure to understand this fact has led to the decline in prestige and popularity of SF?

This is a related, but not identical point, to that made by the proponents of Mundane SF who propose that science fiction ought to be more scientific, more committed to the world that actually exists, and confine itself  to futures and technologies that might actually occur.   Faster-than-light-travel and galactic empires, are really just escapist fantasies, on this argument.  They will almost certainly never happen, and to write about them as if they were possible futures is perhaps to downplay the uniqueness and importance of our home on Earth, possibly dangerously so.

I go along with the spirit of this argument, but not entirely with the letter of it.   I agree that it is important that SF should connect with the world we actually inhabit and I am not interested in SF that doesn’t (not just for reasons of principle but also because I find it very tedious).   But sticking literally to what is actually possible is not the only way of reflecting and exploring the world we  live in, and not only SF but all branches of literature work by taking some liberties with the literal truth.

Literature and Science Fiction

Science fiction writers are often touchy about snobbery directed against their genre, the assumption that because something is set in the future, or has robots in it, or is set on another planet, it can’t be ‘serious’ literature (unless, of course, it’s written by someone who is already known for ‘serious’ literature, like Lessing or Ishiguro).   See recent observations by Philip Palmer and Stephen Hunt.

I share this irritation.  Of course science fiction can be badly written, poorly characterised etc etc but so can historical fiction.  That doesn’t mean we dismiss War and Peace because it happens to be set in the past.  Of course science fiction can be light-hearted, intended as a diversion and nothing much more, but this is undoubtedly true too of a lot of romantic fiction, and it doesn’t make us dismiss Jane Austen just because her novels fall into that bag.   And of course science fiction involves making stuff up, and indulging the reader in imaginary worlds, but so does The Tempest and  Midsummer Night’s Dream.

The tools of science fiction can be used for a lot of purposes (like a pack of playing cards that can be used for many different games).  I use them to write, as originally and interestingly as I can, about things that matter to me, and strike me as important, which I believe is what Tolstoy, Austen and Shakespeare did too.   I don’t know if the end result is literature and, assuming that this is even a meaningful question, it would be for others to judge not me.  But it’s annoying that there are a lot of people out there who’d be happy to make that judgment  without even reading what I have to say.

Us from the future

I’ve read a couple of books lately about the Tudor era: Anna Whitlock’s book about Mary Tudor, and Chris Skidmore’s book about Edward VI (Edward and Mary being a brother and sister under whose reigns first Catholics and then Protestants were persecuted).   I also recently saw the film The Other Boleyn Girl, which I enjoyed, and seemed true to what I had read about the Tudor world-view, though I gather its not that strong on historical accuracy., and which prompted me to think more that time in history.

I’m struck – as I always am when I see Shakespeare plays – with how different people’s world view was.  The acceptance of extraordinarily cruel punishments.  The killing of political opponents as more or less standard procedure.   The way that family duties flow upwards (children to parents) rather than downwards, and the way that the needs of a family’s ‘head’ trump the wishes of individual members.  The strange mix of a very frank and earthy way of talking about sex with strict rules about marriage and inheritance.  The massive double standards about chastity and sexual fidelity.  The seemingly cynical manipulation of religion oddly combined with a faith so intense that people are willing to die horribly for it…

The Tudor world-view  seems strange and even perverse from the perspective of now, and I wonder what about our own present western world view will seem equally strange and perverse from the future.  My guess is that we will be seen as having elevated the human individual to an odd degree: with individual freedom of choice as the supreme good, or in any case held up as such.  (For of course just like the Tudors we are capable of holding something up as supremely important but not necessarily treating it consistently as such in practice) .

I’m not very well-read in these matters but I guess this sanctification of individual choice is a product of capitalism.   The customer is always right.  (Again, as a matter of theory and rhetoric, though not necessarily in practice).  In the modern UK,  even the citizens of the  state are constructed as its customers, always justifiably aggrieved by the poor service, and always deserving of a better one.   In Tudor times, from what I can see, the idea of ‘citizens’ as customers of the state would have simply seemed bizarre.  Rather they would have been component elements within it, each one supposed to play a part, like cells in the body politic.

I guess there are other ways of seeing this relationship between individual and society, perhaps as yet inconceivable.

Christopher Priest: Inverted World

Feeling that I would like to steep myself a little more in the history of the genre in which I write,  I’ve been buying books in Gollancz’s SF Masterworks series, and have just finished this one which I had never come across before.   The cover sold it to me, and more than most covers do, sums up what the book is about.

Priest’s own website includes a scathing review of this book by Martin Amis (complete with a spitefully gratuitous spoiler),  pointing out the wild implausibility of the story.   Amis also suggests that a ‘courteous editor’ would have reduced the first 100-odd pages to more like 20.

It’s true that there are a lot of holes in the story.  It isn’t plausible and, even looked at within its own terms, there are obvious questions left unanswered (why, when the inhabitants of the city are constantly interacting with the people around them, has no one in the past 200 years ever thought of asking the locals where they actually are?)

But the central image is incredibly compelling.  A city is perpetually being very slowly hauled along railway tracks that must be laid ahead of it, and then taken up again after it has passed.   It must keep moving forward to escape annihilation which is never far behind it.   Surveyors go out ahead of it (or ‘up future’ as the characters in the story call it, for they conflate distance and time and measure their lives in miles) to try and work out the best route to follow.    Others ride out from the city to recruit locals to labour for them… and to bear them children, for the city does not produce enough girls of its own.

Amis’ comment about the length of the first 100 pages misses the point.   The joy of this book is this central image.  It’s very rich in metaphorical possibilities and we need time and the accumulation of detail to let us savour it,  let it soak in, allow us to inhabit it.    One Amazon reviewer mentions that the book prompted a very vivid dream.   Yes, this city on rails does have a feel that is like the odd places we come back to again and again in our dreams, full of meaning, yet not amenable to simply being decoded into a single, simple message.