The Nobel Prize in Literature Committee is Back on Track
Kazuo Ishiguro, an actual novelist, wins the 2017 prize
I f the Nobel Prize in Literature were a TV show, last year would have been the season it jumped the shark. The selection of Bob Dylan—Bob Dylan! Not even Leonard Cohen!—outraged some, confused everyone, and embarrassed the hell out of The New Republic’s Alex Shephard, who reported on the betting odds with a piece entitled “Who Will Win the 2016 Nobel Prize in Literature? Not Bob Dylan, that’s for sure.” Shephard hedged his bets this year, gamely including such literary luminaries as Kanye West and Bruce Springsteen on his list, albeit at no odds.
But if the Nobel Prize in Literature were a TV show, this year would be the season everyone assures you is worth sitting through last year to get to. Kazuo Ishiguro, the British novelist who won the Booker Prize in 1989 for his The Remains of the Day, isn’t exactly a surprising choice—by which I mean Americans have heard of him, and his work has even been made into a movie. Two movies! But it’s also just surprising enough. Ishiguro didn’t appear on the list of top betting odds; favorites included Kenyan novelist Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Canadian national treasure Margaret Atwood. But he’s an undisputed master of the craft of fiction, a luminous writer praised by the committee for his “carefully restrained mode of expression” and “great emotional force.”
That tension—between restrained expression and great emotional force roiling beneath the surface—is especially characteristic of The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro’s best-known novel. The novel’s narrator and sole voice is an aging butler, so the restraint of the prose is also a form of character development; the experience of reading the novel is one of working down inch by inch through that reserve to touch the torrent of feeling it’s holding back. But the same tension appears in Never Let Me Go, in which a secluded and heavily supervised English boarding school turns out to have a dark secret, and An Artist of the Floating World, which like Remains of the Day is told through the reminiscences of a single flawed narrator considering—and concealing, and revealing—the worth of his life.
“I quite like language that suppresses meaning rather than language that goes groping after something that’s slightly beyond the words,” Ishiguro said in a 2015 interview with Electric Literature. “I’m interested in speech that kind of conceals and covers up. I’m not necessarily saying that’s Japanese. But I suppose it goes with a certain kind Japanese aesthetic; a minimalism and simplicity of design that occurs over and over again in Japanese things, you know. I do like a flat, plain surface where the meaning is subtly pushed between the lines rather than overtly expressed. But I don’t know if that’s Japanese, or if that’s just me.” Whether or not it’s Japanese in origin, the Nobel committee agrees that it’s global in impact. Maintaining the delicate balance between careful prose and emotional heft is a deft trick, and Ishiguro deserves to be recognized.
Plus, we’re all extremely relieved it wasn’t Bruce Springsteen.