An Artist of the Floating World, is a novel of Japan, set in the 1940’s after the war, by Kazuo Ishiguro, who won the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017. It is counted amongst Ishiguro’ four masterpieces including The Remains of The Day, Never Let Me Go and The Unconsoled.
The novel was ranked at No. 94, in The Guardian’s list of top 100 novels of all time, compiled by the great literary critic, Robert McCrum, calling it:
Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel about a retired artist in Postwar Japan, reflecting on his career during the country’s dark years, is a tour de force of unreliable narration.
I have been-very forthrightly-a very devoted admirer of Ishiguro’s work. It all began with The Remains of the Day, followed by Never Let Me Go, and The Unconsoled. All of them-I cannot help but agree-are masterpieces and belong to the stratum of first class literature.
An Artist of the Floating World, is about a former artist named Masuji Ono, one of the extant albeit well known artists who saw the dark metamorphosis of their town from before to, during, and after the Second World War.
The novel is written in exquisite and jewelled first person narrative style, which is sparse yet not suffocated, it feels like a fabric of silk, humming in the fingers, as conspicuous in The Remains of the Day, and Never Let Me Go. Also, one of the greatest aspects of Ishiguro’s writing, is the wonderful sense of simplicity, with a softness of words, and ringing with a sense of good etiquette. Ishiguro never compromises the craft of storytelling, depth of character and landscape to make room for a display of pirouetting verbosity of language.
I would also argue, this novel while being very similar to The Remains of the Day, follows a very different approach as the landscapes are in a direct contrast. The visceral trajectory of the United Kingdom, where The Remains of The Day, is set, is entirely dichotomous to the vast and complex portrait of Japan. Japan in this novel, is not created out of extensive research or travelogues, but out of Ishiguro’s remarkable childhood memories of Japan.
This Japan, which one gets to read, in this remarkable novel, is one infused with nostalgia and melancholia, amidst the rubble and ravage caused by the mechanic forces of destruction in the war. Old cafes, buildings, shops, and streets wiped clean into thin fallow ground. It is a testament to Ishiguro’s capability as a writer, that he does not exploit his rich surroundings for creative growth of a narrative where there is barely any, instead he points deeper to the character’s heart itself, its moods, its tides and turpitudes.
Unlike his other novels, structurally, An Artist of the Floating World, has the dream-like taste of an Haiku or Hay(na)ku. It is the most reticent of Ishiguro’s novels, a sense of calmness hovers over his scenic imagination, character depth, and the spoken word. It is also the most ruminative, as the narrator is a retired post-war artist, with not much bustle in his life, he contemplates upon his old friends and foes, cafes and drunken nights with his students, an aching heart beneath small contentions. The narrator is unreliable, he hides and keeps things to himself, until circumstances change and the truth comes out in spasms.
Yet, one might also wish, that perhaps the novel shouldn’t have-by stroke of luck-referred to some of the central themes of his later work, which is The Remains of The Day, such as dignity and regrettable choices especially in professional life. It is clear, that Ishiguro thought more of these themes as the time went by, and this muse compelled him to write again on certain previous themes, and no one would regret, the publication of the absolutely heart breaking ‘The Remains of The Day’.
An Artist of the Floating World, is not, in the end as intoxicatingly heartbreaking as The Remains of The Day, or as emotionally disturbing as Never Let Me Go. Yet, An Artist of The Floating World is a novel which has beauty and regret percolating across all its pages, and paints an absolutely unforgettable dream-like landscape.