Before re-reading: This book was first published in 1986; I first read it c.2005, and have not read it since. I really enjoyed this when I was nineteen or so, and I remember it as a Japanese version of The Remains of the Day.
After re-reading: I re-read this in 2013. This seems like a less ambitious and less successful version of The Remains of the Day (but because it’s Ishiguro, it’s still a very worthwhile read).
One day, when I have a large house with its own library (or indeed, a flat with more then two bookshelves) I will embark upon a project inspired by Susan Hill’s Howards End is on the Landing and only re-read books that I already own for a year (with the exception of new trashy novels, I imagine, because when Lindsay Kelk is due to publish something that sounds as original as I Heart Christmas, how could I not read that at the correct seasonal moment). When I do embark upon this project, I’ve decided, I will always record my ‘old’ judgement of a novel before I re-read it; because I believe at times my opinion will radically change, although I admit the first experiment hasn’t really bourne that out. And so, for the moment, I have decided to re-read at least one book a month and adopt this policy; unfortunately, I neglected to do it for The Kraken Wakes and The Spell of the Sorceror’s Skull, but as my ‘old’ impressions of those books were probably ‘Scary krakens!’ and ‘Scary Latin incarnations!’, I doubt that anybody missed much.
So, to move on to An Artist of the Floating World, this book is indeed an odd fish. Its central character and narrator, Masuji Ono, was a celebrated artist in pre-war Japan, and during the Second World War itself, but he now seems isolated and regretful, concerned with emphasising his reputation and the rightness of his actions while never telling the reader very much about what he did during the war that requires justification. Unfortunately for Ono, he is feeling the pressure to arrange successful marriage negotiations for his younger daughter, Noriko, and hence has to come to terms with the past and his fears that his previous actions may destroy Noriko’s chances. He is also struggling with his relationship with his older married daughter, Setsuko, and her young son, Ichiro, as his assumptions about masculine identity, the importance of Japanese culture, and early induction into adulthood are confounded by newer ideas. As this is an Ishiguro novel, it isn’t surprising that we gradually grow to doubt Ono’s narrative and wonder how far we can trust his own assessments of his guilt and his importance.
Ishiguro works through a number of themes in this novel that read as if he is limbering up for The Remains of the Day; and indeed, although this is still an accomplished book, the world does not feel as real or as deep as his imagined country-house landscape. Most obviously, both novels deal with an elderly man working through his guilt for his past actions before and during the Second World War, and coming to terms with the fact that the world-view he held and still holds, to an extent, may now be outdated. I had remembered this thematic similarity, but what I hadn’t remembered was the closeness of voice and structure between the two novels, despite the disparity of their settings. Near the end of the novel, Ono’s conversations with Noriko and Setsuko become eerily similar to Stevens’s conversations with his ageing father, even down to the small details; both Ono and Stevens are fond of ‘small laughs’ or ‘giving a laugh’ and the daughters and the son both add ‘Father’ unnecessarily onto comments, or speak about their father in the third person when they are having a conversation with him. Ono’s and Stevens’s self-delusions also mirror in the content of these chats, and it made me wonder whether Ishiguro – normally so skilful in distinguishing voice – wasn’t already mulling over the later novel in his head as he finished this earlier one (the publication dates do suggest that he wrote the manuscripts fairly close together). Ono’s repetitive descriptions of ‘The Bridge of Hesitation’ and his house also recall Stevens’s meandering car journeys and his obsession with English topography that frame his more interesting flashbacks.
However, more interestingly, Ishiguro seems to be working through certain aspects of this story that appear in a slightly different light in The Remains of the Day. Ono initially presents himself to us as an important artist and a figure who might have had great impact on Japanese support for the war effort, but it emerges throughout the novel that he may have been little more than one of many, a talented propagandist who never actually had the impact he claims for himself. Therefore, the ostensible plotline – of Ono having to face up to the terrible impact his actions had – is subverted; Ono’s admission to Noriko’s potential in-laws that he regrets his actions is of supreme importance to him, because he has to admit he was wrong, but also serves to bolster his sense of personal significance. Later, when Setsuko gently tries to tell him ‘Noriko told me she was extremely puzzled by Father’s behaviour that night... No one was at all sure what Father meant by it all’ and, later, ‘Father’s work had hardly to do with these larger matters [war propaganda] of which we are speaking. Father was simply a painter. He must stop believing he has done some great wrong.’ Of course, this is precisely what Ono cannot stop believing, because to do so would be to destroy the narrative of his life, far more so then his admission at the end of the novel that some of the changes in Japanese life have been for the better.
In contrast, Stevens both recognises his small contribution, and regrets deeply what happened, at the beginning of The Remains of the Day. The plot-line is not him coming to see that his actions were minor or wrong, but him wrestling with the idea of how much personal responsibility and independence he should have assumed in his life. The Ono role is essentially split into two figures – Stevens and Lord Darlington, and the central question is whether Stevens will realise where he did grievously err – in his personal life – and whether he will be able to rectify this. In the end, Stevens, like Ono, is both changed and not changed. He seems to have undergone much more of a personal journey (one of the reasons why I feel The Remains of the Day is the greater novel) in some respects; but he is left considering the same question that was bothering him at the beginning of the novel, how to be a better butler. It is the small detail of his actions that eludes Ono, but Stevens is much more focused from the start on the incidences where he did make a personal contribution, such as his lack of resistance to the firing of the Jewish maids by Lord Darlington.
To end where I began, An Artist of the Floating World is a peculiar book; it feels in many ways like a sketch for something bigger, and I have suggested that it was, but I also think that this was intentional. Ishiguro doesn’t want to fill in the details; Ono’s focus is on certain aspects of his world, and not on others, and the narrative structure, with its repetitive bridges and houses, reflects this, as does Ono’s assumption that ‘we’, the readers, know the places he is describing, and so will not require further information. This familiar Ishigurean trick is perhaps used to greatest effect in Never Let Me Go, his masterpiece; here, it is somewhat of an afterthought, a taste of things to come.