Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant

Kazuo Ishiguro is coming to Seattle at the end of this month, and I’m looking forward to going to see him. I got talking about him with a friend and fellow writer, and in a burst of enthusiasm went out and bought both When We Were Orphans and the new novel, The Buried Giant. (Spoiler alert: the article I’ve linked to gives away a bit of the plot, which is unfortunate, but it also has some comments from Ishiguro on the style issues I talk about here. If you want his comments without the spoilers, skip down to the last four paragraphs of the interview.)

After I finished The Buried Giant all I could say was, what a strange guy he is. And I knew, if I had the chance to ask a question when I see him, I’d say this: “You’re a master of style, of voice, of tone. What was it about the narrative voice in The Buried Giant that drew you?”

Here’s my guess at an answer. (It doesn’t jibe completely with what Ishiguro has to say in the Star article I’ve linked to above, but it’s not completely off, either.)

I’d read When We Were Orphans before, and loved it. I wanted desperately to find someone else who’d read it to talk about it with, because it puzzled me so. I didn’t find anyone, so when my friend, who has not read it, said he’d read it with me, I was excited to give it another look. When I read the first page and a half in the bookstore I was struck again by Ishiguro’s control of voice. The narrator is describing how he established himself in an independent life in London, taking and furnishing a flat and having his first guest to tea. Ishiguro expertly establishes his character’s concern for appearances, not only with the choice of subject (how he furnished his apartment, the selection of teas) but also with the language. Here’s the second half of the second paragraph:

Although at that point I had yet to receive a single visitor in my rooms, I issued my invitation with confidence, having chosen the premises with some care. The rent was not high, but my landlady had furnished the place in a tasteful manner that evoked an unhurried Victorian past; the drawing room, which received plenty of sun throughout the first half of the day, contained an ageing sofa as well as two snug armchairs, an antique sideboard and an oak bookcase filled with crumbling encyclopedias—all of which I was convinced would win the approval of any visitor. Moreover, almost immediately upon taking the rooms, I had walked over to Knightsbridge and acquired there a Queen Anne tea service, several packets of fine teas, and a large tin of biscuits. So when Osbourne did happen along one morning a few days later, I was able to serve out the refreshments with an assurance that never once permitted him to suppose he was my first guest.

The syntax and vocabulary, as much his worries about how others will perceive him, create this character: little turns of phrase like “issued my invitation,” “tasteful manner,” “unhurried Victorian past,” “acquired there,” etc., as well as the larger rhythms of the sentences, show us his care, even his preciosity.

This is what I’ve always admired about Ishiguro. In The Remains of the Day I thought of it as a nearly imperceptible but absolutely essential gap between the narrator and the author—an uncannily faithful ventriloquism that nevertheless permitted Ishiguro, the author, to reflect and comment upon the character through whom he spoke, by means of how he spoke. And it struck me again when I read that opening passage from When We Were Orphans.

So the narrative voice, and the voice of the characters, in The Buried Giant came as a surprise. The narrator spoke in a deliberately plain, even prosaic voice, reminiscent of children’s stories from the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, while the characters seemed to be a deliberate mimicry or high parody of the stilted prose of so much fiction about the medieval past—that fake high style that nineteenth century Robin Hood fabricators felt they had to adopt, and which so many writers after them have imitated to greater or lesser degrees. Here’s an example of some of the narrative prose (34-5):

At the furthest point along the same wall, as though he had moved as far from the old woman as possible while keeping under cover, was a thin, unusually tall man. He wore a thick long coat of the sort a shepherd might wear during a cold night’s watch, but where it ended, the exposed lower parts of his legs were bare. On his feet were the kind of shoes Axl had seen on fishermen. Though he was probably still young, the top of his head was smoothly bald, while dark tufts sprouted around his ears. The man was standing rigidly, his back to the room, one hand on the wall before him as though listening intently to something occurring on the other side.

This is prose kept deliberately simple, eschewing stylistic panache in the interest of telling a story—but there’s something quirky and odd about it, a clumsiness which, I have to assume, in the hands of a stylist of Ishiguro’s ability, is deliberate. There is a whole series of descriptors that seem to have been chosen precisely for their abstractness, their vagueness even, of a sort that would be weeded out by many editors, authors, or writing teachers: “unusually tall,” “the kind of shoes Axl had seen on fishermen” (what kind of shoes are those?); “smoothly bald” on the other hand feels like an awkward attempt at specificity that doesn’t quite work, while “something occurring” is almost laughably vague and abstract. But, as I say, this is Ishiguro, who clearly knows what he’s doing when it comes to narrative voice.

Of course, you can make the case that the clumsiness—assuming my assessment is accurate—is the stylistic analog of the people, place, and things being described. This is a crude world, both because of its level of technological and social development and because the people are afflicted with a strange memory loss, and so it’s fitting that the prose should be as crude, just as the preciosity of his earlier narrator is exactly what the character calls for.

Here’s another example, from a few pages earlier (21):

Although he had stretched out his arm, he had not been able to take the candle—the crowd had kept him just out of reach—and he had said, loudly and with some conviction, “Don’t worry, princess. Don’t you worry.” He was conscious of the emptiness of what he was saying even as he spoke, so he was surprised when the crowd quietened, and even the blacksmith’s widow took a step back. Only then did he realise the reaction had not been to his words, but to the approach behind him of the pastor.

That interruption by dashes in the middle of the first sentence feels deliberately clumsy, as though Ishiguro were consciously avoiding more graceful ways of evoking this moment of action through syntax. Or what about “the approach behind him of the pastor”? Again, it’s as if he’s trying not to be smooth, trying not to write according to the rhythms that generations of writers and teachers of writing have promoted. But unlike a generation of modernists who sought a stripped-down style, but one that could still be seen as beautiful—austere, lapidary, all those reviewers’ adjectives—this is different. You can’t call “the approach behind him of the pastor” lapidary.

One more example—they keep jumping out at me when I open the book more or less at random (73):

Before long they came to a sunny courtyard. There were roaming geese, and the yard itself was bisected by an artificial stream—a shallow channel cut into the earth—along which the water trickled with urgency.

“With urgency”? Really? And (here I’m channeling, if you’ll excuse the pun, any number of writing teachers) can water “trickle” “with urgency”? And what about that completely unnecessary interposition to re-state what’s already been stated by “artificial stream”?

Yet it works, once you get over the initial surprise. It is, in fact, surprisingly readable. Also, the more I look at it, the more it comes to seem consistent with Ishiguro’s other works. It shares the kind of awkward outsiderliness, to coin a term, that marks the narrators of both When We Were Orphans and The Remains of the Day. Those speakers masked their awkwardness with a more modern, polished prose, but it was still there, a kind of stiltedness that bespoke a profoundly uncomfortable existential condition. (The narrator of When We Were Orphans, as I pointed out earlier, also uses clichés.) Here, that stiltedness is more obvious, more open. It seems to me that Ishiguro has chosen this voice because his tale—it seems appropriate to use that word here—is self-consciously old-fashioned in its topic and setting. That is, it’s not just, and maybe not even primarily, Arthurian Britain he’s evoking here, but the nineteenth-century world of Arthurian tales for children. And that, I think, as much as the evocation of a crude or primitive world, is what’s going on here. I think that the style is a deliberate repudiation of what’s come to be seen as graceful writing or just good writing, in the service of that deliberately old-fashioned story.

I found myself thinking about John Gardner’s Grendel in this context, and the very different stylistic choices he made. Like Ishiguro, Gardner re-visits an old, familiar story (in his case Beowulf) and re-works it to contemporary purposes. But such different purposes! Here’s the opening:

The old ram stands looking down over rockslides, stupidly triumphant. I blink. I stare in horror. “Scat!” I hiss. “Go back to your cave, go back to your cowshed—whatever.” He cocks his head like an elderly, slow-witted king, considers the angles, decides to ignore me. I stamp. I hammer the ground with my fists. I hurl a skull-size stone at him. He will not budge. I shake my two hairy fists at the sky and I let out a howl so unspeakable that the water at my feet turns sudden ice and even I myself am left uneasy. But the ram stays; the season is upon us. And so begins the twelfth year of my idiotic war.

Just listen to the rhythms of the prose. Gardner uses assonance (“ram stands,” “stamp … hammer”), alliteration (“skull-size stone”), and elision (“turns sudden ice”), and he carefully modulates the length and rhythms of the sentences so that they flow and bounce along melodiously. Reading this short passage also brings out the near-total absence of simile or metaphor in Ishiguro’s narrator. (What similes he does use are so near-fetched as to seem not similes at all, but literal comparisons: “a thick long coat of the sort a shepherd might wear” or “as though listening intently.”) Gardner, by contrast, gives us the “elderly, slow-witted king,” the “skull-size” stone. Gardner’s an extreme example, maybe, more self-conscious in his style than some. (I just came across Gore Vidal’s biting dismissal of him as “late apostle to the low-brows, a sort of Christian evangelical who saw Heaven as a paradigmatic American university” in the NY Review of Books from 1985, in a piece on the death of Italo Calvino.) But he’s a useful foil for Ishiguro.

Then there’s the way Ishiguro’s characters talk:

Ah, the holy fathers. I’m sure they’ll receive you kindly. They were a great help to Horace last spring when he had a poisoned hoof and I feared he wouldn’t be spared. And I myself, recovering some years ago from a fall, found much comfort in their balms. But if you seek a cure for your mute, I fear it’s only God himself can bring speech to his lips (106).

“Much comfort in their balms” is the kind of hackneyed, clichéd speech we’ve come to expect from the Arthurian sub-genre and the broader fantasy genre of which it is a part. “It’s only God himself can bring speech” employs elision to very different ends than Gardner’s; here, too, Ishiguro is deliberately courting cliché.

But because it’s Ishiguro, the cliché is destabilized; the entire prosodic enterprise shimmers with uncertainty. This is, of course, consonant with the story. What is going on with the memory loss, the strange visions, the characters whose allegiances and memories and points of view shift and veer? Ishiguro is a strange writer, with a strange vision, and this book is no exception. I love works that puzzle me like this.

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