It is about Ryder, a famous pianist who arrives in a central European city to perform a concert. He is entangled in a web of appointments and promises which he cannot seem to remember, struggling to fulfill his commitments before Thursday night's...
The Unconsoled is a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro, first published in 1995 by Faber and Faber, and winner of the Cheltenham Prize that year.
Sir Kazuo Ishiguro OBE FRSA FRSL born 8 November 1954 is a British novelist, screenwriter, and short-story writer. He was born in Nagasaki, Japan, and moved to the United Kingdom in 1960 when he was five.
Ishiguro is one of the most celebrated contemporary fiction authors in the English-speaking world. He has received four Man Booker Prize nominations and won the award in 1989 for his novel The Remains of the Day. Ishiguro's 2005 novel, Never Let Me Go, was named by Time as the best novel of the year, and was included in the magazine's list of the 100 best English-language novels published between 1923 and 2005.
In 2017, the Swedish Academy awarded Ishiguro the Nobel Prize in Literature, describing him in its citation as a writer "who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world". Ishiguro was knighted in the 2018 Queen's Birthday Honours List.
1982: Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize for A Pale View of Hills
1983: Published in the Granta Best Young British Novelists issue
1986: Whitbread Prize for An Artist of the Floating World
1989: Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day
1993: Published in the Granta Best Young British Novelists issue
1995: Officer of the Order of the British Empire
1998: Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
2005: Never Let Me Go named on Time magazine's list of the 100 greatest English language novels since the magazine's formation in 1923.
2008: The Times ranked Ishiguro 32nd on their list of "The 50 Greatest British Writers Since 1945".
2017: Nobel Prize in Literature.
2017: American Academy of Achievement's Golden Plate Award
2018: ribbon bar Order of the Rising Sun, 2nd Class, Gold and Silver Star
Except for A Pale View of Hills and The Buried Giant, all of Ishiguro's novels and his short story collection have been shortlisted for major awards. Most significantly, An Artist of the Floating World, When We Were Orphans, and Never Let Me Go were all short-listed for the Booker Prize. A leaked account of a judging committee's meeting revealed that the committee found itself deciding between Never Let Me Go and John Banville's The Sea before awarding the prize to the latter.
A Pale View of Hills (1982)
An Artist of the Floating World (1986)
The Remains of the Day (1989)
The Unconsoled (1995)
When We Were Orphans (2000)
Never Let Me Go (2005)
The Buried Giant (2015)
Nocturnes: Five Stories of Music and Nightfall (2009)
A Profile of Arthur J. Mason (television film for Channel 4) (1984)
The Gourmet (television film for Channel 4) (1987)
The Saddest Music in the World (2003)
The White Countess (2005)
"A Strange and Sometimes Sadness", "Waiting for J" and "Getting Poisoned" (in Introduction 7: Stories by New Writers, 1981)
"A Family Supper" (in Firebird 2: Writing Today, 1983)
"Summer After the War" (in Granta 7, 1983)
"October 1948" (in Granta 17, 1985)
"A Village After Dark" (in The New Yorker, May 21, 2001)
"The Ice Hotel"; "I Wish I Could Go Travelling Again"; "Breakfast on the Morning Tram", and "So Romantic"; Jim Tomlinson / Kazuo Ishiguro, on Stacey Kent's 2007 Grammy-nominated album, Breakfast on the Morning Tram.
"Postcard Lovers"; Tomlinson / Ishiguro, on Kent's album Dreamer in Concert (2011).
"The Summer We Crossed Europe in the Rain"; "Waiter, Oh Waiter", and "The Changing Lights"; Tomlinson / Ishiguro, on Kent's album The Changing Lights (2013).
"Bullet Train"; "The Changing Lights", and "The Ice Hotel"; Tomlinson / Ishiguro, on Kent's album I Know I Dream: The Orchestral Sessions (2017).
"The Ice Hotel"; Tomlinson / Ishiguro – Quatuor Ébène, featuring Stacey Kent, on the album Brazil (2013).
The novel takes place over a period of three days. It is about Ryder, a famous pianist who arrives in a central European city to perform a concert. He is entangled in a web of appointments and promises which he cannot seem to remember, struggling to fulfill his commitments before Thursday night's performance, frustrated with his inability to take control
The Unconsoled was described as a "sprawling, almost indecipherable 500-page work" that "left readers and reviewers baffled". It received strong negative reviews with a few positive ones. Literary critic James Wood said that the novel had "invented its own category of badness". However, a 2006 poll of various literary critics voted the novel as the third "best British, Irish, or Commonwealth novel from 1980 to 2005", tied with Anthony Burgess's Earthly Powers, Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, Ian McEwan's Atonement, and Penelope Fitzgerald's The Blue Flower. John Carey, book critic for the Sunday Times, also placed the novel on his list of the 20th century's 50 most enjoyable books, later published as Pure Pleasure: A Guide to the Twentieth Century's Most Enjoyable Books. It has come to be generally regarded as one of Ishiguro’s best works.
One of the many enjoyable revelations in last week’s webchat with Kazuo Ishiguro was his “dirty secret” that his subject matter doesn’t change much from book to book.
He explained: “Just the surface does. The settings, etc. I tend to write the same book over and over, or at least, I take the same subject I took last time out and refine it, or do a slightly different take on it.”
The example he gives is that The Remains of The Day was “essentially” a “repeat of the territory covered” in Artist of the Floating World: “That latter book, when I came to the end of it, struck me as dealing with the theme of the wasted life only from the career perspective. It occurred to me there were other very good ways to waste your life – especially in the personal arena. So Remains was Artist Plus. Stevens wastes both his vocational life and his love life. I set it in England, not Japan, and everyone talked about a huge leap. But it was a remake, or at least, a refinement of the earlier book.”
Assuming you can take this idea at face value, it should be possible to apply the theory to The Unconsoled. At first glance, it seems counterintuitive that the hero Ryder might have wasted his life. He is an accomplished artist, renowned concert pianist and respected public figure. But there’s still a strong argument that his life has come to nothing – especially in the “personal arena”.
You could even say that the book itself is an almost physical demonstration of his dissipation. Every page is a catalogue of wasted opportunity, a failure to seize the moment, a failure to communicate, inconclusive wondering, and time-wasting. Crucially, he also misses his chance to connect as a human being.
In a memorable phrase suggested by Reading Group contributor theorbys (and complimented by Ishiguro), this becomes a book about the “destructive power of love without empathy”. Ryder never manages to get inside the minds of those around him. He forever misinterprets, misunderstands and misdirects. And so it is that Sophie, the mother of his child, says to him in the end: “Leave us, you were always on the outside of our love.”
So it is too, that he never manages to reach his intended conclusion for his adventures. For Ryder, the whole book is a gigantic lost opportunity. He spends 510 pages waiting to star in a concert given in his honour – and then it doesn’t happen. He walks on to the stage to face an unoccupied auditorium. His audience has already packed up and set off for home. There is no point in his being there. His peregrinations have come to a gigantic, empty nothing. If that doesn’t symbolise wasted time, what does?
The difficult question now is whether this deliberate non-conclusion, this fruitless wondering, this worthless expense of time is replicated in the reading experience. Is it just a shaggy dog story? Does it, as James Wood famously complained, invent “its own category of badness”?
Ultimately, I guess the answer to these questions depends on a subjective view of how much you liked the book. Personally, I enjoyed it. I loved the humour, the humanity, the strangeness and the mystery. I enjoyed being baffled. I loved the sentences: “Having at last gained their attention, my anger now felt deliciously under control, like some weapon I could wield with deliberation.” See how the rhythm breaks on attention – and then smoothes out? And how fine is “deliciously”?
But I admit that I sometimes tired. I was delighted when Ishiguro said in the webchat: “I’m not sure I always loved it all of the time.” The Unconsoled can seem frustrating, drawn out and possibly even ridiculous. It is tiring to struggle through a narrative where every moment in the present seems to create its own new past, and the future never quite arrives, where for every step you take forward, you have to take three back and a detour around the corner, too. Where if you try to come back around the same corner, you’ll end up in a completely different place.
On a previous Reading Group comment thread, this stretching of reality was described as quantum time – and don’t worry, it hurt my brain too, although this explains how, as Dylanwolf put it: “As in a dream the past is fully absorbed into the present and consequently provides no ambiguity in interpretation. Thus Ryder can be Boris’s father and then not Boris’s father consistently in consecutive minutes of experience.”
This ties in nicely with something Ishiguro himself said in a Paris Review interview:
“I started to ask myself, What is the grammar of dreams? Just now, the two of us are having this conversation in this room with nobody else in the house. A third person is introduced into this scene. In a conventional work, there would be a knock on the door and somebody would come in, and we would say hello. The dreaming mind is very impatient with this kind of thing. Typically what happens is we’ll be sitting here alone in this room, and suddenly we’ll become aware that a third person has been here all the time at my elbow. There might be a sense of mild surprise that we hadn’t been aware of this person up until this point, but we would just go straight into whatever point the person is raising. I thought this was quite interesting. And I started to see parallels between memory and dream, the way you manipulate both according to your emotional needs at the time. The language of dreams would also allow me to write a story that people would read as a metaphorical tale as opposed to a comment on a particular society.”
I’ll leave it to you to suggest how the metaphorical aspect of the book may work, but with regard to this dream logic and the structure of the book, I do want to bring up one more very clever suggestion from on a previous thread. MythicalMagpie sugested that the book has something in common with an Escher print. Everything connects, and there are clear patterns, it’s just that the stairs that are going up are also going down, and everything leads back on itself.
Which is mighty clever – but also brings me back to the question of whether The Unconsoled is a road to nowhere. After finishing the book, my final answer, I think, is that there is real purpose. One of the surprises in coming to the end is realising just how strong the narrative has been. As you move from one page to the next, there’s little sense of coherent logic, forward motion, or even progress through time. But there are actually really strong plots. OK, the concert doesn’t happen. But we do get a firm conclusion for the story about whether Ryder will manage to make his family work. We do find out what has been happening in hotel-owner Hoffman’s marriage, and we do see a way into the future for his son.
We also find out about Brodsky’s troubled relationship, and he, too, hastens towards an ending. Even the porters get some kind of resolution. It’s impressive, in fact, to see just how many loose ends are tied up in the concluding pages – and to realise just how many strands there have been all along. Even Ryder’s need for food and coffee arrives at a beautifully warming resolution when he finally gets to go back for more breakfast on the tram and gets himself, in the very last sentence, “a generously laden plate”.
In short, I realised that there had been dozens of clever plots winding their way through the book, all with forward motion, all with emotional resonance. Or, at least, that’s what I thought until the webchat happened andIshiguro wrote:
“There are two plots. There’s the story of Ryder, a man who has grown up with unhappy parents on the verge of divorce. He thinks the only way they can be reconciled is if he fulfillls their expectations. As a result, he ends up as this fantastic pianist. He thinks that if he gives this crucial concert, it will heal everything. Of course, by then, it’s too late. Whatever has happened with his parents has happened long ago. And there’s the story of Brodsky, an old man who is trying, as a last act, to make good on a relationship that he’s completely messed up. He thinks that if he can bring it off as a conductor, he’ll be able to win back the love of his life. Those two stories take place in a society that believes all its ills are the result of having chosen the wrong musical values.”
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