We lived throughout those years almost entirely in accordance with [our teacher’s] values and lifestyle and this entailed spending much time exploring the city’s ‘floating world’ – the night-time world of pleasure, entertainment and drink which formed the background for all our paintings (145)
The narrator Masuji Ono’s teacher, Mori-san, says of another man: Those women would tell him all the things he wanted to hear, and for the night anyway, he’d be able to believe them. Once the morning came, of course, he was too intelligent a man to go on believing such things. But Gisaburo didn’t value those nights any the less for that. The best things, he always used to say are put together of a night and vanish with the morning. What people call the floating world, Ono, was a world Gisaburo knew how to value. 150
Ishiguro is a specialist of the unreliable narrator, but he goes one step further here and makes the entire world of the novel an unreliable one. We float between looking backward to a more gracefully evocative Japan, averting our glance from the destruction of defeated Japan of 1948 and 1949, and looking squarely at that devastation. For all the honours he’s received for his work, Ono cannot feel at home with himself. He can’t recapture that moment back in 1938 when, after winning a major prize, he sat on the hill above his former teacher’s house and felt a profound sense of happiness deriving from the conviction that one’s efforts have been justified. (204). Now, like Gisaburo in the morning, though he constantly refers to his high status and his many achievements, that conviction has evaporated.
The book has an essential similarity to The Remains of the Day, which was the next book Ishiguro published. In both cases the narrator is an outwardly composed man besieged by the sense that he has lost his way, and who still doesn’t quite understand how that happened. Ono’s work has contributed to the aggressive spirit of nationalism and expansionism that brought Japan into the war, and he has been guilty of informing on at least one other artist; the butler Stevens has devoted his life, and sacrificed the possibility of love, to the service of his pro-German employer. But where The Remains of The Day does, in the end, come down to the waste of a life epitomised in the loss of intimacy with another human being, An Artist of The Floating World is preoccupied with the artistic life, with art’s capacity to fulfil the creator. Ono had a happy marriage and is at the centre of a flourishing family. To the world, he’s a successful artist. But he remains an inhabitant of that floating world, symbolised by his attachment to Mrs Kawakami’s rundown bar where – as happens increasingly these days – Shintaro and I were the only customers. (19). Over and over he reflects on the old hangouts where he and his artist friends used to gather, now bombed into rubble, their sites beginning to sprout glass-fronted office buildings.
And Japan itself, Ishiguro seems to say, is in the same situation in those post-war years. I couldn’t help thinking of Yeats’ line, where all’s accustomed, ceremonious. The custom and ceremony of Japan, in which Ono was trained as a painter, have been blown apart and a foreign culture is in the ascendancy. Ono’s children are bent on making careers in the big Japanese countries competing on the global stage, and his grandson is obsessed with American cowboy movies and Popeye the Sailor Man. But his generation stands uncertainly on the ‘Bridge of Hesitation’ where the book starts and finishes, in neither the old nor the new world.
As always, Ishiguro’s clean, elegant prose is a joy to read. I write quite mundane prose, he says. You could have fooled me, Kazuo.
Here’s an interesting article in which Ishiguro talks about his life and books, including some reflections on The Buried Giant, which we’ve reviewed here, and which he was working on at the time of the interview.
Kazuo Ishiguro: An Artist of the Floating World (Faber & Faber 1986)