Birkbeck’s second collaboration with the Booker Prize Foundation, this year brought 1989 winner and four times shortlisted author, Kazuo Ishiguro, to a packed Friends’ House last Wednesday to discuss his novel Never Let Me Go with Professor Russell Celyn Jones.
Russell Celyn Jones began the conversation by commenting on the naturalism of Never Let Me Go: the world of the novel is ‘our’ world with the same shops on the High Street but it is a “counterfactual” world of clones; clones who look through windows at people like ourselves. Kathy, the narrator, speaks to us directly as if we too are clones. Russell commented on her simple conversational style but drew attention to the underlying “damaged language” and asked Kazuo where her “voice” came from.
“I wish I could answer that,” was the initial response but then Kazuo elaborated and revealed that, from his second novel onwards, he has “auditioned” different characters in each book for the role of narrator and does not give the job lightly. The ‘voice’ follows on from this and is very much the narrator’s voice rather than his own, authorial, voice.
To the question, “where are you in this book?” Kazuo replied that he doesn’t write as an alter-ego but delights in finding a voice that is different from his own. He described this as a necessity – if he started to write from the point of view of somebody like himself he wouldn’t be able to think of anything to say. With other voices, he is less inhibited – channelling fiction through different narrators helps him think of what he really wants to say.
He revealed that when writing Never Let Me Go, he described every part of England as if it were Norfolk – flat. It was one way of creating an England which was familiar – and not. He also took out anything potentially vibrant or exciting to exaggerate the effect.
After talking about Angela Carter and his time at the University of East Anglia, Kazuo was asked to discuss his experience of writing in a female voice and, in particular, a Japanese female voice. He explained that, in Japan – especially for the older generation – women and men speak a grammatically different ‘Japanese’ from each other and, attuned as he was to his mother’s Japanese from the age of five when the family moved to England, this had an influence on his understanding of the language (Samurai movies lose him completely) as well as on his writing style.
For his first two novels, set in a Japan of his memory and imagination, he was obliged to write in English, as if translated from Japanese, to get a credible “Japanesy” voice. He described this voice as “not demonstrative” – it suppresses meaning and emotion and is a “very elliptical way of telling a story.” This way of writing also happened to be suited to the narrative voice of Stevens, the butler in The Remains of the Day and it has now become the foundation of how he writes.
Russell Celyn Jones mentioned the theme of ‘unreliable memory’, against the backdrop of politics, in the novels and Kazuo expanded on this, saying that his characters are sometimes struggling to forget rather than remember – they get to a point when they realise that their lives have been nowhere near as admirable as they had hoped and the things that they were proud of are now things to be ashamed of, for instance fascism wields an initial attraction in The Remains of the Day. He is fascinated by what happens to whole nations with dark pasts and sees the process of dealing with this as the same for both societies and individuals.
Getting back to Never Let Me Go, Russell highlighted the central question of the book: what it is that makes us human. In the novel, the enlightened guardians at Hailsham believe their clone charges have souls because of their creativity. Kazuo does not necessarily share the belief of his characters. For him, “Art is a consolation”. He doesn’t want to create the impression that he believes there is anything special or privileged about artists: any endeavour that humans invest in heavily fascinates him – not just Art.
Russell moved on to the ‘notion’ of Japan in Kazuo Ishiguro’s earlier novels. Having spent his teens trying to write songs and not reading much, Kazuo found that when he entered his twenties, he developed the urge to record the Japanese world – its emotions and atmosphere – that he remembered, not just factual things. It was not a subject he felt he chose: it chose him. But when he became conscious of having acquired a sort of “foreign correspondent” status, he realised that if he wanted to continue being a novelist, he would have to stop “masquerading” as a Japanese expert.
Shortly afterwards, Russell threw questions open to the floor but the roving microphones weren’t always up to the task. The first question however – on his creative process – revealed the interesting nugget that Kazuo writes very slowly and might only do about 30 pages before stopping and rewriting and redrafting several times before progressing beyond those first few pages of a novel. To the question, does he do a lot of planning, the answer was: “sometimes, yes and sometimes, no.”
And the answer to the ultimately pointless but nevertheless intriguing question of which organs were being donated so frequently by the clones was: “it doesn’t really matter.” The donations are a metaphor for the aging process.
Perhaps the greatest surprise of the evening was the discovery that Kazuo regards Never Let Me Go as his most cheerful novel – because all the characters are basically decent – but he admitted that many people still find it depressing.
After the session finished Kazuo remained as he had agreed to sign copies of his books but he may have regretted this when he saw the eager book-clutching queue snaking all the way down the hall, out a set of double doors and into the corridor beyond. Yet he graciously apologised “for the wait” to the second last person in that queue (which was me).
All in all, the second Birkbeck/Booker Prize Foundation collaboration was a terrific success and a wonderfully informative evening. Hopefully, they will become a regular fixture in future years.