Kazuo Ishiguro is frequently referred to as a very English novelist, so there can surely be few more appropriate venues to hear him talk than Oxford Town Hall.
Ready for the launch event of this year’s (currently ongoing) Oxford Literary Festival, the huge Victorian building with its elaborate plaster ceilings and highly decorated walls was filling rapidly as the 6pm start time approached. By 5.40pm, over 400 people had assembled in an expectant buzz. Ishiguro is a crowd puller as well as a spectacularly successful novelist.
He began by good-naturedly correcting his introducer. The Buried Giant is not the bestselling book in Britain this week, he said, “there are an awful lot of cookbooks outstripping it,” but it was, he smiled, the bestselling hardback fiction volume – which was a rather different matter!
And then he started reading, just the first three pages of The Buried Giant in which the historical setting, the landscape, and the protagonists are introduced. He read as he writes, calmly, in traditionally well-phrased and nuanced sentences, a master of precision.
The book had been 10 years in the making.
“The book started as a series of questions. When is it better to remember? And when is it better to forget?” said Ishiguro. It was the setting and the genre that took time to develop.
France after World War II had seemingly chosen to “forget” its complicity with the occupying German forces and dwelt instead on the heroics of the Resistance. In the former Yugoslavia, between the Serbs and Croats “it was as if memory of past grievances and anger had been repressed and then suddenly exploded”. Similarly the tribes in Rwanda.
But to place his themes in those settings, Ishiguro explained, “would have inevitably meant a more journalistic approach. It would have been a book about Bosnia or Rwanda, I would have had to be respectful of every detail, and I would have got it wrong, and I did not want that”.
What he sought was something less specific, more remote, in which to couch this reflection on what he considered a fundamental question about the human condition. For if the questions of remembering or forgetting apply to countries, they apply equally and profoundly to personal relationships and “find their echoes within a marriage”.
“Inevitably, there are dark passages we prefer to forget about, fearing that perhaps the love is not strong enough to survive their resurrection. But if they remain hidden, is it a phoney relationship?”
Genre and settings, Ishiguro said, are almost the last elements that he puts in place when writing a novel and, in this case, for a long time the central questions had no context. He knew what would not work but not what would.
And then he settled on the period in British history between the departure of the Romans and the conquest by the Saxons. It is a short period between 410CE and 490CE, and it is a period about which very little is known. There may or may not have been a strong military leader who may or may not have been King Arthur, but after a period of apparently peaceful co-existence warfare suddenly erupted between the Britons and the Saxons. What had been “remembered”?
The writing proved difficult. “I find it very difficult to write novels. It doesn’t come naturally. My wife put a stop to the first version.”
He had showed her a draft of the first 60 pages and she had categorically dismissed it. Interesting idea but he couldn’t keep any of them. They were not good enough. They had to go. All of them. Start again.
His wife, Lorna MacDougall, he explained to considerable laughter, “has known me for a long time, from the days before I became a writer, and she still regards me as some sort of upstart person who thinks he might be a writer”. Obviously a Booker Prize (in 1989 for Remains Of The Day) and two successful films have not changed her mind!
Ishiguro was similarly light-hearted about the range of his work. Commentators have regularly observed that each of his books is very different. “When I hear people say that, I experience a sense of relief because I repeat myself all the time. The inner stuff of my novels is actually quite repetitive. I’m afraid that people will say, ‘Oh, he’s written the same book again’.”
There were surprises for the audience, too, when he spoke about the sources of inspiration for The Buried Giant. They were not, as might have been expected given the historic setting, the literature of the Arthurian legends, the knights of the round table, quests, and a search for the Holy Grail.
“I toyed with another science fiction solution but opted instead for myth. And I allowed to exist all the creatures that were believed in by people of the time – pixies, ogres and dragons.” And the inspiration for the landscape of fifth century Britain was actually Iceland.
Once the book was published earlier this month, his decision inevitably led him into the whole debate on whether or not fantasy fiction was a serious literary genre. It was not, he said, something he had considered during the writing process.
“I don’t think about how it will be received. I am far more concerned about making the book work and trying to finish it.”
He talked interestingly about how the new generation of writers, citing David Mitchell in particular, had broken down many of the artificial boundaries between genres.
“The barriers between literary fiction and popular fiction are becoming more porous. Personally, I would welcome ogres and pixies if authors want to use them. Let’s not worry about genres, which are largely a marketing tool designed to appeal to certain demographics.”
Time was running out. After an intense and engaging 45 minutes it was time for questions. There were more questions from the audience than time in which to answer them. Time only, really, for Ishiguro to muse on his new status at 60 as almost an elder statesman among writers, and to talk about the ways in which Bob Dylan and Leonard Cohen had developed new models for the ageing artist, “an all-out embracing of ageing, almost romanticising the ageing process and finding a new beauty in it”.
A halt was called. The queue for book signing stretched the length of the hall. There was not the slightest hint of ageing or of being a spent force about this session. The fans who stood in line clutching their books were very much of a mind that it had been a privilege to spend an hour in the company of a writer of such rare and serious stature, dragons and pixies notwithstanding.