Tuesday, February 24, 2009

'An Artist of the Floating World'

An Artist of the Floating Worldby Kazuo Ishiguro
Fiction/Literature, 1986
Faber and Faber, trade pb, 197 p.
Winner of the Whitbread Book of the Year Award, 1986. Shortlisted for the Booker Prize, 1986.
It is 1948. Japan is rebuilding her cities after the calamity of World War II, her people putting defeat behind them and looking to the future. The celebrated painter Masuji Ono fills his days attending to his garden, his house repairs, his two grown daughters and his grandson, and his evenings drinking with old associates in quiet lantern-lit bars. His should be a tranquil retirement. But as his memories continually return to the past – to a life and a career deeply touched by the rise of Japanese militarism – a dark shadow begins to grow over his serenity.
I like how one reviewer on Amazon called it a 'fascinating Japanese parallel to "The Remains of the Day"' because I was also reminded of The Remains of the Day while reading it. Granted, I’ve actually only read these two books by Ishiguro, so far, but I did think they had a similar feel to them, a similar coming to terms with the past. Whereas the one is quintessentially British, however, An Artist of the Floating World had a distinctly Japanese feel to it. I’m hardly an expert, having only read a few titles, but like some of the Japanese literature I have read, this was also a beautifully-written, subtle story, calm on the surface but with emotion bubbling beneath.

Through the main character Ono’s usually strained relationship with his daughters we see how the priorities and cultural attitudes, especially of the younger generation, changed as a result of war. His reminiscences of when he was a student of art, and at the beginning of his career, as well as his comments on the city as it is in the process of re-building, provided an interesting glimpse at Japan both before and after the war and ultimately how the different generations dealt with the aftermath of it.

I wavered over giving it a little higher rating, but I did find it a little bit slow in places, so I’ll leave it as is. All in all, it was a quiet, thoughtful novel about trying to reconcile the past with life in postwar Japan. I look forward to reading more by Ishiguro in the future.
‘I have learnt many things over these past years. I have learnt much in contemplating the world of pleasure, and recognizing its fragile beauty. But I now feel it is time for me to progress to other things. Sensei, it is my belief that in such troubled times as these, artists must learn to value something more tangible than those pleasurable things that disappear with the morning light. It is not necessary that artists always occupy a decadent and enclosed world. My conscience, Sensei, tells me I cannot remain forever an artist of the floating world.’
Conversation with Kazuo Ishiguro and Kenzaburo Oe

First sentence: If on a sunny day you climb the steep path leading up from the little wooden bridge still referred to around here as ‘the Bridge of Hesitation’, you will not have to walk far before the roof of my house becomes visible between the tops of two gingko trees.

My Rating: 3.5/5
(#8 for 2009, 1% Well-Read Challenge, Book Awards Challenge, What's in a Name Challenge (Artist), Reading Japan Project)

Also reviewed at:
Save Ophelia
Have you read and reviewed this title? Let me know and I'll link to it here.


  1. I have read only one book by Ishiguro - Never let me go - and I liked it a lot! I have been meaning to read another book by him and this sounds like a nice book.. maybe i'll pick this one up next.

  2. Hi Nat,
    I have never been able to read Ishiguro, I tried but put the book aside. Glad to know I am not the only one to feel his prose is on the slow side even so it is often beautiful.

  3. A similar feel to The Remains of the Day! I like the sound of that. I've heard that this is not one of Ishiguro's best, but it definitely still sounds worth reading.

  4. Remains of the Day is my favorite Ishiguro but I need to read this one now and compare it to it. How fascinating.

  5. I still haven't read Remains of the Day - so I can't speak for that, really. But I enjoyed this book. It didn't "wow" me as much as Never Let Me Go - but it was a worthwhile read!

    I'm glad you enjoyed it.

  6. I love his books but haven't read this one yet. I think I actually owned it a long time ago and gave it away because I never got around to it. Bookmooch maybe?! :-)

  7. Wonderful review! Both this and Remains of the Day are on my TBR.

    I really liked Never Let Me Go and would recommend it. It is quite different than what these teo books offer,

  8. Ramya - The other book of his that I have in my stacks to read is 'A Pale View of Hills'. But I've heard lots of good things about 'Never Let Me Go' so I think I'll have to pick it up at some point.

    Sylvie - Both of the books I've read by him are quiet, slow character novels. Definitely the kind of books you have to be wiling to spend some time with. I can understand why they wouldn't be for everyone. Have you seen the film, Remains of the Day?

    Nymeth - I've only read the two, and 'Remains of the Day' was years ago, so maybe I'm finding something there that isn't really, but to me they were both quiet novels with characters who have a hard time with changes, and coming to terms with the past. I'm looking forward to reading something else by him though to see how it compares.

    Iliana - I'd be curious to know what you think of this one, especially in comparison to 'Remains of the Day'. So, which other Ishiguro novels would you recommend?

    saveophelia - I agree with you that this one didn't wow me, but I still thought it was a worthwhile read. I do always enjoy reading about Japan though. :)

    Marie - The Japanese theme of this one is what attracted me to it in the first place, but I'd like to read some of his other books now too.

    Teddy Rose - From the description, 'Never Let Me Go' does seem very different, but I'd like to try it someday. I hope you enjoy this book when you get around to reading it.

  9. I've never read anything by this author, but I'm thinking I should. Thanks for bringing this one to my attention.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  10. Anna - You're welcome. I hope you enjoy whichever book of his you decide to read. I look forward to trying another one by him sometime.


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