Unlike many future novelists, Ishiguro didn’t spend his teenage years inhaling the canon. He spent them listening to music and making music of his own. In 1968, he bought his first Bob Dylan album, “John Wesley Harding,” and worked backward from there. He and his friends would sit around for hours nodding along to Dylan’s obscure lyrics as though they understood every word. It was like a microcosm of adolescence, he told me, pretending to know while knowing nothing. Ishiguro wasn’t just bluffing, though. From Dylan, as well as Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell, he learned about the possibilities of the first-person: how a character could be summoned into being with just a few words.
Ishiguro’s daughter, Naomi, who is about to publish her first novel, “Common Ground,” told me that she doesn’t recognize her father in any of his characters. Then she corrected herself: Ono’s impish grandson in “An Artist of the Floating World,” whose obsession with “Popeye” and “The Lone Ranger” is an index of nascent American cultural hegemony, was probably a version of Ishiguro at the same age. Here the likenesses ceased, however. “Some people have their art blender turned down very low, so you can see where everything came from, and some people have it turned up very high, so you have no idea,” Naomi said, borrowing a concept from the singer-songwriter Amanda Palmer. Ishiguro’s art blender is turned up to 10. Like Colson Whitehead or Hilary Mantel, he has found it easier to be revealing about people who are dissimilar to himself.
It’s nonetheless tempting to draw a connection between Ishiguro’s piecemeal experience of immigration as a child and the outsider narrators he would later dream up. Stevens, in “The Remains of the Day,” is the consummate English butler, but as his new American boss points out, he has spent so long confined to stately houses that he has hardly had the chance to really see England. On the road trip he takes through the West Country at his employer’s suggestion, he is like a hapless foreign tourist, getting lost, running out of gas and poignantly failing to understand the natives. In fact, it’s not so much the English who baffle Stevens as human beings in general. Watching the sunset from a seaside pier at the end of the book, he observes with interest a group of people that has gathered nearby:
I naturally assumed at first that they were a group of friends out together for the evening. But as I listened to their exchanges, it became apparent they were strangers who had just happened upon one another here on this spot behind me. Evidently, they had all paused a moment for the lights coming on, and then proceeded to fall into conversation with one another. As I watch them now, they are laughing together merrily. It is curious how people can build such warmth among themselves so swiftly.
Like Klara gazing at the crowds from the storefront window, Stevens might be watching the Aurora Borealis, such is his amazement at the sight of this commonplace event.
Before studying English and philosophy at the University of Kent, Ishiguro hitchhiked around America and worked a series of jobs back home, including as a grouse beater for the Queen Mother at Balmoral Castle in Scotland. Starting a mile or so behind the trenches, or butts, where the Queen Mother and her guests sat waiting with their guns, the beaters would trudge through the moorland heather, driving the birds forward into shooting range. At the end of the season there was a drinks party for the beaters hosted by Her Majesty. Ishiguro was struck by her graciousness, especially the manner by which she let them know it was time to leave: Despite the late hour, she didn’t turn the lights on. “Oh, it’s getting very dark,” she murmured as the sun began to set, before inviting her guests to inspect a series of paintings, which just happened to line the corridor to the exit.
If the experience offered him a useful glimpse behind the scenes of a grand old country house, the job he took after graduating, at an organization in West London that helped homeless people find housing, taught him something about life at the other end of the social spectrum. While he was working there, he met Lorna MacDougall, a social worker from Glasgow whom he would later marry. MacDougall is Ishiguro’s first and most important reader, and her comments can be unsparing. After reading the first 80 pages of his previous novel, “The Buried Giant” (2015), a historical fantasy set in Dark Ages Britain, she told him that the ornate dialogue simply wasn’t working and that he needed to start again. Ishiguro did as she suggested.
He has always been receptive to feedback. In 1979, Ishiguro applied and was accepted to study creative writing at the University of East Anglia. One of his oldest friends, Jim Green, who was getting a master’s degree in literature, remembers Ishiguro’s response to the weekly reading for a seminar on the 19th-century novel. “What struck me was the way in which he would talk about Stendhal or Dickens or Eliot or Balzac as though they were fellow craftsmen,” Green said. “There was no hint of hubris or grandiosity, but he treated them like they were colleagues of his from the creative-writing course who were showing him their work. It was: ‘Ah, OK, that’s why that’s happened, this is how this is done. Hmm, not sure that bit works.’”