The copy of An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro which I read was the 30th anniversary edition.
As The Remains of the Day is one of the most beautifully written books I have ever read, I had high hopes of An Artist of the Floating World even though this was a very early novel in Ishiguro’s career.
The story didn’t disappoint. It is narrated by an elderly Japanese artist, Masuji Ono, as he looked back over his life with a critical eye. The story was set soon after World War Two when Ono’s reputation and art, previously held in high esteem by his peers and his community, was no longer respected. As he told his story Ono gradually realised that the nationalistic paintings he produced after leaving his art community were propaganda rather than art. With this realisation came a growing shame for ideas he previously endorsed and for his political actions during the war, which increased as he realised his daughter’s marital prospects had been harmed by his choices.
The story is set in a time when values were changing quickly. Ono was almost a relic, his opinions no longer valued by his daughters and son-in-laws or by his young grandson. The younger generation in this story looked towards America for their values, which included democracy and the rights of individuals, rather than honouring and subscribing to traditional Japanese values.
The characters’ formal and polite conversational styles meant that their true meaning was often unclear, to me, anyway. Ono and his family danced around their truths and hid behind exchanges so tactful that they were almost meaningless. A single blunt conversation between Ono and his art teacher when Ono first began to paint in a nationalistic style was the only clear exchange between characters who disagreed in the entire book.
Ono’s story appeared to be told with humility but this eventually showed as false, as was his version of events. As the story continued it became apparent that Ono only told (and possibly believed himself) a version of the events which suited his own self-image.
My edition started with an introduction by the author which I read after finishing the story, in case it assumed I had already read the book and wanted to learn more about points that a new reader would prefer to discover for themselves.
In this case, the introduction didn’t spoil anything. Instead, the author talked about about where he and his wife were living and the work they were doing when he wrote An Artist of the Floating World, along with the mechanics of how and where he wrote, and the details of a breakthrough in his writing style which he experienced at this time which happily influenced the rest of his career. I found the introduction to be very interesting.
An Artist of the Floating World was good, but I expect I would have appreciated it more had I not read The Remains of the Day first. That is a hard book for an author to live up to.