Kazuo Ishiguro, master of pathos and first citizen of an imaginary nation located in Japan, has won the Nobel Prize in Literature. The Nobel Committee for Literature likened his work to that of Franz Kafka, Marcel Proust and Jane Austen — comparisons that Ishiguro dismissed long ago — and commended him for opening our eyes to “the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”.
In the great tradition of the Prize, the award was completely unexpected. A fairly large number of people were frankly astonished, for they believed that Ishiguro had got the Nobel long ago. Perhaps that should be read as a public endorsement of the quality of his work. Secondly, though he has been fancied for years, odds were not even offered for his chances in 2017.
The unkind often mutter that the Nobel Prize in Literature exists only to give an intellectual edge to the British betting giant Ladbrokes, whose odds are followed breathlessly by every commentator in the days leading up to the announcement of the Literature Prize. However, perhaps the Prize actually exists to bamboozle Ladbrokes. Last year, it was taken by Bob Dylan, whose odds were in the range of one in 30 until days before the announcement. This year, Ishiguro’s name was not even in the league, which was topped by Ngugi Wa Thiong’o, the ever-popular Haruki Murakami and Margaret Atwood, who was actually a likely choice because the resurgence of rightwing sentiment and fascist beliefs in various parts of the world recall the misogynistic dystopia of The Handmaid’s Tale.
Ishiguro made his name with stories set in postwar Japan — a nation recollected in tranquillity, memories supported by a few props from Japanese cinema. However, he was certain that no one would suspect him of having Japanese origins if he concealed his name, published under a pseudonym and stuck an average Brit’s picture on the cover. His language follows the British tradition of understatement, though he has developed his own unique style within it, which hints very effectively at heightened emotion. His most famous novel, The Remains of the Day, is set in a country house that P G Wodehouse could have happily peopled with Wooster and the chaps from the Drones Club, but his Jeeves is a man torn by an existential choice between personal inclination and traditional notions of duty. Nobel Prize in Physics, 2017: Detectors of ripples in space-time
Alfred Nobel’s Will specified that the Prize must go to a writer who “shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. That compass bearing is open to wide interpretation, permitting the Committee to seek out ideal work that the world is not entirely familiar with. The reasonably well-read person is unlikely to have read even one out of five of the 114 writers who have received the Prize since it was instituted in 1901.
Last year, in an embarrassingly obvious effort to leave behind the realm of excellent obscurity, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to an irritable and rude Bob Dylan. It was a recklessly radical move to move out of the ecosystem of the world of letters into that of culture, which was not really mandated by the Will. The 2017 award signals a course correction to return to the safe waters of literature, as it is commonly understood. Nobel Prize in Chemistry, 2017: Molecules of life, captured in 3D
Famously quirky, the Committee could have gone the whole hog and tracked down some genius from eastern Europe or the Horn of Africa who has been so indifferently translated that he or she is completely unsung outside the Stockholm metropolitan area. But it has played safe, and gladdened the hearts of thousands of Japanese — who are actually fans of Haruki Murakami. They are overjoyed that at least one writer with a Japanese name has got the world’s biggest literary prize, and never mind if neither is actually Japanese.
Murakami, who novels are far more widely read than Ishiguro’s, has topped the most-likely-to list along with Philip Roth for so long that he is inured to disappointment. More bitterly than any of the punters, he must know that the list of odds on the Ladbrokes web site was never a reliable guide. Odds depend on betting trends, and may mean nothing because any old guy in Britain who can toddle down to the nearest betting shop can change the odds ever so slightly. It’s incredibly silly to try to predict a Nobel from the betting odds. But we’ll do it next year again, if only because it’s easier than trying to read the Nobel Committee’s hive mind.