Living memories: Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro's early career set a modern benchmark for precocious literary success. Born in 1954, in 1982 he won the Winifred Holtby award for the best expression of a sense of place, for his debut novel A Pale View of Hills . In 1983, he was included in the seminal Granta best of young British writers list, alongside Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, Salman Rushdie, Julian Barnes, Graham Swift, Rose Tremain and Pat Barker. Three years later his second novel, An Artist of the Floating World, picked up the Whitbread book of the year and in 1989 his third, The Remains of the Day, won the Booker. David Lodge, chair of the judges, praised the depiction of a between-the-wars country-house butler's self-deception as a "cunningly structured and beautifully paced performance", which succeeds in rendering with "humour and pathos a memorable character and explores the large, vexed theme of class, tradition and duty". At 34, Ishiguro's place in the literary firmament was already secure and he felt as if he'd only just begun.

"And then I had this most alarming realisation. I looked at an encyclopaedia of literature and checked how old people were when they wrote their famous works. Pride and Prejudice was written by someone in her 20s. The Faulkner anyone remembers comes from his 30s. It goes on; Fitzgerald, Kafka, Chekhov; War and Peace, Ulysses. Dickens went on a bit longer, but his best work was when he was younger. Of course there are exceptions but often, like Conrad, who was a sailor, there is some reason why they missed out on time earlier in their lives."

He says the fact that great writers are often revered and rewarded with prizes in old age only masks the reality that time is running out. "There was this idea, which felt almost like a conspiracy, that a writer in his 30s was early in a writing life. But I realised you should think more in terms of the length and timing of a footballer's career. Your best chance of producing a decent book comes somewhere between 30 and 45 and I suddenly saw my life as a finite number of books."

For Ishiguro, now 50, his theory is understandably "a depressing thing to think about". The rewards have already come his way. He has an OBE and the French Chevalier de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. A portrait of him by Peter Edwards hung for a time in 10 Downing Street and when the Japanese emperor visited the UK, Ishiguro was invited to the state banquet. He remembers an impatient Lady Thatcher queuing behind him to meet the emperor. In literary terms, he responded by consciously ignoring considerations of what might be commercially successful and abjuring the many lucrative but time-consuming distractions that came his way; "Screenplays I didn't really care about, journalism, travel books, getting my writer friends to write about their dreams or something. I just determined to write the books I had to write."

It is a sensible and high-minded strategy, but few people realised just how serious Ishiguro was about implementing it. In the 16 years since The Remains of the Day he has produced only three novels. And when The Unconsoled finally appeared in 1995, its 500-plus pages about the dream-like peregrinations of a concert pianist around a hazy Mitteleuropa left readers and reviewers baffled and occasionally angry. Critic James Wood went so far as to claim the book had "invented its own category of badness".

However, almost as soon as the critical storm broke, it abated. Anita Brookner, an early critic, asked to re-review the book and declared: "I can't see how he could have got it more right." And Wood, in reviewing Ishiguro's next book, When We Were Orphans (2000), about a British private detective in 1930s Shanghai, returned to his dismissal of The Unconsoled to note that if Ishiguro hadn't written it he might have been condemned to become a novelist whose work was "as similar as postage stamps". Wood then praised Orphans, claiming it "invents its own category of goodness".

Looking at Ishiguro's oeuvre, a series of clear and coherent themes emerge. Barry Lewis of Sunderland University has written a critical study of Ishiguro's work and notes that "notions of identity and how an individual sustains a sense of self as historical circumstances cast a new light on events is something he returns to time and again. It links to the sense of how memory might be used as a tool to keep your dignity and maintain a sense of self."

Ishiguro's latest novel, Never Let Me Go, is published next month and again reflects some of these preoccupations. It opens in a boarding school - the atmosphere conjured in his books is unmistakable - and we gradually learn that the children are clones bred to one day donate their organs for transplant. Ishiguro, who undertook some basic research into biotechnology, says he never intended to write a mystery with their clone status as the revelation. "If information does trickle gradually it's because the children themselves do not realise who they are. The reader is on a sort of parallel journey, but it is not a mystery story. My focus is elsewhere."

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