An Artist of the Floating World – Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro’s new novel Klara and the Sun was released with much fanfare recently, and I have duly procured a copy. Meanwhile, having loved the Booker winner The Remains of the Day, I felt like reading an earlier novel of his and picked up An Artist of the Floating World, which I agree, is another hit from his oeuvre.

An Artist of the Floating World is an unusual, wonderfully accomplished novel of a man looking back on his life and wondering if it was all worth it. It also takes a look at Japan’s widening generation gap and how individuals aiding efforts during World War II are shunned by subsequent generations who are more liberal and value progress, peace and prosperity.

The book opens with our protagonist Masuji Ono telling us about how he came into the possession of his current house at a bargain before the war – a sprawling mansion where he now resides with his younger daughter Noriko. While it’s a beautiful structure, it could not escape the ravages of war and certain sections of the abode have been damaged. The impact of war has insinuated itself in Masuji’s personal life as well, his wife of many years is now dead. He is left with his two daughters, now adults – the elder Setsuko is married with a son called Ichiro. The younger daughter Noriko stays with him in their mansion.

From the outset we are made aware of something unsavoury in Masuji’s past without the details. But there’s a growing sense that this past has made him a social pariah in the aftermath of the war because people are vary of associating themselves with him. It is certainly presented as a possible explanation for why Noriko remains unmarried. Noriko was all set to marry into the Miyake family, but all of a sudden that family pulled out without any explanation, and speculation is rife that it could possibly be attributed to Masuji’s prior misdeeds.

Masuji, meanwhile, is a talented artist who enjoyed his fair share of renown for the art he produced in his heydays, before the war changed things. A profession looked down upon his father, Masuji is determined to pursue art anyway and begins to work in a commercial Japanese firm, which is much more interested in the speed at which paintings are churned out rather than quality. His subsequent decision to train under the legendary Seiji Moriyama, however, takes Masuji’s painting skills to the next level. Moriyama is a teacher specializing in aesthetics depicting Japan’s sensual world of nightlife and courtesans in his paintings. And his fellow students are encouraged to experience the ‘floating world’ – the nocturnal realm of pleasure, entertainment and drink.

Masuji reminisces about his wonderful days in the pleasure district, the convivial atmosphere of those times, an environment which also served as a perfect backdrop to train his own protégés, notably the talented Kuroda.

But then at the height of his career, unwilling to devote his art solely to the celebration of physical beauty, Masuji makes a life changing decision of putting his work in the service of the imperialist movement that leads Japan into the Second World War.

“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.”

Masuji is forced to confront the fact that his war efforts do not carry any weight in the present. Some of his contemporaries, in a similar position, have chosen to atone for their sins by claiming their own lives. The younger generation’s attitude towards Masuji is revealed to us through his interactions with his son-in-law Suichi (Setsuko’s husband), a man who thinks that Japan’s participation in the war was sheer waste, and who believes in implementing the American ideals of democracy.

For indeed, a man who aspires to rise above the mediocre, to be something more than ordinary, surely deserves admiration, even if in the end he fails and loses a fortune on account of his ambitions.

This brings us to the nuances of Masuji’s character itself. Set between October 1948 and November 1949, the narrative is in the first person, it is Masuji who is telling us his story. In a meandering style laced with anecdotes, a mature Masuji takes a trip down memory lane that offers him both escape and redemption – his years as a student training for his craft, his formative years as an artist, his growing talent up until the war, to his present family life, and how he is beset by guilt, as he grapples with the consequences of his past actions. Masuji also dwells on his relationship with his disciples, particularly Kuroda – how that dynamic transforms from one of mutual admiration and respect to a point where Kuroda severs all ties with Masuji.

To the reader, the details of Masuji’s disgrace are only provided towards the end, so for the most part we are left wondering as to the exact nature of his downfall. Was Masuji involved in committing graver war crimes? Or were his actions, on closer inspection, not so bad and worth forgiving now? 

For his part, Masuji acknowledges his mistakes and is ready to assume full responsibility for them. In an extraordinary set-piece, which involves a formal meeting of him and Noriko with her prospective match – Taro and his parents – Masuji vocally apologizes for his role pre-war. To the reader, Masuji is a layered and complex creation evoking both sympathy for his present fate as well as some degree of unease and dread for his past dealings.

Ishiguro’s writing as ever is elegant, understated and restrained. There is a quietness and precision to his prose that is strangely alluring and pulls the reader into Masuji’s orbit. In many ways, Masuji is an unreliable narrator, for he alludes to how various conversations in his recollections may not have happened exactly the way he has put them forth, but which he justifies by saying that given the circumstances it could not have been much different.

An Artist of the Floating World, then, is also a depiction of Japan’s political landscape, how it transitioned from Imperialism to democracy and how a man having witnessed both the worlds is forced to alter his perceptions and viewpoints. At the very best, we can’t really change the past, but even if we venture to make amends for our wrongs, it can be construed as a step, however miniscule, towards progress.

Difficult Light – Tomás González (tr. Andrea Rosenberg)

Difficult Light by Colombian author Tomás González is a poignant, beautiful book touching upon big themes of family, loss, art and the critical question of whether death can provide relief from a life filled with chronic pain.  

Our narrator is David, a painter by profession, who is now residing alone in a village in his native Colombia since the death of his wife, Sara, a couple of years ago. David’s specialty is capturing light in his paintings, and he has earned some renown for his craft. However, in his old age, David’s eyesight is failing because of macular degeneration, and he is gradually turning blind. The forms and shapes he discerns appear fluid and liquid rather than distinct and concrete. Thus, forced to give up painting, David turns to writing instead and this book in a way is his attempt to record some of the most difficult moments in his past.

In brief we learn that David and Sara marry in their early twenties, and despite some initial hiccups, theirs is a healthy marriage, only strengthened as the years roll by. Along with their three sons – Jacobo, Pablo and Arturo – the couple, after a brief stint in Miami, eventually move to New York. Sara and the boys settle down quickly in the megapolis, she in her new position as a counselor in a hospital, and the boys in college. David finds it difficult initially to adapt to the city, the noise is too much and the space is cramped. But a move to a larger apartment with a lot of light streaming in does wonders and David begins to make some strides in his art. With things coasting along smoothly, those are some of the happiest times that he recalls. And then tragedy strikes.

An inkling of this is provided in the first chapter itself. Indeed, I had to read the last couple of lines twice to make sense of what is happening, was it a translation mistake?

“…until I was awakened at seven by the knot of grief in my belly at the death of my son Jacobo, which we’d scheduled for seven that night, Portland time, ten o’clock in new York.”

The background to this development is this – Jacobo is on his way home in a taxi, when an oncoming vehicle driven by a drunk junkie rams into it. The taxi driver emerges unscathed, but Jacob’s life is shattered. The accident leaves Jacobo paralyzed from the waist below. But the irony is that while his lower body is now useless, the pain completely engulfs him. So soul crushing and immense it is that he begins to wonder whether death is not a better option.

This particular development and its harrowing consequences form the bulk of the book. Jacobo and Pablo, who in many ways is Jacobo’s anchor now, travel to Portland to induce death enlisting the help of a doctor.

I enjoyed nearly two years of artistic plenitude, a happiness that also brought with it pangs of anguish: I was finding treasures everywhere, like someone for whom the stones in the road were suddenly gemstones. How could I have known what was coming! Misfortune is always like the wind: natural, unforeseeable, effortless…

We are also shown a window into David and Sara’s personalities – David is the silent, melancholy type, while Sara is more extroverted and warm and able to connect with people better. David and Sara are extremely supportive of Jacobo’s decision, and yet the impending death of their eldest son is a source of heartbreak as well. When the doctor postpones the procedure by a few hours, David and Sara are filled with hope that maybe the doctor might not arrive or that Jacobo might change his mind. This heightens the narrative tension of the story, as the reader, while aware that his death is inevitable, is still left wondering whether Jacobo might not go through with it after all.

Difficult Light, then, is an unblinking meditation on grief, loss and our capacity for pain as humans. At a fundamental level, it questions whether an individual has the right to end his life rather than live an undignified existence of unrelenting pain. David and Sara, in their ways, understand the unbearable ordeal his son has to endure on a daily basis, and yet the hell that Jacobo experiences is something that only he can fathom.

Interspersed with this central theme, are David’s reflections on his paintings and the light he is always trying to capture. David also wrestles with the notion of fame. He craves for it in his earlier years, only for it to be denied. It’s only after Jacobo’s accident that fame and money come knocking on his door, and the irony is not lost on David – now he wants to shun the limelight, but has to grudgingly accept that the money is crucial for Jacobo’s treatment.

What I also liked in the book is the portrayal of David’s family. On the day of Jacobo’s scheduled death, the family members and friends gather around in their house to show support – not by continuously doling out words of comfort, but by just being there. The palpable sense of tension and anxiety is punctuated by moments of talk and camaraderie as the family navigates the seemingly endless hours of waiting.

So many years have passed since then that even the pain in my heart has gradually dried up, like the moisture in a piece of fruit, and only rarely now am I suddenly shaken by the memory of what happened, as if it happened yesterday, and swallow hard to contain a sob. But it does still happen, and I nearly double over with grief. But at other times, I think of my son, and then I feel such warmth that in those moments it even seems to me that life is eternal, restful and eternal, and pain is an illusion.

González’s prose is crystal clear, limpid and sensitive whether he is describing the anguish of his characters, the debilitating impact of grief as well as the healing power of art especially the joy of nailing it right. When showcasing the family’s plight around Jacobo’s fate, González is compassionate without being overtly sentimental. It’s a beautiful book that dwells on the intimacy and humour of a family, of displaying resilience amid pain, and as another author has put it, “manages to say new things about the way we feel.”

A Wreath of Roses – Elizabeth Taylor

Elizabeth Taylor is quickly becoming one of my favourite authors. My first of hers was A Game of Hide and Seek, which I loved, followed by Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont and The Soul of Kindness. The latter two books found a place on my best reads for 2019 and my list of 2020 favourites respectively. A Wreath of Roses, then, is another winner from her oeuvre.

A  Wreath of Roses is a beautiful, dark tale of dangerous deception, lies, friendship and mortality.

The ominous opening scene pretty much sets the tone for the rest of the novel. We meet Camilla Hill – possibly in her late thirties who holds a secretarial position in a girls’ school – on a railway platform waiting for the train. Camilla is on her way to the countryside to spend the summer with her two best friends – Liz and Liz’s former governess Frances – just like they always did in the previous summers.

It is a blistering, scorching day, the white buildings shimmer, and an air of lethargy descends upon Camilla. She notices another individual waiting on the same platform as her (later revealed to us as Richard Elton). But this is just the lull before the storm. Very soon, both of them witness a man climb the parapet above the tracks and jump in front of the oncoming train.

This happening broke the afternoon in two. The feeling of eternity had vanished. What had been timeless and silent became chaotic and disorganized, with feet running along the echoing boards, voices staccato, and the afternoon darkening with the vultures of disaster, who felt the presence of death and arrived from the village to savour it and to explain the happening to one another.

This sudden juxtaposition of suicide and death in an otherwise seemingly calm environment unnerves the reader as much as it instills a sense of unease in Camilla. To add fuel to the fire, more unwelcome surprises await Camilla.

On reaching their holiday cottage, Camilla notices a marked change in both Liz and Frances. In earlier years, their summers were always ripe and filled with shared confidences, literary jokes, painting, and going for long strolls. But this year, it all feels different. Liz has married a clergyman and is preoccupied with her baby. Frances is growing old and frail and has departed from her trademark style of painting – having switched from gentle portraits and bucolic landscapes to producing wild, terrifying abstract works of art.

She felt ashamed of her preoccupation with stillness, with her aerial flowers, her delicate colours, her femininity. She was tempted outside her range as an artist, and for the first time painted from an inner darkness, groping and undisciplined, as if in an act of relief from her own turmoil.

In terms of personalities, Camilla and Liz could not be more different. Liz is warm, vivacious, sweet-natured, and holds no grudge. Camilla is guarded and reserved, certain disappointments in her life have made her defensive, and she employs sarcasm as a shield to keep hurt at bay.

Into this picture, we are once again introduced to Richard Elton, the man Camilla travelled with on the train. Richard is a sinister character, full of secrets, a man not to be trusted. At first glance, Camilla dismisses Richard as a type of character she typically despises, an empty man ‘who could never have any part in her life, whose existence could not touch hers, which was thoughtful rather than active and counted its values in a different way.’

Yet, she finds herself dangerously attracted to him. Afflicted by a sharp bout of loneliness, and painfully aware that life is passing her by, Camilla begins to see Richard often against her better instincts. This is partly as a form of revenge against Liz because she believes the latter has abandoned her, and partly because she feels the urge to venture outside her comfort zone and plunge into excitement and adventure. After all, Liz and Frances have taken dramatic decisions regarding their lives, so why can’t she, Camilla, do something similar?

While the reader is already aware that Richard is a dangerous liar with an aura of threat about him, will Camilla eventually see through his façade, his odd behaviour sharpened by fear?

A Wreath of Roses is a novel of many themes. There’s mortality and Frances’ preoccupation with it. Having been independent all her life, Frances worries about old age and the state of dependence that it implies. Also, just when she is about to explore new territories in her painting style, health issues begin to mar her.

The novel also touches upon friendship and how a change in circumstances can considerably alter the dynamics between friends, in a way that they can no longer connect on a deeper level as they once did.

A Wreath of Roses is also an unflinching portrayal of deception and lies – not just told by others, but probing deeper into the lies we tell ourselves to justify our actions.

Taylor excels at visual imagery and the landscape is as much a character in the novel as the people in it. The village where the women are staying is a place of holiday and of menace, and throughout the novel these two states remain intertwined.

Adept in her depiction of big drama in small-scale settings, Elizabeth Taylor is truly perceptive, an excellent chronicler of human nature complete with sharp observations and keen insights. Throw in some dash of wit and humour, and what we have in our hands is a rich and textured novel.

This is one of her darker novels looking as it does at the pain of life, its random cruelty and agonies of isolation. Throughout its pages, an air of violence and peril lurks, all kinds of fear grips its characters, and the reader is overcome by a feeling of dread and an impending sense of doom.

We are eventually left to ponder – Can crossing the boundaries of our individual limits traumatize us forever? And can real friendship survive the myriad changes in character and upheavals in circumstances that make up life?

Just as A Wreath of Roses opens on an ominous note, so does it end with darkness at its heart.