The Penguin Drop Caps edition is a vibrant lime green with gray for the contrast colour. The I for Ishiguro is a clear paint pot, half filled with liquid, with a paintbrush floating in it. For the key quote for the back of the book the editor chose “He moved his lantern again, causing one picture to fade into shadow and another to appear,” from the scene of dialogue between Ono, the student, and Mori-san, the master. Mori-san believes that he and his students should only paint what he calls “The Floating World”, the world of the pleasure district, of wine, women and song, the world that comes into being at night and vanishes at sunrise, beautiful and fragile. My guess is this quote was chosen because it comes from the scene where the intriguing phrase “floating world” is at last defined, halfway through the novel. Or perhaps because Masuji Ono’s first “picture” of his achievements (I’m a great artist) fades into shadow and another “picture” (I’m responsible for great wrong) appears.
But Masuji Ono stops painting geishas and scenes of the night life, so why does the title call him an artist of the floating world? Surely Ishiguro is not calling world of the New Japanese Imperialism that Ono comes to represent a floating one. Or perhaps there are similarities between the world of the pleasure district and the war-mongering New Japan: by the late 1940s they have gone out of fashion and are physically disappearing. The old buildings of the pleasure district are being turned into glass-fronted office buildings, symbolic of the shift toward American ideals.
If you’ve ever wondered how people who supported an evil régime live with themselves after its fall, you will enjoy An Artist of the Floating World. This title was published in the Drop Caps series in 2013, showing the editors’ prescience in including this author ahead of him winning the Nobel Prize in literature in 2017.
From the very beginning, I wondered if I could trust the first person narrator. He seemed to leave out so many details. Why had he been so popular at the Migi-Hidari watering hole? Why did his daughter’s prospective marriage partner withdraw at the last minute last year? What are his daughters hinting at all the time? Clearly, Ono is not trying to justify himself to us just yet. It’s almost as if he is talking to himself, unaware that we are listening in.
This aspect of the writing is masterful. Not once does Kazuo Ishiguro step out of Masuji Ono’s character and prematurely reveal information of which he, the author, is well aware. And I continually marvelled at how Ishiguro takes you from the present to the past, weaving long memory sequences into scenes of tea with his daughters or conversations with his grandson.
The three major divisions of the book are misleading (October 1948, November 1949, June 1950) because you spend as much time in the past as you do moving forward with the main thrust of the story, the marriage arrangements for Noriko. However, each of these sections corresponds to a stage in Masuji Ono’s assessment of his past.
Despite having acquired his house based on his good character and accomplishments, Ono’s reputation no longer seems to be what it was, and may even be interfering with Noriko’s prospects for marriage. The younger generation, Ono is discovering, have markedly different values from those of his heydey in the mid-1930s.
As he divulges his upbringing, his artistic training and his career path, his own opinion of himself evolves as well. In the beginning, October 1948, he is full of self-congratulatory statements about winning an “auction of prestige” or of being surrounded by his loyal protégés. “His reputation will become all the greater, and in years to come, our proudest honour will be to tell others we were once pupils of Masuji Ono,” says one of these admirers.
But by November 1949, he is faced with a choice: admit that he did wrong during the war or continue to try to save face. His daughter’s happiness hangs in the balance. At a key meeting during the marriage negotiations, he declares, “There are some who would say it is people like myself who are responsible for the terrible things that happened to this nation of ours.” This frank admission startles his daughter as much as the Saito family. But, then, a few months later, his daughter married and settled, how does he live with himself? The family is worried he will commit suicide, as many of his peers are doing.
In the end, it is a conversation in June 1950 with an old colleague that enables him to forgive himself. “But there’s no need to blame ourselves unduly,” [Matsuda] said, “We at least acted on what we believed and did our utmost. It’s just that in the end we turned out to be ordinary men. Ordinary men with no special gifts of insight.”
This is a genius novel. Ishiguro asks a difficult question, “How do you live with a guilty conscience?” and melds past and present in a seamless narrative. His answer may be, “Did they do it on purpose? No, they didn’t know any better. They did the best they could.”