Kazuo Ishiguro said he was very surprised when he learnt that he was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for literature. They all are. I have not come across any winner in recent times who, upon being informed that s/he won the Nobel, responded, “I knew this. I knew I was going to win the Nobel. My creative output has been of such a high calibre and I have been so consistently superlative that I couldn’t see how the Nobel committee could think of anyone else than me when it sat round the table to decide this year’s Nobel. Indeed the only surprise is that I did not get it earlier.” That would be viewed as conceited. So, while the true sentiment of the recipients might be “what took them so long to realise my greatness”, they are hardly going to say that in public. For example, novels of VS Naipaul, pre-2001, made it a point to mention that he had won every possible literary award other than the Nobel. This suggests that at the very least the Nobel was important for Sir Vidiya.
When the winners declare that they are very surprised at receiving the award, what they probably mean is that they genuinely had no inkling till they received the phone call to be informed that that they have won the £ 800, 442 jackpot. So, (like Naipaul, probably) they might not be surprised that they won the award and their inner reaction upon receiving the news might be “about time”; the news itself probably is a surprise.
When Dorris Lessing won the Nobel in 2007 (I think), the Nobel committee could not inform her straightaway; because Lessing was out, shopping for weekly grocery in a local supermarket. The Nobel committee then released the news of the award to the media, and reporters were waiting for Lessing at her doorsteps when she returned from her shopping. I don’t know if the video of Lessing’s reaction when she saw the gaggle of journalists in front of her house is available on the YouTube, but her reaction suggests that she was genuinely not expecting it (and also that she took the news of her triumph in her stride).
VS Naipaul, who, in 2001, ended the long wait for the British writers, by winning the Nobel twenty years after William Golding, was in his house when the phone call came, but he apparently refused to take the call, believing it was a prank or hoax.
In the English speaking world, at least, the media and newspaper knew who the Nobel Laureate for this year was, when Ishiguro’s name was announced. I have read that when JML Le Clezio, a novelist probably little known outside of the building he lived in, in his native France, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 2008, the sub-editors of the literary sections of newspapers in the English speaking countries were scampering about to find any information they could get on Le Cleizo. Ditto for Tomas Transtromer, a Swedish poet who was awarded the Nobel in 2011.
The Nobel committee over the years has been accused of having regional, political and language biases while awarding the Nobel. Many more European and Scandinavian authors and poets have won the award in recent decades than those in the rest of the world. When the Europeans do not win the award, usually it is someone who writes in English who is awarded the prize. The former permanent secretary of the Nobel committee, Horace Engdahl, was unapologetic about it. In 2008 he declared that Europe was still “the centre of the literary world”. America, according to Engdahl, by contrast, was “too insular and too isolative.” Engdahl was responding, if I remember correctly, to the criticism, after the win of the little known JML Le Clezio in 2008, that a distinct European bias was creeping into the awarding of Nobel and that American authors were being deliberately ignored. Having read the literary outputs of the recent Nobel winners, I am struck how the writing of at least some of the European winners is so totally Eurocentric; indeed, if you were a reader in, say, an African or Asian country, you would not get the nuances unless you knew the historical as well as geopolitical context. Imre Kertesz, who won the award in 2003, and Herta Muller who won it in 2009 are two examples. Svetlana Alexievich, the Ukrainian born non-writer who was awarded the Nobel in 2015, has written exclusively on the Soviet era issues. (It is also true for non-European authors such as Mo Yan, the Chinese author who won the Nobel in 2012.) So I am not sure what Engdahl meant when he said that the Americans were insular. Did he mean the American writers were insular and isolative, because they wrote about American culture? I saw it as a very unconvincing attempt to justify what at that time was a very obvious anti-American bias. (Of the Nobel winners I have read, VS Naipaul, Dorris Lessing and Mario Vargas Llosa were the only ones (and, in case of Naipaul and Llosa, only in their later outputs) who, I felt, wrote in their fiction about themes that transcended times and geography. And now Ishiguro.)
At that time of Engdahl’s comment in 2008, no American author was awarded the Nobel, after Toni Morrison won it in 1993. There would be a further wait of eight years before an American was awarded the Nobel, in 2016. And that was Bob Dylon, who for months did not acknowledge any communication from the Nobel committee. Not because Dylon was protesting, insofar I could make out (unless this was Dylon’s way of letting the Nobel Committee know that he was not overawed by the award). Dylon did not reject the award (like Jean Paul Sartre did on the 1960s, or Pasternak did, under duress, in the 1950s) because that would have given the message that the award was important for Dylon. Dylon just did not take the calls (because he was touring) and did not respond to letters (because he was touring). One must assume that he knew that he had won the Nobel (unless he does not watch television or read newspapers) but he did not think it was necessary to contact the Nobel committee for months. The Nobel committee thought it was rude. It certainly was priceless. I was practically weeping with hilarity when I read a piece in the Guardian in which the spokesman for the Nobel carped about Dylon’s rudeness.
The Nobel committee, mercifully, did not have such trouble in 2017, although Ishiguro’s land-line was consistently engaged when they attempted to contact him. The committee released his name to the media, but, unlike Dylon, they did manage to contact Ishiguro the same day. Ishiguro later remarked, half-facetiously one assumes, that they were a bit cross at the difficulty in getting in touch with him. The committee, however, would have to admit that wait was not anywhere as long as it was in 2016.
Ishiguro is a safe choice. Notwithstanding the rather strange reaction of Will Self (“He’s a good writer, and from what I’ve witnessed a lovely man, but the singularity of his vision is ill-served by such crushing laurels, while I doubt the award will do little to reestablish the former centrality of the novel to our culture”—I think what Self is saying here is that Ishiguro did not deserve the Nobel) most have described him as a deserving winner.
Ishiguro is the only novelist apart from VS Naipaul whom I had read extensively prior to his Nobel win. Ishiguro is a good writer and I like him. Apart from The Unconsoled (which I thought was a car crash of a novel; or, more likely, I found it in accessible) I have loved all of his novels, in particular Never Let Me Go, which I think is outstanding. I also thought When We were Orphans was excellent (I was surprised to hear Ishiguro describing it as his least convincing novel in a literary programme; apaprently his wife did not like the novel either). Then there is The Remains of the Day, which probably is Ishiguro’s most famous novel, for which he won the Booker Prize decades ago. His early novels are also well worth a read.
Ishiguro is more than just a good writer. He is an excellent writer. Many of his novels deal with memory, either individual or national or cultural; and how individual memories can differ from the national memories to the point of delusion (which I thought was explored very movingly in When We were Orphans). Although Ishiguro is not the only writer to have done this (Salman Rushdie tackled this issue slightly differently, and in his inimitable style in Midnight’s Children, in my view), he has done it consistently in most of his novels (is that what Will Self had in his mind when he talked about “the singularity” of Ishiguro’s vision?).
Three cheers for Ishiguro.