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October 12, 2004

Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World.

In June I praised Kazuo Ishiguro's 1989 novel, The Remains of the Day, which is about butler Stevens who pridefully sacrifices all for dignity and for doing his little bit, as a butler, to bring about world peace by serving the peacemakers. The problem is that the peacemakers turn out to be the appeasers of the 1930's, people entirely mistaken whose efforts are worse than useless, and with them Stevens's life.

A similarly elegant, sad, and perceptive book is his 1986 An Artist of the Floating World. Here, the protagonist is a Japanese artist who rebelled against his teacher's partying and paintings of actors and geishas ("the Floating World") to instead use painting to advance political progress and the reform of Japanese national spirit. The book is set in 1948, though, when the artist, his wife dead in a bombing raid and his son dead as a soldier, sees that his idealistic fascism (if that is the right word for the 1930's militarists in Japan) was a mistake. He manages, however, to rise above his pride and to confess that he was mistaken. It is a novel about the conflict between generations, and the struggle-- so often unsuccessful-- of men to do something significant with their lives, and to make the best of failure.

"...if we'd seen things a little more clearly, then the likes of you and me, Matsuda-- who knows? -- we may have done some real good. We had much energy and courage once. ...

But then I for one never saw things too clearly. A narrow artist's perspective, as you say. Why, even now, I find it hard to think of the world extending much beyond this city...

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. It was simply our misfortune to have been ordinary men during such times." (p. 199, last chapter).

Such a book is good for teaching humility, and some sympathy, perhaps, for the modern Hollywood artists who are trying to advance evil causes. It takes great talent to write a sympathetically critical book about such a man.

Posted by erasmuse at October 12, 2004 09:37 PM

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