The English author Kazuo Ishiguro has been named winner of the 2017 Nobel prize in literature, praised by the Swedish Academy for his “novels of great emotional force”, which it said had “uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world”.
With names including Margaret Atwood, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o and Haruki Murakami leading the odds at the bookmakers, Ishiguro was a surprise choice. But his blue-chip literary credentials return the award to more familiar territory after last year’s controversial selection of the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan. The author of novels including The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro’s writing, said the Academy, is “marked by a carefully restrained mode of expression, independent of whatever events are taking place”.
Speaking to the BBC, he called the award a “magnificent honour, mainly because it means that I’m in the footsteps of the greatest authors that have lived”.
“The world is in a very uncertain moment and I would hope all the Nobel prizes would be a force for something positive in the world as it is at the moment,” he said. “I’ll be deeply moved if I could in some way be part of some sort of climate this year in contributing to some sort of positive atmosphere at a very uncertain time.”
Ishiguro’s fellow Booker winner Salman Rushdie – who is also regularly named as a potential Nobel laureate – was one of the first to congratulate him. “Many congratulations to my old friend Ish, whose work I’ve loved and admired ever since I first read A Pale View of Hills,” Rushdie told the Guardian. “And he plays the guitar and writes sings too! Roll over Bob Dylan.”
According to the former poet laureate Andrew Motion, “Ishiguro’s imaginative world has the great virtue and value of being simultaneously highly individual and deeply familiar – a world of puzzlement, isolation, watchfulness, threat and wonder”.
“How does he do it?” asked Motion. “Among other means, by resting his stories on founding principles which combine a very fastidious kind of reserve with equally vivid indications of emotional intensity. It’s a remarkable and fascinating combination, and wonderful to see it recognised by the Nobel prize-givers.”
Permanent secretary of the academy Sara Danius described Ishiguro’s writing as a mix of the works of Jane Austen and Franz Kafka, “but you have to add a little bit of Marcel Proust into the mix, and then you stir, but not too much, and then you have his writings.
“He’s a writer of great integrity. He doesn’t look to the side, he’s developed an aesthetic universe all his own,” she said. Danius named her favourite of Ishiguro’s novels as The Buried Giant, but called The Remains of the Day “a true masterpiece [which] starts as a PG Wodehouse novel and ends as something Kafkaesque”.
“He is someone who is very interested in understanding the past, but he is not a Proustian writer, he is not out to redeem the past, he is exploring what you have to forget in order to survive in the first place as an individual or as a society,” she said, adding – in the wake of last year’s uproar – that she hoped the choice would “make the world happy”.
“That’s not for me to judge. We’ve just chosen what we think is an absolutely brilliant novelist,” she said.
Ishiguro’s publisher at Faber & Faber, Stephen Page, said the win was “absolutely extraordinary news”.
“He’s just an absolutely singular writer” said Page, who received news of Ishiguro’s win while waiting for a flight at Dublin airport. “He has an emotional force as well as an intellectual curiosity, that always finds enormous numbers of readers. His work is challenging at times, and stretching, but because of that emotional force, it so often resonates with readers. He’s a literary writer who is very widely read around the world.”
Born in Japan, Ishiguro’s family moved to the UK when he was five. He studied creative writing at the University of East Anglia, going on to publish his first novel, A Pale View of the Hills, in 1982. He has been a full time writer ever since. According to the Academy, the themes of “memory, time and self-delusion” weave through his work, particularly in The Remains of the Day, which won Ishiguro the Booker prize in 1989 and was adapted into a film starring Anthony Hopkins as the “duty-obsessed” butler Stevens.
His more recent novels have taken a turn for the fantastical: Never Let Me Go is set in a dystopic version of England, while The Buried Giant, published two years ago, sees an elderly couple on a road trip through a strange and otherworldly English landscape. “This novel explores, in a moving manner, how memory relates to oblivion, history to the present, and fantasy to reality,” said the Swedish Academy. Apart from his eight books, which include the short story collection Nocturnes, Ishiguro has written scripts for film and television.
Awarded since 1901, the 9m Swedish krona (£832,000) Nobel prize is for the writing of an author who, in the words of Alfred Nobel’s bequest, “shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction”. Ishiguro becomes the 114th winner, following in the footsteps of writers including Seamus Heaney, Toni Morrison, Mo Yan and Pablo Neruda.
The award is judged by the secretive members of the Swedish Academy, who last year plumped for the American musician Dylan “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition”. He proved an elusive winner and was described as “impolite and arrogant” by academy member Per Wastberg after initially failing to acknowledge the honour.
Some members of the literary community were also less than impressed: “This feels like the lamest Nobel win since they gave it to Obama for not being Bush,” said Hari Kunzru at the time. The choice of a writer who has won awards including the Man Booker prize should pour oil on at least some of the troubled waters ruffled by Dylan’s win, though Will Self reacted to Ishiguro’s win in characteristically lugubrious fashion.
“He’s a fairly good writer,” Self declared, “and surely doesn’t deserve the dread ossification and disregard that garnishes such laurels.”