How Kazuo Ishiguro became a successful writer

His novels explore the past via themes of human memory – and forgetting. Honored with the Nobel Prize for Literature, the best-selling author actually first dreamed of being a pop musician.

The Swedish Academy surprised the world again when it announced that Kazuo Ishiguro was the winner of the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. Explaining the choice, the Academy's Permanent Secretary, Sara Danius, described a British author "who, in novels of great emotional force, has uncovered the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world."

Danius said that Ishiguro's writing combines Jane Austen and Franz Kafka, to which "you have to add a little bit of Marcel Proust into the mix, and then you stir, but not too much." He is an author of "great integrity" who has developed his own aesthetic style, she added.

"He 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." 

Read moreNobel Literature Prize awarded to Kazuo Ishiguro

From guitarist to novelist

Born in Nagasaki, Japan in 1954, Kazuo Ishiguro moved to England at the age of six, where he has lived ever since. Growing up in the countryside outside London during the Swinging Sixties, he initially dreamed of being a pop musician and played guitar in clubs and pubs before hitch-hiking through the US and Canada. Ishiguro didn't travel back to the land of his birth, however, until he was 35. 

Literaturnobelpreis | Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro's writing has been likened to a mix of Jane Austen, Kafka and Proust

Having studied English and philosophy at the University of Kent, Ishiguro completed a Masters in Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia in 1980. His earliest works of literature were created around this time: three short stories that appeared in a 1981 anthology of new authors, while his debut novel, "A Pale View of Hills," was published in 1982. Ishiguro dedicated himself to writing full-time in 1983 after giving up his job as a social worker in a shelter for homeless people.

The remains of the Day, Novel by Kazuo Ishiguro

A small but highly successful body of work

The 2017 Nobel literature laureate has so far published a relatively small body of work, with seven novels and one short story collection to his name – along with TV and film screenplays and song lyrics. Nonetheless, his first novel, which was set in post-WWII Japan, made him a household name; while his second novel, "An Artist of the Floating World," published four years later, was a bestseller in Britain and earned Ishiguro the Whitbread Prize.

While Ishiguro's early books did not sell as well in the US, that changed with the novel that's still regarded as his masterwork. "The Remains of the Day" (1989) made the then 35-year-old one of Britain's most successful authors after it won him the Booker Prize and went on to sell more than a million copies in England alone. A 1993 screen adaptation of the story of a loyal and selfless English butler before and after the war saw Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson nominated for as Oscar in the lead roles; the film received eight Oscar nominations.

Memory and forgetting

"The Remains of the Day" deals with a fundamental theme found throughout Ishiguro's writing: Are there human values ​​that defy shifting times and that should not change? What happens when social values ​​do change?

Filmstill von The Remains of the Day, 1993

Oscar-nominated Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson in "The Remains of the Day"

"How much forgetting is desirable? How much remembering is desirable?" Ishiguro asked in a 2015 interview with DW. There is no simple answer to finding this balance, he said. What makes people devoted servants and subjects? And what makes them commit cruel acts, perhaps with the best intentions?

"The Remains of the Day" begins like a P. G. Wodehouse novel and ends like a Kafkaesque parable, pointed out Sara Danius after the Nobel prize was announced.

She also noted that her personal favorite Ishiguro novel is "The Buried Giant" (2015), his most recent book. Set in a half-fictional version of England around 300 A.D., the novel combines fantasy and history and utilizes Ishiguro's subtle tone and carefully drawn characters to transform the nightmares of the past, or of an imaginable future, into fiction that deals with very current issues.

Read moreBob Dylan receives Nobel Literature prize in Stockholm

In this light, Danius said she hoped the choice of this "absolutely brilliant novelist" would, following the conjecture surrounding Bob Dylan's 2016 Nobel literature prize, "make the world happy."


2018: Resignations over a #MeToo scandal

Until this year, the Swedish Academy's 18 members technically held the position for life. That changed when three group members stepped down in protest against the Academy membership of poet Katarina Frostenson, whose husband is accused of sexual harassment. Academy secretary Sara Danius (photo) and Frostenson also left shortly afterwards, leading to the decision to postpone the 2018 award.


1989: Resignations in support of Salman Rushdie

While the famous author of "The Satanic Verses" never won the Nobel Prize in Literature, some members of the Swedish Academy felt their organization should denounce Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini's fatwa calling for Salman Rushdie's assassination in 1989. The Academy refused to do so, and three members resigned in protest.


He didn't comment for weeks: Bob Dylan

He became the first singer-songwriter to obtain the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2016, shocking quite a few literature purists. Then Dylan didn't even seem that interested by the recognition. He didn't show up at the awards ceremony and simply sent a brief thank-you speech instead of the traditional Nobel lecture. He finally collected his prize in Stockholm in March 2017.


A late tribute to his first novel: Thomas Mann

Thomas Mann received the prize in 1929, but it wasn't for his most recent work, "The Magic Mountain" (1924), which the jury found too tedious. The distinction instead recognized his debut novel, "Buddenbrooks" — published 28 years earlier. Time had apparently added to its value. The jury said, it "has won steadily increased recognition as one of the classic works of contemporary literature."


Too many people: Elfriede Jelinek

When she was honored with the prize in 2004, Austrian author Elfriede Jelinek also refused to go to the awards ceremony. "I cannot manage being in a crowd of people. I cannot stand public attention," the reclusive playwright said. The Swedish Academy had to accept her agoraphobia, but she did, at least, hold her Nobel lecture — per video.


Couldn't accept the prize: Boris Pasternak

The Soviet author, world famous for his novel "Doctor Zhivago," obtained Nobel recognition in 1958. However, Soviet authorities forced him to decline the prize; he wouldn't be able to re-enter the country if he went to the Stockholm ceremony. Even though he followed his government's orders, he was still demonized afterwards. His son picked up the award in 1989, 29 years after the author's death.


'Not literature': Dario Fo

When Italian comedian and playwright Dario Fo won the prize in 1997, the announcement came as a shock to many literary critics, who saw him as just an entertainer and not real literary figure with an international standing." The satirist fired back with his Nobel speech, which he titled "Against jesters who defame and insult."


Literature, not Peace: Winston Churchill

Although British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 1945, he actually obtained the award for his written works — mostly memoirs, history volumes and speeches — in 1953. The jury praised "his mastery of historical and biographical description as well as for brilliant oratory in defending exalted human values."


Did he want the money?: Jean-Paul Sartre

The French philosopher and playwright was awarded the 1964 Nobel Prize in Literature, but he declined it, saying that "a writer should not allow himself to be turned into an institution" by accepting official honors. It was rumored that he later asked for the prize money anyway — but that story was never confirmed.


The youngest winner: Rudyard Kipling

Winning the award in 1907 at the age of 41, British author Joseph Rudyard Kipling, best known for "The Jungle Book" (1894), remains the youngest Nobel laureate in literature to this day. However, his legacy has since been marred by the fact that Kipling, who spent his early childhood and some of his adult life in India, vehemently spoke out in defense of British colonialism.