NEW YORK — The English novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, known for his spare, elliptical prose style and his inventive subversion of literary genres, was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature on Thursday.
Ishiguro, 62, is best known for his novels “The Remains of the Day,” about a butler serving an English lord in the years leading up to World War II, and “Never Let Me Go,” a melancholy dystopian love story set in a British boarding school. In his seven novels, he has obsessively returned to the same themes, including the fallibility of memory, mortality, and the porous nature of time.
“If you mix Jane Austen and Franz Kafka then you have Kazuo Ishiguro in a nutshell, but you have to add a little bit of Marcel Proust into the mix,” said Sara Danius, permanent secretary of The Swedish Academy. “Then you stir, but not too much, then you have his writings.”
Danius described Ishiguro as “a writer of great integrity.”
“He doesn’t look to the side,” she said. “He has developed an aesthetic universe all his own.”
In a statement released by his publisher, Ishiguro expressed astonishment at the award, calling it, “amazing and totally unexpected news.”
“It comes at a time when the world is uncertain about its values, its leadership, and its safety,” he wrote. “I just hope that my receiving this huge honor will, even in a small way, encourage the forces for good will and peace at this time.”
In a career that spans some 35 years, Ishiguro has gained wide recognition for his idiosyncratic, emotionally restrained prose style. His novels are often narrated in the first person, by unreliable narrators who are in denial about truths that are gradually revealed to the reader. The resonance in his novels often comes from the rich subtext — the things left unsaid, and gaps between the narrator’s perception and reality.
Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje, author of “The English Patient,” said he was “thrilled” by the academy’s choice. “He is such a rare and mysterious writer, always surprising to me, with every book,” he wrote in an e-mail.
Born in 1954 in Nagasaki, Japan, and educated in Britain, Ishiguro is known for, among other things, his lyrical prose, his acute sense of place and for his masterful parsing of the British class system.
Ishiguro, the son of an oceanographer, moved to Surrey, England, when he was 5 years old, and attended Woking Grammar School, a school that he told The Guardian was “probably the last chance to get a flavor of a bygone English society that was already rapidly fading.”
In an interview with The New York Times two years ago, Ishiguro said that he had discovered literature as a young boy when he came upon Sherlock Holmes stories in the local library. “I was around 9 or 10, and I not only read obsessively about Holmes and Watson, I started to behave like them. I’d go to school and say things like: ‘Pray, be seated’ or ‘That is most singular.’ People at the time just put this down to my being Japanese,” he said, adding that he was attracted to the world of Conan Doyle because it was “so very cozy.”
In his 20s, he wanted to be a singer-songwriter, a pursuit he failed at, but one that later helped to shape his spare, first-person prose style. He has written lyrics for the American jazz singer Stacey Kent and still plays jazz and acoustic guitar, “no worse than the average amateur,” he said.
“My friends and I took songwriting very, very seriously,” he told The Guardian in an interview. “My hero was and still is Bob Dylan, but also people like Leonard Cohen and Joni Mitchell and that whole generation. We would endlessly discuss the relationship between words and music and how they had to come alive within the context of performance.”
Eventually, Ishiguro stood out among the literary crowd. In 1983, he was included in Granta’s best of young British writers list, joining luminaries such as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan, and Salman Rushdie.
His deep understanding of the social conventions and affectations of his adopted homeland shaped his third novel, “Remains of the Day” which won the prestigious Booker prize and featured a buttoned-up butler, who was later immortalized in a film starring Anthony Hopkins. Ishiguro later said he had written the book in four weeks at the age of 32.
A literary iconoclast, Ishiguro has played with genres like detective fiction, westerns, science fiction, and fantasy in his novels. Critics viewed “The Unconsoled,” a surreal, dreamlike novel about a pianist in an unnamed European city, as magical realism when it came out in 1995. “When We Were Orphans” was viewed as a detective novel. His 2005 novel, “Never Let Me Go,” was regarded as yet another stylistic leap into futuristic science fiction, although it was set in the 1990s.
His most recent novel, “The Buried Giant,” defied expectations once again. A fantasy story set in Arthurian Britain, the novel centers on an older couple, Axl and Beatrice, who leave their village in search of their missing son, and encounter an old knight. Though the story was a full-blown fantasy, with ogres and a dragon, it was also a parable that explored many of the themes that have preoccupied Ishiguro throughout his career, including the fragile nature of individual and collective memory.