“They take so much for granted, all these people. What do they want me to do, on this night of all nights?” These words are from The Unconsoled but many of us have heard words like them in our heads. We hear the whine in our voice, but we can’t stop. Self-pity is a country where everyone else is unreasonable, where your manifest innocence cries out in perfect pitch. There is a horrible pleasure in visiting this country; but it’s hard to leave, the borders close behind you almost as soon as you get there. “But it’s the same as everywhere else,” the voice says. “They expect everything from me. They’ll probably turn on me tonight, it wouldn’t surprise me.”
The voice I’m quoting is that of Ryder, the English concert pianist whose dazed narrative constitutes The Unconsoled, but I’m also suggesting that its ghastly familiarity is all but irresistible. I’m sure there are people who know nothing of self-pity, and have never spoken like this, even in their dreams; lucky them. But for the rest of us, Ryder’s experience is like a map of our plaintive, small-time self-dramatizing, a catalog of the attitudes we adopt when we feel guilty, but want to feel virtuous.
Ryder arrives in an unnamed German town to give a concert. He’s hazy about his schedule—he remembers reading it, but not what it said—and can’t bring himself to ask for clarification. He’s to give a speech, apparently, as well as perform some contemporary music, and the whole town’s moral and perhaps economic well-being depends on a turn in its cultural affairs which Ryder is to preside over. The town has strongly supported one Christoff, a conductor now felt to be a charlatan. His shallow and dogmatic interpretations having been exposed, with Ryder himself administering the coup de grâce, Christoff must give way to the disreputable but reformed Brodsky, a gifted musician who has dedicated himself to drink for the last twenty years.
Ryder knows he ought to be surprised at this shift of his role from musician to musical authority, and indeed at the extreme penetration of musical life into the gossip and politics of the humdrum city. But he isn’t surprised, partly because he feels he must have agreed to the program, even if he can’t remember any of it, and partly because he’s too busy being besieged by locals asking favors of him: will he look at a woman’s album of cuttings, will he listen to a young pianist play, will he meet with concerned citizens, will he take a message to the porter’s daughter? He also seems to relish the idea of his own cultural importance, and talks complacently of “the crisis I had come to assess,” as if his concert were a sideline.
Three features in particular make clear to us what strange territory Ryder and we are in. First, almost no one approaches Ryder. People appear at the moment he thinks of them or they are mentioned by someone else. He and a porter are in an elevator, for example, apparently alone. The porter talks of a Miss Hilde and Ryder finally asks who she is.
No sooner had I said this, I noticed the porter was gazing past my shoulder at some spot behind me. Turning, I saw with a start that we were not alone in the elevator. A small young woman in a neat business suit was standing pressed into the corner behind me.
Second, almost everyone who meets Ryder launches into the narrative of his or her life, so that the porter, for example, tells a slow story of several pages, out of all proportion to the length of any imaginable elevator ride. The hotel manager tells the tale of his marriage, how he allowed his wife to believe, during their courtship, that he was a musician, and how he has been waiting for twenty years or more for the inevitable day when she will leave him.
Certain pieces of Ryder’s past have been transposed to this town, and he recognizes them as such, although always in the sudden, apparitional way he notices Miss Hilde. There are old school friends, a girl from his village in Worcestershire, a room in his English aunt’s house that has now become a room in a German hotel, an old car that used to belong to his parents in England and is now mysteriously abandoned outside an art gallery in Germany. But these material memories, so to speak, make up only a small part of Ryder’s experience in the novel. He is traveling chiefly not to his past, but to his scrambled and elusive present, to a present that seems endlessly deferred and out of reach. He meets new people, enters strange rooms, and then is invaded by the thought that he ought to know them, know them well. Memories creep up on him: “Sophie’s face had come to seem steadily more familiar to me…. I found a faint recollection returning to me of listening to this same voice”; “I found myself remembering more of the argument I had had with Sophie”; “The room was by now growing steadily more familiar to me.” The strangers are no longer entirely strangers, but they are not part of Ryder’s nameable history. On the contrary: they have no real history for him, their history is what he has lost.
This is particularly painful in the case of Sophie and Boris, since Ryder appears to be in the middle of a turbulent and unhappy relationship with Sophie, and may be Boris’s father. He seems to meet Boris for the first time near the beginning of the book but is soon calling him “My boy, Boris.” At the end of the novel Sophie turns on Ryder, and says, “Leave us. You were always on the outside of our love.” To the boy she says, “He’ll never be one of us. You’ve got to understand that, Boris. He’ll never love you like a real father.” Ryder sobs with distress—he is sitting on a tram at the time—but, with the inconsequentiality which marks every scene in this book and is the third identifying feature of this territory, cheers up instantly when he discovers that a splendid breakfast is being served on the tram itself.
The most horrible events occur in this work, from deep embarrassments to death and mutilation, but they are always reinterpretable as small blips or snags. Ryder doesn’t give the concert, or the speech, the whole book has been tending toward, because he has been distracted by one of the many other calls on his time. Dawn comes up, the audience is gone, but Ryder somehow sidesteps the disarray we feel he ought to feel.
I surveyed the scene around me and saw how needless had been my worries concerning my ability to cope with the various demands presented to me in this city. As ever, my experience and instincts had proved more than sufficient to see me through. Of course, I felt a certain disappointment about the evening, but then, as I thought about it further, I could see the inappropriateness of such feelings.
The corollary to self-pity is this astonishing self-absolution. The last words of the novel, following shortly on Sophie’s devastating dismissal, are these: “I filled my coffee cup almost to the brim. Then, holding it carefully in one hand, my generously laden plate in the other, I began making my way back to my seat.”
A lot of people are sleepy in this novel, and all three sections after the first open with Ryder awaking from a nap. Is the entire book perhaps a version of one of those dreams in which you keep dreaming you are awake? It’s tempting to think so, and the book is full of hallucinatory, often comic images which appear to have come from a Surrealist repertoire revised by diffidence and guilt. When Ryder steps onto the stage to give his much-delayed and infinitely discussed performance, he discovers that there is not only no audience but there are no seats, either. The floor of the auditorium is quite clear, “a vast, dark, empty space,” and pieces of the ceiling have been removed for good measure, “allowing the daylight to come down in pale shafts onto the floor.” It’s as if we had wandered into a dream within a dream in Buñuel’s Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The folded ironing board, however, which serves the rehabilitated but injured Brodsky as a crutch, emerges from some delirious English domesticity, and the elaborate preparations for Ryder’s talk sound as if Kafka had been coaching Pinter or Stoppard. The fussy speaker is the hotel manager, who is in charge of the whole event:
The whole auditorium, for a single moment, will be plunged into blackness, during which time the curtains will open. And then a single spot will come on, revealing you standing at the centre of the stage at the lectern. At that moment, obviously, the audience will burst into excited applause. Then, once the applause has subsided, before you have uttered a word—of course, this is so long as you are agreeable—a voice will boom out across the auditorium, pronouncing the first question. The voice will be that of Horst Jannings, this city’s most senior actor. He will be up in the sound box speaking through the public address system. Horst has a fine rich baritone and he will read out each question slowly. And as he does so—this is my little idea, sir!—the words will be spelt out simultaneously on the electronic scoreboard fixed directly above your head…. The words on the scoreboard, dare I say, will help some of those present to remember the gravely important nature of the issues you are addressing…. Each question will be there in front of them spelt out in giant letters…. The first question will be announced, spelt out on the scoreboard, you will give your reply from the lectern, and once you have finished, Horst will read out the next question and so on. The only thing we would ask, Mr. Ryder, is that at the end of each reply, you leave the lectern and come to the edge of the stage and bow. The reason for my requesting this is twofold. Firstly, because of the temporary nature of the electronic scoreboard, there are inevitable certain technical difficulties…. So you see, sir, by moving to the edge of the stage and bowing, thus provoking inevitable applause, we will avoid a series of awkward pauses punctuating the proceedings…. There is, sir, a further reason this strategy recommends itself. Your coming to the edge of the stage and bowing will tell the electrician, very unambiguously, that you have completed your answer.
It sounds like a recipe for a fiasco, even apart from its remoteness from what is normally expected of concert pianists; but Ryder, caught up in what he calls a “dreamy sense of unreality,” wearily assents: “It all sounds splendid, Mr. Hoffman.” Later he panics, and in the midst of the phrases I quoted at the beginning of this piece, says, “They’ve actually brought in an electronic scoreboard. Can you believe it?”
But I’m not sure it helps to think of the whole novel as the record of a dream. It’s more like a long metaphor for deferred and displaced anxiety, and the point about anxiety is that it doesn’t occur only in dreams. The German city is redrawn and repeopled by Ryder’s preoccupations. Its geography is particularly fantastic, sprouting obstacles and distances at random, and its times are peculiarly flexible. But this is only to say that the novel takes the opportunity that fiction so often resists, and pursues the darker logic of a world governed by our needs and worries rather than the laws of physics.
At the center of this unconsolable place are the unappeasable parents, the parents for whom no performance is good enough, and whose mandate never dies. Ryder remembers his own parents quarreling when he was a child; they are supposed to come to his concert in Germany, but don’t—have they ever been to one of his concerts? He says they are coming “to hear me perform for the very first time,” but later says he is about “to perform once more before my parents.” When he is sure they haven’t come, he bursts into tears, and then is half-consoled by the news that his parents have visited this city in the past—as if the old visit and his current stay could be patched up in some other dimension. Ryder’s dilemma is mirrored in that of the hotel manager’s son, a pianist of talent whose parents have no faith in him, so that the very moment of his spectacular success seems to them a cruel mockery of their hope. The town itself has made a judgment about music as the key to its self-esteem; and Ryder’s failure with Sophie and Boris is a sacrifice of the family to a musical career—or would be, if Ryder could overcome his distractions and get back to his musical career.
Music is how you try to justify yourself in this world; and also the reason your attempts at justification fail. Music is a challenge and a prowess; but every success breeds new doubts, and peoples the world with judges. The slightest favor that is asked of you, as favors are asked of Ryder at every turn, is a chance of proving that you are not only a good musician but a good person. You can’t resist the lure of this proof, but what would your niceness prove? “Par délicatesse j’ai perdu ma vie,” Rimbaud wrote. Niceness—as Ryder helplessly understands—proves only that you want to be nice; and probably shows that an unmanageable guilt has spilled into the simplest encounters.
Is music a crime? The mask of your necessary betrayal of your parents, or their unforgivable betrayal of you? Or is music an image of control, the very thing that turns to chaos once your anxiety gets the better of you? Ryder talks repeatedly, as well he may, of chaos descending on him, and of the need to regain control of his time and his movements. Practicing a piece called Asbestos and Fibre he feels “in absolute control of every dimension of the composition.” The novel, we may think, shows us just the reverse of this feeling, displays with eerie consistency what an absolute lack of control might look like, and how it might play itself out.
The Unconsoled itself is beautifully controlled, even-paced, deadpan in spite of all extravagances. Its determined equanimity of tone makes you drowsy, and sometimes you wonder if you’d notice if you dropped off to sleep while you were reading. But there is finally something haunting, even alluring, about the proliferation of obstacles and stories in this book. It’s not that a sense of suspense or of climax is created; far from it. But there is a kind of excitement in Ryder’s stumbling from errand to failed errand, as if nothing were certain in life except the interruption of whatever you are trying to do. We know he’s not going to get anywhere; he’s not going to unravel his relationships, help his friends, please his parents, give his concert or his speech, sort out this terribly self-preoccupied town. But it’s hard work not getting anywhere. Ryder’s endless distraction from his multiplying purposes is so distracting that we can hardly bear it. His life is overwhelmed by irrelevance, buried under pointless but irresistible demands. That’s when the novel ceases to feel like a dream, or only like a dream.
“I supposed I was perhaps the last guest down to breakfast, but then again, I had had an exceptionally demanding night and saw no reason to feel any guilt about it.” That’s how all guilty people talk, Kafka would say. It’s certainly how all Ishiguro’s main characters talk. The least interesting of them is Stevens, the butler in the overrated Remains of the Day (1988). He uses his stuffy language to avoid whatever insights may be lurking in his starved and shriveled mind, and the text is a kind of tour de force of impersonation on Ishiguro’s part. The trouble is that the work lacks the mystery of Ishiguro’s other novels, and that it’s hard to believe that Stevens’s repressions aren’t a lot more fun than anything he could be repressing. This aspect of the novel is made luminously clear in James Ivory’s movie version, where Anthony Hopkins is having such a high old time being a butler that you can’t imagine him swapping the life for anything, least of all a dingy romance with that nice housekeeper Emma Thompson. The central character in An Artist of the Floating World (1986) is a Japanese artist who doesn’t know how much he should or can regret his pre-war patriotism. Should he apologize for his complicity in that militarist world, or is the idea that he made any kind of contribution to the horrors of the time a sort of folie de grandeur, an exaggeration of his own role? Is he hiding from his past, or inflating it? If you say you have no reason to feel any guilt, you’re not bound to be guilty, but you’re not bound to be innocent either. And whom are you saying it to? Whom should you be saying it to?
Ishiguro’s first novel, A Pale View of Hills (1982), after many readings, still seems to me a small masterpiece, and I think The Unconsoled is his most interesting work since then. Both books are about drastic denials, and about what happens when the denied material comes back to get you. Etsuko, in A Pale View of Hills, has left Japan and her Japanese husband to live in England. Her second, English husband is now dead; she has had a daughter from each marriage. A visit from her half-English daughter sparks off a series of memories, of mysterious but unavoidable connections between the years in Nagasaki after the war (after the bomb) and the recent suicide, in Manchester, of Etsuko’s entirely Japanese daughter, the girl she brought with her from Japan. Etsuko sees herself, or rather determinedly refuses to see herself, even as she evokes the resemblance, in a Nagasaki friend, who neglected her daughter and went off with an American; and she similarly sees and does not see herself in the child murderer who hanged a little girl from a tree in Nagasaki. Almost everything is unspeakable here, and yet it gets spoken.
What is most memorable about the book is the calm of Etsuko’s narrative, the sense that she is both acknowledging an enormous guilt and plausibly asking what else she could have done. The Unconsoled doesn’t have the concentration of A Pale View of Hills, or its violent and poignant historical background. But it does ask us to think about real and imaginary guilt, and when you realize, only a few pages into the book, that the porter going on about the nobility of the porter’s vocation is parodying Stevens’s line about the dignity of butlering in The Remains of the Day, you get an idea of Ishiguro’s deepest subject: not the sorrow of repression but the comedy and the pathos of the stories we tell ourselves to keep other stories away.
December 21, 1995