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Reading List > An Artist of the Floating World - The Discussion

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message 1: by Barbara (last edited Aug 15, 2009 06:20AM) (new)

Barbara | 6791 comments The discussion of An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishaguro starts today. This was such a subtle story.

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I kept waiting to be told that Masuji Ono had committed some truly horrible deed during the war. Instead, I find that he is an artist who has used his talent for propaganda. This seems like such a tiny sin. Is it? Is his youngest daughter treating him without much respect because he is an old, insignificant man or because of what he did during the war? And, is that youngest daughter a symbol of post-war young Japanese? And, if that is so, what of his grandson? Is this what Japanese culture will become post-war, a fascination with things of the west and a lack of respect for the old?

I had never heard this term, "the floating world" before to refer to bars, etc. However, I am currently listening to the new Paul Theroux travel book and heard him use it to refer to the same kinds of areas in southeast asia. Had you all heard it before?


message 2: by Pamela (new)

Pamela | 127 comments I'm waiting for my copy to arrive; I decided to read this book based on your post, Barbara. Here's why:

SPOILER (Even though I haven't read the book, I'm sure this qualifies).

"An artist who used [her:] talent for propaganda" could also apply to Leni Riefenstahl and her art. For me, the questions of artistic integrity and personal culpability make An Artist of the Floating World an intriguing read.


message 3: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) I must say I've never heard that expression used in Singapore before, but then I may just be ignorant. I shall ask my friends.

Then again, Singapore is not exactly typical of SE Asia as a whole.

Then again, is this the book where Paul Theroux accuses us Singaporeans of living in fear that we are being watched by the government all the time, and the men are wimpy bispectacled nerds who walk around with frowns of fear all the time? A bit tough to live that way and spend your time buffing up at the gym and then in gay clubs and bathhouses which is how a few of my more hedonistic acquaintances live. Honestly, and I'm not just saying this because I'm Singaporean, I don't know anyone who actually thinks the government watches us. For heavens sakes, they even lost a blinking terrorist who escaped from prison dressed in a sarong and who limps! And I'm quite sure I've seen more grouchy faces around Paris. LOL! So, I kinda take Paul Theroux with a pinch of salt. I wouldn't necessarily regard him as wholly authoritative.

I liked the book. A lot. I'll have to give my thoughts on that another day.


message 4: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9960 comments Ukiyo-e means "pictures of the floating world" and refers to what we usually think of when we think of Japanese woodblock prints, such artists as Utamaro, Hirashigi, Hokusai.


message 5: by Sheila (new)

Sheila | 1419 comments As I understand "floating world" it refers to the manner in which perspective is achieved in eastern art. In western art, perspective is acheived by equating size with distance,with far away objects getting smaller and smaller and parallel lines converging towards a vanishing point. In eastern art, distance is conveyed by a higher position up the page, there is no equilvalent of our vanishing point. Also with early scroll art, at least those from China, these were unrolled to tell the narrative from right to left, giving a time dimension rather than a spatial dimension to the work of art. When I read Ishiguro's book years ago I found this idea quite relevent to Ono's situation.


message 6: by Barbara (last edited Aug 15, 2009 09:59AM) (new)

Barbara | 6791 comments Yes, that is the Paul Theroux book, Whitaker. The title is Ghost Train to the Eastern Star 28,000 Miles in Search of the Railway Bazaar. I love to read his travel books but am very aware that he is not infallible. And, since it was written after An Artist of the Floating World, maybe Theroux read it there!

So, I love Ruth and Sheila's information about art in the floating world. However, I remember Ono refer to his "pleasure area" as a floating world too. There must be some connection. Or, is Ono the one who, as an artist, put them together?


message 7: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9960 comments Sheila is right in that the perspective used in Japanese prints differs from that used in Western art since the early 1400s. Altho western perspective also uses the idea of placing faraway objects higher on the picture plane, its defining characteristic is parallel lines converging to a vanishing point at the viewer's eye level. This is absent in the Japanese prints and contributes to a slightly dizzying effect for those used to Western conventions.

Ukiyo-e (floating world) prints were called that because they so often depicted the floating world of pleasure--teahouse, bars, brothels, bathhouses, etc., the same kind of thing described by Ono.


message 8: by Melissa (new)

Melissa (melissaharl) | 1453 comments Barb, I too was waiting for a larger revelation of Ono's behavior, and I agree that it was [spoiler:]

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his co-optation for imperialism/the war effort that was at the core. But the most tangible (or the most painful) part of that at least was his betrayal of his student Kuroda, if I have the name right.

That whole theme of the shift in what is accepted or even praised once the war was lost and the Americans were setting the moral and political parameters was also fascinating to me. The kind of shift that apparently catches many people up short in times of catastrophic change, such as better known to me in terms of postwar Germany or the American South in Reconstruction times.


message 9: by Melissa (new)

Melissa (melissaharl) | 1453 comments I found the theme of artistic styles and schools, groups of artists working together under a particular master for many years, to be quite interesting. Ono defines himself so much by his relationships with his teachers and his own students.

The theme of style and school reminded me strongly of Orhan Pamuk's use of a similar topic in My Name Is Read, where questions of style and perspective are an integral part of the plot. If I am remembering the details correctly, Ishiguro by contrast concentrates most of Ono's comments about style to one chapter, November 1949.


message 10: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) |---SPOILERS---
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I was quite taken aback to learn about the backlash against those Japanese who had been nationalist/ imperialist in thought after the war had ended, and the blame placed on them. I find it particularly interesting as, to my knowledge, Japan has had an exceedingly chequered past about acknowledging war guilt/crimes. So, that part of the book was a learning experience.

I actually thought that Ono was less co-opted and more that he helped to start and champion a movement that militated for more Japanese patriotic themes in art, probably as part of the rising sense of Japanese power and nationalism that gripped the country at the time. In that, I think he was more part of the times than anything else.

In many ways, I thought of him as more like pre-World War I writers who wrote poems and books glorifying the sweetness of dying for your country. Of the English poets, I only know Rupert Brooke ("God be thanked Who has matched us with His hour, / And caught our youth, and wakened us from sleeping, / With hand made sure, clear eye, and sharpened power, / To turn, as swimmers into cleanness leaping, / Glad from a world grown old and cold and weary."), and he too suffered a posthumous backlash when the horrors of WWI became manifest. I also think of writers like Kipling (he of the "white man's burden") and Mason (The Four Feathers) who championed the cause of English colonialism.

What I also found interesting was the role of censorship. Ono's father burns his art in order to "encourage" him to go into business; Ono's second teacher burns his art too as being a betrayal of the principles that the studio was founded on. Ono was horribly naive though: He thought all that would happen would be that someone would give Kuroda a stern talking to. He didn't anticipate either the arrest or the burning of Kuroda's art that took place afterwards.




message 11: by Elena (last edited Aug 16, 2009 09:50PM) (new)

Elena Whitaker, now that you mention it, I didn't understand why he sent somebody to have a "talk" with Kuroda. Did he have anything against him? Didn't they share the same ideas? I confess I was confused a lot through the book.


message 12: by Melissa (new)

Melissa (melissaharl) | 1453 comments You're right, Whitaker, 'co-opted' wasn't the best term for me to use, since as Elena also points out Ono took the initiative in having Kuroda investigated. Perhaps it would be more correct to say that he and his art were activated or mobilized for the nationalist buildup to war.

I imagine that Ono's family and potential in-laws would have had little or nothing against him if Japan had not lost the war, since winning often makes behavior acceptable or even laudable that would in other circumstances be seen as questionable, objectionable, or even criminal. Your mention of Kipling is interesting here. I have long had trouble appreciating any Kipling for those reasons, though I think he surely had his own complexities.

I know very little about post-WWII Japanese attitudes toward their imperial past, except that there apparently was simultaneously an eagerness to please their American occupiers along with a long delay in acknowledging culpability for anything like war crimes elsewhere in Asia.

What interested me more was Ono's entire frame of mind of passivity, claims of disinterest in life as a retired artist, odd outbursts of laughter. All apparently masking deep discomfort?

I had difficulty understanding the burning of art.


message 13: by [deleted user] (new)

Philip wrote: I imagine that Ono's family and potential in-laws would have had little or nothing against him if Japan had not lost the war, since winning often makes behavior acceptable or even laudable that would in other circumstances be seen as questionable, objectionable, or even criminal.

Ono's art, to me at least, certainly is not on a par with atrocities committed by some of the soldiers themselves. If his art influenced someone to go to war, to become a soldier, the art still did not cause said soldier to commit atrocities.
Men that would commit such acts would have done it anyhow, in some form, or arena in any case.
The art might have led them to that particular arena, that is all, and I cannot see ostracizing an artist for that. Humans do what they are capable of doing, not because someone made them do it, that is passing the buck, not taking responsibility for their own actions.

As far as blaming a certain soldiers death or coming home condition, such as his son-in-law, those men would have gone to war whether or not they saw Ono's work, there was a national fever, and it was considered their duty to go to war.

Are we so different now?




message 14: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1423 comments Whitaker, thanks for the snatch of Brooke's poem. Very apt comparison. I think what fomented the backlash in Japan had nothing to do with war crimes, as I understand them: atrocities against persons of other nationalities (in the Japanese context: the rape of Nanking, the Bataan Death March, the sexual enslavement of Korean women, to give just a few outstanding examples). Rather, what animated the backlash was their own suffering as a result of the failed imperialist policies. The little I've read about the Japanese self-image re: the war, is that is primarily one of victimhood and, in contrast to post-war Germany, with scant acknowledgement of their culpability for the suffering they inflicted on others. AAOTFW gives the same impression, as your comparison with the post-WWI reaction against Brooke implies. The Brooke comparison is particularly apt with respect to the attitude of Ono's son-in-law. He went off to war, his head filled, no doubt, with patriotic songs and those glorious images Ono painted. His actual experience, particularly the senseless hard deaths of friends, embittered and angered him.

I found that Ishiguro created an unbearable tension throughout the book. The hostile comments of the younger daughter veiled under stilted politeness, the hesitant, fearful conversations with the older daughter, even the horrible manipulative behavior of the little brat of a grandson... And the wholly unreliable narration of Ono, full of euphemisms and self-delusion. All had me expecting something really, really horrible. Not that betraying his student, who was then incarcerated and subjected to torture for the length of the war, wasn't a pretty bad thing. But since Ishiguro only hints at the torture, is subtle even in his portrayal of horror, it was not a punch-in-the-gut moment for me as reader. (By then I'd already agreed with the traveling priest's assessment of Ono, that he was a sneaky, lying little weasel when in self-protective mode.)

I was left with a bunch of questions. Among them: was Ono actually present for THREE painting burnings, or did he import the remembrance of one into other memories? (If the latter, then my guess is that it was KURODA's paintings that were actually burnt and Ono related that experience to his memories of being condemned by his father and Mori-san: other authority figures who were as treacherous as the group to whom he reported Kuroda.)

And what about his daughters? Why did the elder one deny that she had advised her father to take preventive measures to insure success for the younger sister's second match? (Had Ono imagined the first conversation, was it a projection of his own worries?) As to the younger daughter: she certainly seemed to blame the father for the failure of her first "love match." Her bitterness poisoned their every conversation, to the point of cruelty. Why was she so shocked at his confessional "performance" at the second miai? (And was she supporting him financially? He had "retired" and she was always coming & going from work, her face often described as "weary.")

Ono's age perplexed me. He was still presumably a young artist when he decided to hitch his professional wagon to the Rising Sun. I figure that no earlier that late 1920s. How did he become a doddering oldster by 1949?

Finally, the book narrates the gradual self-awareness of Ono regarding his culpability for promoting Japanese militarism. But the last, and most fundamental question: was his acceptance of culpability itself delusional? Was he really the great influential artist with a "school" of pupils, able to pull strings with the powerful, or was he just a hack, one of many churning out propaganda posters under the direction of some bureaucracy? Was his true betrayal, not of the Japanese people, but of his early promise as an artist?

Mary Ellen


message 15: by Jane (new)

Jane | 2100 comments Already, this is a wonderful discussion. Mary Ellen, you brought up something that I was thinking. At the beginning Ono talks about how revered he was by his students and how everyone in the bar stopped what they were doing to hang on his every word. I thought that he was exaggerating his importance, particularly after we found out fairly early in the book that none of his own paintings is hanging in his house. When his grandson asks to see the paintings, his grandfather says that "they are tidied away for the moment". Right then, I knew that Ono was not telling the whole story.

I also wondered why the older daughter denied asking her father to take precautionary steps. I thought that I was perhaps not remembering the original scene correctly, but I went back and checked. On p. 49, Setsuko asks her father to take certain precautionary steps. Early in the book, Ono states himself that his memory is not very reliable, and he often wonders if he actually said something or if someone else did.

Ishiguro does a wonderful job of creating that feeling of growing malaise that surrounds Ono.

Jane


message 16: by Whitaker (last edited Aug 16, 2009 10:15PM) (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Hmmm…. I find it intriguing that I read the novel so entirely differently from others here. In particular, I found the daughters' subsequent denial of having pressured Ono to do something less problematic than most people seem to. So, it's interesting to hear the different takes on this novel. I just wanted to make a few minor observations at this point.

Philip, you mentioned Ono's odd bouts of giggling. I believe it's not just Ono, but most of the other characters that giggle as well. The act of giggling in Asia, and particularly in Japan, is used to mask many strong/negative emotions: disapproval, confusion, or shock. (This is, of course, a culture that places such a high premium on delicatesse that public toilets have their own button to play the sound of flushing water or music so that the sounds of one's physical excretions are not heard by other people.)

A rough but ultimately misleading analogy is to the Western nervous giggle (often linked to a feeling of guilt on the part of the giggler). The laugh in Asia is more a means of blunting what would otherwise be seen as a rude or overly direct statement or of softening a criticism or confrontation. It can also be used as a means of keeping or preserving harmony. More importantly for what we think of Ono it imputes no negative connotations on the giggler. Indeed, a Japanese person will giggle during points which a non-Asian speaker would find both odd and inappropriate.

Also, what was the difficulty you had with the burning? Was it because you disapproved of it, or was it something else? To me, though, Mary Ellen, I though it quite clear that the three separate episodes of burning did occur.

Elena, you asked why Kuroda should have been denounced if he agreed with Ono. I think he had reached a point in his development where he disagreed with Ono. I suspect--it's never actually said--that he had started to adopt anti-war ideas into his art. This would be consistent with Ono saying, at one point, that all great artists (including Kuroda) will at some point deviate from their teacher's teachings.




message 17: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1423 comments Whitaker, not sure what you mean by having a "problem" with the burnings. My question as to the accuracy of Ono's memories about the burnings arose because 1) as Jane noted (#15), Ishiguro establishes early on that Ono is a very unreliable narrator; 2) his descriptions of the burnings are oddly similar (in each case, he refers to smelling something burning - in nearly the same words, IIRC; regarding HIS paintings, we are left to infer that they are burned; in the case of Kuroda's, he actually sees them burning and one of the police refers to bad paintings making bad smoke OWTTE). So I wondered whether the memories were nearly identical because there was only one actual burning of paintings. Really, I'm just playing with the question: how unreliable is Ono?

At this point, I conclude that there are some things he may not remember well, but most of his unreliability comes from his strong desire not to remember negative things about himself and, conversely, to remember positive things about himself that may not have happened. In this latter category, I place his exaggerated sense of the quality of his work & the extent of his influence, as well as his frequent demurrer, after he he gives us a self-glorifying recital of a past conversation, that he may not have said something exactly as he recalls it, but he's sure he said something like it.

Whitaker, thanks for the comments regarding giggling/laughing and East Asian cultures. The giggling often comes into Western stereotypical portrayals of East Asians, probably because its use is so different in the 2 cultures. (I believe the Korean-American comedian Margaret (?) Cho mocks the stereotype in her work.) So, I found Ishiguro's frequent use of giggling -- as a Japanese-born writer raised in Britain, writing for a British audience, in English -- intriguing.

Mary Ellen


message 18: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Mary Ellen, sorry for the confusion: that paragraph of mine was badly written. The first two sentences were a response to Philip's Post #12 where he mentions his difficulty with the burnings.

I get where people are coming from about the possibility of him exaggerating his influence. I'll need to detail the different points where it occurs, but I don't get a strong sense of that.

I realise that there is that conversation with Setsuko in the park but a lot of what is said out loud needs to be read obliquely. What does everyone make of the conversation between Ono and Noriko in the garden? The one where she says, "Father tends to meddle too much. I think he is going to ruin that bush too."


message 19: by Ruth (last edited Aug 17, 2009 01:56PM) (new)

Ruth | 9960 comments I first read this several years ago. Then reread it about a month ago in preparation for this discussion. I love books with unreliable narrator, and Ono is pretty unreliable. I'm not sure if he's trying to deceive us or if he's really deceiving himself. Maybe it's a bit of both.

He may have such an exaggerated view of his own importance that he blows the reaction to his wartime activities all out of proportion. Maybe he wasn't discriminated against then. Or not so much as he thought. Maybe he wasn't as important as he believes and few people even gave a damn.

Maybe he just wasn't a very good artist anyway.


message 20: by Janet (new)

Janet Leszl | 1163 comments I had a busy weekend so I’m jumping in the middle somewhat to throw in some disjointed thoughts.

-From the outset, I enjoyed the friendly conversational tone of the narration. After finishing the book, I see from the very beginning Ono was explaining himself and his motivation behind what in retrospect he considered regrettable actions.

-In my mind, I was also taken by comparisons, despite very different cultures, to Gone with the Wind: a pre-war naiveté followed by scars of war, longing for a past way of life never to return and eventual reluctant acceptance of the new cultural mindset.

-A valuable skill for artists is keen power of observation which in turn is interpreted into their art. Ironically, Ono remarks at the beginning of the novel to being oblivious to the extent of his own influence in society. You could argue he is just keeping in step with the customary cultural self-deprecating manner. Yet, early in the novel he seems unaware that his past pro-war propaganda activities had and might continue to have negative consequences for Noriko. The more I think of it, when evaluating the truthfulness of anything said by characters in this novel, cultural self-deprecation so as not to appear overly boastful needs to be kept in mind. I think the Setsuko’s denial of past conversation should be relegated to culturally wanting to sweep past problems under the rug.
Also, as the tale unfolds, I think there is some character growth in Ono as he recognized where he might have been wrong.

-Comment on traitorous art/ censorship: Different characters in this novel rebelled to various degrees against what their peers considered acceptable. It is worth noting that for centuries in European art, it was totally unacceptable to paint anything other than Christian religious themes; it was prohibited. In past times and cultures “offensive” books have been burned. So, I viewed the burnings in that light; whoever was in authority in the particular situation took offense to the art and deemed it necessary to be destroyed.



message 21: by Rosana (new)

Rosana | 599 comments Great discussion!
I read it a couple of books ago so my impressions are not very fresh, but the feeling that stayed with me is that Ishiguro went a step farther than creating an unreliable narrator: Ishiguro created here the “unreliable reader”.

I have already returned the book to the library so I cannot quote any passages from it, but towards the final chapters all my assumptions of Ono seemed to evaporate and a much more psychologically disturbed character took shape. Yes, Ono was overtaken with guilt, but while through the whole book he tells us of all the people and situations that appear to validate his thoughts, at the end his family may have just been whispering around not about his guilty, but about their worry about his own well being.

Did the conversation with Setuko ever take place? Did she say what he thought she said? Did the younger brother at the “presentation” dinner (I forgot the Japanese word for it) looked at him with accusing eyes? Did Ono’s outburst at this dinner really helped clear things, or all around the table did not have a clue what he was talking about?

His family at the end of the book is afraid that he may commit suicide. This is the point where I revalidated all that I had read until then. His daughters may had stopped talking when he entered a room, not because they were talking about his culpability and how this may hinder them and their future, but about Ono’s depressive mental condition. But Ono interpreted all situations through the lens of his own obsessive state.

Did anyone else read it the way I read it? Did anyone else feel mad at Ishiguro for it?



message 22: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Janet wrote: "The more I think of it, when evaluating the truthfulness of anything said by characters in this novel, cultural self-deprecation so as not to appear overly boastful needs to be kept in mind. I think the Setsuko’s denial of past conversation should be relegated to culturally wanting to sweep past problems under the rug.
Also, as the tale unfolds, I think there is some character growth in Ono as he recognized where he might have been wrong."


Janet, thank you for saying all that and saying it so well.

I would just want to add that in addition to the culture of self-deprecation, there is also the culture of communicating not through what is said, but through what is not said. Many of the conversations need to be read in that light.

The scene where Noriko speaks to Ono in the garden is an excellent example of that. In terms of the book's timeline, it takes place after Ono tried to meet up with Kuroda that very morning. Word of his attempted meeting has evidently got out, and Noriko is upset as she fears that he has just made things worse not better. So what does she do? She talks about gardening and says, "Father tends to meddle too much. I think he is going to ruin that bush too." It possibly comes across as passive-aggressive, but it's not. The cultural context is such that what she wants to say but cannot say out loud is clear as a bell to Ono notwithstanding his palaver to us the readers about oh, if she only knew what his efforts were. That's another form of self-deprecation/communicating via the unsaid.





message 23: by Whitaker (last edited Aug 17, 2009 08:33PM) (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) I guess I'll just set out what my take on the novel was.

I do believe Ono when he speaks of his importance as an artist. Ishiguro takes care to give us two pieces of objective evidence for this: the sale of the house to him and the request by the bar owner that he gather his followers to come to her bar. Indeed his work and its importance is the key to the novel and its denouement. Also, everyone around him knows of his importance.

They also know of the problem of Kuroda. This problem is particularly thorny because Kuroda has by now, it seems, reached a position of some importance (alluded to during the miai when it is said that Kuroda is well-regarded by the committee). Kuroda's influence is such that it would bring shame to the family of the prospective groom if something is not done to resolve Ono's past involvement in the war effort. The skilled way that Mr Saito(?) (the father of the prospective groom) alludes to this during his conversation with Ono on the train is what leads Ono to comment to us on the difference between someone of a good family like Mr Saito and someone from a lower class family. It is after this conversation that he goes to visit Matsuda, and resolves to visit Kuroda. The problem is resolved by the self-denunciation that Ono makes at the miai. This ritualistic acknowledgement of wrong permits the two families to get past this sticking point.

While the two families have obviously only regarded the self-denunciation as ritualistic in nature, they become worried that Ono feels serious regret from his acts and is determined to make atonement. This is what leads to the pronouncements that what Ono did as an artist was really not that important. This is their way of saying that, now that the shame/embarrassment has been removed, they do not regard his past actions as remotely significant any more. There is therefore no further need for atonement by suicide.

What they fail to realize is that Ono has attained the true level of an artist of the floating world. He has fully internalized the lessons of his teacher, Mori-san. This is why in the third part of the book we get his frequent comments that he is not sure whether the words that he is using are Mori-san's or his own. The floating world is not just a floating world of pleasure, but of taking pleasure in the beauty and happiness of the moment recognizing that all beauty, all happiness, indeed all things and achievements, are only transitory. Being in the moment is what counts. The moment of epiphany (or to use the Zen term, satori) is when he recognizes that his moment of pure happiness was when on his way to see Mori-san he sits eating oranges, fully absorbed by the pleasure of the eating and the satisfaction of his achievements.

And so he says that that is what all great men who strive for what they believe achieve. By going against the grain, by going with their beliefs, they achieve a moment of true satisfaction and that satisfaction is important and meaningful even if it is all torn down and destroyed the next second (another example being the unfinished work in the park by the architect). It is a very Zen idea: that the world and everything we do is fleeting and transitory. The book ends with Ono looking at the young men going to work and taking pleasure in their happiness of the moment because he understands now that that transitory happiness is all that matters in the world.



message 24: by [deleted user] (new)

Good take and post Whitaker, thanks.
Looking at the story through that lens definitely makes me appreciate Ishiguro's subtly even more.

And yes, those two incidents certainly verify his importance in the art world.


message 25: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9960 comments It's been a few weeks since I last read this, but couldn't our unreliable narrator be unrealiably narrating those incidents?

Once I discover a narrator isn't being straight, I tend to doubt almost everything he says.


message 26: by [deleted user] (new)

Ruth wrote: "It's been a few weeks since I last read this, but couldn't our unreliable narrator be unrealiably narrating those incidents?

Once I discover a narrator isn't being straight, I tend to doubt almo..."


I suppose so, but at the time I recall thinking of those incidents as sort of touchstones. Ishiguro seemed to notify us of unreliable sections of narrative. The times Mr. Ono was vague on if he'd said something or someone else for example.



message 27: by Rosana (new)

Rosana | 599 comments Whitaker, I too want to thank you for your post. Like Ruth, I tend to approach unreliable narrators with the at most distrust, doubting everything.

But I think I never quite understood the cultural dynamics in the communication between the characters. It is fascinating how culture defines how we do understand and interpret the world around us.



message 28: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Capitu wrote: "But I think I never quite understood the cultural dynamics in the communication between the characters. It is fascinating how culture defines how we do understand and interpret the world around us."

Thanks for the kind words. Yes, culture is such a formative and often invisible lens isn't it?

I have to confess that as I was reading the novel, I was wondering to myself what reactions would be. I recall an American friend who worked in Singapore for a number of years. His comment was that Singapore was the worst place for a first time posting for a Westerner: Everyone speaks English, it looks modern and Western in function, but there's all this cultural stuff underneath that you don't think is there because on the outside it looks like what you're used to.

And I thought that this book was like that. It's written in English by an author who grew up in England so it looks like a typical Western novel. But it's unfortunately also written in another language called Silence the use of which the Japanese, chief among all the East Asian cultures, have refined to a high art.

This thing should come with footnotes like the Pevear and Volohonsky footnote translations of the French in War and Peace:

"Father tends to meddle too much. I think he is going to ruin that bush too."(1)
(1) Dad, you just made everything worse. Stop meddling in my affairs!

:-D LOL!


message 29: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9960 comments But it's unfortunately also written in another language called Silence the use of which the Japanese, chief among all the East Asian cultures, have refined to a high art.

Very perceptive Whitaker. Thanks.


message 30: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) Ruth wrote: "But it's unfortunately also written in another language called Silence the use of which the Japanese, chief among all the East Asian cultures, have refined to a high art. Very perceptive Whitaker...."

Thanks, Ruth, but I wouldn't claim to be particularly perceptive. I'm of East Asian stock myself, and as a modern Asian man, while I can't claim to speak Silence with great facility, I do recognise it when it is spoken.


message 31: by Sherry, Doyenne (new)

Sherry | 8068 comments While I listened to this a long time on audiobook and don't remember details, I've been enjoying the discussion. Whitaker, I think you've captured the essence of Ishiguro's writing. He used his facility with describing the unsaid and the underpinnings of a repressed character magnificently in The Remains of the Day. He is like Tolstoy in a way, I think. He knows completely his characters' real reasons for doing things. What makes him a great writer is that he shows the audience those reasons without making the character aware of them.


message 32: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1423 comments Whitaker, thanks for the "translation" of Noriko's comment about Ono's gardening. I also agree that, after Noriko's marriage was set and his family feared Ono would commit suicide to show remorse for his support of the war, they retreated quickly from their prior positions. (But I do give credence to Setsuko's statement, that Taro said his father the art critic was not aware of Ono's work as an artist prior to the start of the marriage negotiations.)

Regarding Ono's prominence as an artist, I think the sale of the house is the more telling proof (if, in fact, it happened as Ono relates it) of his being "known." The suggestion by Mrs. Kurasawa, that whenever he sees his "friends" from "the old days," he suggest that they return to her bar, doesn't really prove to me that he was a famous artist, just that he had a group of friends among whom, Mrs. Kurasawa charaterizes him as being a "natural leader." She suggests that all of them -- herself & Shintaro as well as Ono -- tell old acquaintances to come back to her bar.

I went back to the conversation in which Shintaro was asking Ono to help him with his application for a teaching post. Shintaro wanted Ono to redeem Shintaro's reputation by telling the hiring committee that, with regard to a particular "poster campaign" for the war effort, Shintaro had initially lacked enthusiasm for the project. From this conversation, I gather that Ono and the younger men he supervised were responsible for painting propaganda posters. Call me a snob, but I don't think of that type of poster as, typically, being the realm of great art. And they are generally anonymous, no? So, even had Ono been a great artist earlier, he lowered himself, not just for a bad cause, but from "art for art's sake" to a more commercial form of art.

Mary Ellen




message 33: by Ruth (last edited Aug 19, 2009 09:01AM) (new)

Ruth | 9960 comments Posters as great art? Sometimes, Mary Ellen, they are. Some of the well-known Ukiyo-e Japanese prints were originally designed as posters. Some of the most famous late 19th century French artists made posters which are considered fine art, most notable of which was Toulouse-Lautrec. I have a collection of World War I posters that were my grandmother's, some of which were done by well-known (then, not now) artists of the time.


message 34: by Whitaker (new)

Whitaker (lechatquilit) I don't know art history, but the Internet is such a useful resource I thought it would be interesting for everyone to see some pictures:

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Interesting how we are back at Post #2 no?






message 35: by Jane (new)

Jane | 2100 comments Ruth,

I was going to jump in and mention Toulouse-Lautrec, too. Tom and I have some copies of posters in our house that were made for advertisements, and they are "art" to us. Two are ads for the London Underground.




message 36: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1423 comments Ruth, you have me there on Toulouse-Lautrec, but I specifically referring to "war propaganda posters" a la "Uncle Sam Wants You." (I re-read my post and it does not talk about posters in general...) I was suggesting that someone whose career peaked as a designer of such posters, may have had most of his work issued anonymously. Your actual knowledge (as opposed to my flights of imagination!) about the WWI posters hints otherwise. So I concede that his propaganda work proves nothing about his fame as an artist one way or the other.

But there's still what Setsuko said about Mr. Saito... (1st paragraph of my post # 32) And, regarding Mr. Saito: Ono's recollection of Saito's greeting him when Ono was moving into his house (about having an artist of his calibre in the neighborhood, OWTTE), at the end of the book, has all the earmarks, IMHO, of one of his more unreliable memories.

I guess I actually think it is a more interesting book if Ono's vision of himself remains somewhat skewed.... Which says more about me than the book, I think!

Mary Ellen


message 37: by Janet (new)

Janet Leszl | 1163 comments Wow, those posters are really interesting.

For me the most telling lines in the novel occur during and after the final meeting of Matsuda & Ono.

Matsuda: 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 be ordinary men during such times.

And Ono’s reflection on the conversation 2 pages later:

For, as he pointed out himself, the likes of him and me, we have the satisfaction of knowing that whatever we did, we did at the time in the best of faith. Of course we took some bold steps and often did things with much single-mindedness; but this is surely preferable to never putting one’s convictions to the test, for lack of will or courage…

I’m sure over history’s course of countless wars, a great many zealous supporters of the losing side (and perhaps some of the winning side) eventually question their fervent beliefs and actions taken during the course of war. Post war vision is 20/20. To alleviate any guilt, there is a need for self reassurance that actions taken were based on what they believed to be truthful at the time.



message 38: by Ruth (last edited Aug 19, 2009 03:34PM) (new)

Ruth | 9960 comments Oops, Mary Ellen. Sorry. I didn't read your post carefully enough. But I'm with you on I guess I actually think it is a more interesting book if Ono's vision of himself remains somewhat skewed....


message 39: by Barbara (last edited Aug 19, 2009 01:23PM) (new)

Barbara | 6791 comments Those posters are very interesting for me too. It's amazing how much we have been indoctrinated by art during past wars. I only think of those famous WWII posters in the U.S. and forget about the other side. BTW, this seems to have stopped in the U.S. after WWII, but there were certainly lots of good anti-war posters in the 60's.

I am changing my rating of this book from 4 stars to 5 stars after experiencing this discussion. Any criticism that I had was the result of my own failings, not Ishiguro's.

Can we talk about the grandson a bit? Is he merely a symbol of the new, westernized Japan? Or, is there more there that I am missing?


message 40: by Ruth (new)

Ruth | 9960 comments The grandson is seriously a brat, and Ono is making things worse by teaching him disrespect for women. I wanted to kick them both in the shins.


message 41: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1423 comments Yes, the grandson figure had me puzzled, too. On one level, he does what a lot of kids do -- he gives the inside scoop to Ono on what the other "grownups" are saying when Ono isn't around. So he helps compensate for the silence, indirection, etc., in the speech of the adults.

I agree that he is a sign of the "new Japan," too, embracing everything Western. He is purely post-war, too. He will probably not remember life during the war though his whole childhood is shaped by it. But he has no past enthusiasms, no "mistakes," to repent.

But boy, he was an incredible brat, wasn't he? Just loved to hit people's weak spots, and then pour salt on the wound. (A talent he inherited from his aunt, perhaps?)

Mary Ellen


message 42: by Karol (last edited Aug 30, 2009 02:53PM) (new)

Karol Looks like I'm a little late to join the discussion. I read "An Artist of the Floating World" this weekend and for the most part enjoyed it. Thinking back to comments on another thread (Disappearing History) about how history is written by the winners, it was refreshing to read a Japanese account of post-WWII Japan. There were many points that differed from what I learned from the American perspective.

How fascinating to see someone who has risen to a position of some influence before the war, lose much of that influence afterwards - particularly by the younger generation, including his own children, who seemed to hold him partly responsible for the bombings, loss of life, and ruins left when the war ended. The need to find a scapegoat for one's problems seems not to be limited to my American experience. It sure seemed to me that although his elder daughter was more polite about it, both of his daughters placed a lot of blame on the artist Ono for his part in bringing on the hardships the family faced. I think the that Ono's grandson reflected the attitudes of his parents and aunt in his frequently expressed disrespect for his grandfather as well as his embracing of the western world.

Janet, the lines you mentioned are the exact ones that stood out to me, as well. Although I realize that the "floating world" was defined as the area's night life, in this story, Ono was an artist of the "floating world" of societal change. And I believe that's what the title really referred to. His works, previously heralded by the political powers of the time, may have been "cleaned up" and put aside (probably destroyed, I'm thinking). This could have been a completely devastating blow, yet the artist found peace in understanding that he had been brave enough to take some risk and REALLY LIVE.

There is probably more I could glean from this novel; I imagine that I will read it again sometime in the future. It is a book that drew me in from the first sentence and held me in its grip to the end. And beyond, really.


message 43: by Jane (new)

Jane | 2100 comments Kay,
I agree that it is so interesting to read about WWII from a perspective other than the American one. I am in the middle of reading the next reading list book, EVERYONE DIES ALONE, and this time we learn about what is going on in Germany from a German who lived through the war (just barely, because he died in 1947). I hope you join us for that discussion as well.



message 44: by Karol (new)

Karol Thanks for the encouragement, Jane. I will try to get a copy right away.


message 45: by Melissa (new)

Melissa (melissaharl) | 1453 comments Kay, I like your comment about the broader or deeper meaning of the "floating world," that helps tie a couple of the book's themes together quite well.


message 46: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1423 comments Kay, I find your take on Ono interesting, as it was the opposite of mine. I did not read the book as endorsing his decision to "really live," but as the portrayal of someone who served a bad cause -- Japanese militarization and imperialist aggression -- looking back and seeing his decisions in a new light, with some regret. (Very like "Remains of the Day" in that.) I also don't see what risk he took, in supporting the government program through his art. The student he reported to the authorities may have taken greater risks and certainly paid a bigger price, no?

Mary Ellen


message 47: by Mary Ellen (new)

Mary Ellen | 1423 comments Sorry to "double-comment" here, but, mulling over zof Kay's points, particularly that this was a book about the effects of WWII given to us from the perspective of one of the "losers" in the war, I began to think more about Ishiguro. Born in Japan, post-war, brought up and educated (and still living, I think) in England. I realize that he is in the generation of Ono's enfant terrible grandson! I wonder what he heard from family, in his childhood, about the war? And what he heard from everyone else around him?!

Mary Ellen


message 48: by Melissa (new)

Melissa (melissaharl) | 1453 comments That's an excellent question, Mary Ellen, I never thought about how the grandson could represent the author's generational perspective.


message 49: by Karol (new)

Karol Mary Ellen, I see your viewpoint as well. Perhaps I did not take the artist's role in propaganda as seriously as I might have.

Perhaps the risk that the author took was in choosing sides . . . I imagine he did believe in Japanese imperialism and in war there must be winners and losers. After the war, he lost the esteem of society - something that would be difficult in any culture but I imagine worse in Japan than in the U.S. While his student suffered worse physical trials, Ono lost a great deal, too. His art was confiscated and since I don't recall him working on any art during the post-war part of the story, I figured he was prohibited from creating anything new. He never was able to show his grandson any of his work . . . so I was thinking he lost the opportunity to practice the very essence of what he was - an artist.


message 50: by Sheila (new)

Sheila | 1419 comments I didn't read this with the thread as I was busy for much of Auguast and I had really, really enjoyed this book when it first came out. However I've just read the whole thread and have also recently finished his short story collection, Nocturnes. Your discussion has given me much to think about, especialy re the opposite takes on Ono: it has made me think about what I remember of the novel, why I liked it and you've shown me some interesting insights into aspects of it that either I don't remember or that didn't make an impact on me when I first read it. So I have decided I am going to get an audio or e-copy and take it with me on my next travels to reread. I urge all of you who have not read his debute novel A Pale View fo the Hills to do so. I'd be interested to hear your views on its unreliable narrator.


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