In the 2016 introduction to the thirtieth anniversary edition of An Artist of the Floating World, the author wrote:
‘This novel is set in Japan before and after the Second World War, but it was very much shaped by the Britain in which I was then living: the pressure on people in every walk of life to take political sides; the rigid certainties, shading into self-righteousness and sinister aggression, of ardent, often youthful factions; the agonising about the ‘role of the artist’ in a time of political change. And for me personally: the nagging sense of how difficult it is to see clearly above the dogmatic fervours of one’s day; and the fear that time and history would show that for all one’s good intentions, one had backed a wrong, shameful, even evil cause, and wasted one’s best years and talents to it.’
Ishiguro wrote the book between 1981 and 1985 when Margaret Thatcher was in power. These years were bitter and disruptive as Britain underwent a programme to reconstruct its industries; it was an era of IRA terrorism, union strikes and cuts to public services. (When I returned to Scotland in 2019, my relatives still spoke of those years and were vocal in their disgust with Thatcher’s policies, which was natural, I suppose, as the shipyards on the Clyde had been the main employer in the area, so just about everyone was affected by the shutdowns – I divert, but I found Ishiguro’s comments very interesting.)
An Artist of the Floating World is the first person narrative of Masuji Ono, his thoughts and memories of the past, and his career as a Nationalistic painter. His narrative begins in October 1948 as Japan is rebuilding in the aftermath of the war, and continues until June, 1950.
From the very first, the reader suspects that Ono has a totally subjective of the past and an inflated sense of his own importance. His two daughters and his son-in-law have a very different view of Japan’s actions in the past and are open to the influence of their American conquerors.
Ichiro, Ono’s young grandson, is captivated by the Lone Ranger rather than the Japanese Samurai and his father believes that cowboys are now better role models for children.
‘Father says you used to be a famous artist. But you had to finish.’
‘I’ve retired, Ichiro. Everyone retires when they get to a certain age. It is only right, they deserve a rest.’
‘Father says you had to finish. Because Japan lost the war.’
Over the course of the story, we discover that Ono lost his wife and his only son during the war and it seems that his way forward is to imagine that he made a mark as an artist, that he is still influential and his life had some meaning. Multiple times Ono states, ‘However, I see I am drifting,’ as he’s telling his story and his younger daughter accuses him of moping and having nothing to do.
I’ve only read one other book by Ishiguro and that was The Remains of the Day, which was beautifully written. I enjoyed An Artist of the Floating World just as much and it felt similar in some ways although it was a completely different setting. Both books had themes of loss, aging, and regret, and both had unreliable narrators.
I was reminded of The Makioka Sisters by Junichiro Tanizaki in that both have Japanese settings around the time of WWII, and that characters in both books were involved in a ‘miai,’ or matchmaking arrangement where two potential spouses met over a formal meal in the company of some family members and the matchmaker.
The ‘Floating World’ refers to the night-time world of pleasure , entertainment and drink, which was the backdrop to the life of an artist in Ono’s youth. Later he and fellow artist, Matsuda, rejected this as decadent and turned their attention to patriotic work.
‘It’s time for us to forge an empire as powerful and wealthy as those of the British and the French. We must use our strength to expand abroad. The time is now well due for Japan to take her rightful place amongst the world powers…And we must rid ourselves of these businessmen and politicians. Then the military will be answerable only to his Imperial Majesty the Emperor…
But this is largely for others to worry over. The likes of us, Ono, we must concern ourselves with art.’
Ono’s view of the past is ambiguous and the ending doesn’t really make his story any clearer. Did he regret his past or not? Was he influential or was he just an ordinary man who was forgotten long ago?
I suppose an unreliable narration has no way to come to a satisfactory end. But it was beautifully written with a decided Japanese atmosphere.
Linked to 2022 Art Reading Challenge: A book of fiction about an art movement, a piece of art, or an artist