Thursday, March 8, 2012

Just Finished: An Artist of the Floating World

Kazuo Ishiguro's An Artist of the Floating World was not originally my pick for the Modern Fiction category of the Mixing It Up challenge, but I have just finished reading it for the Museum of Fine Arts of Houston's book club, and it is modern fiction, so I am applying it to the challenge. 

Set in postwar Japan, it's the story of an artist, now elderly, coming to terms with his decision to use his art in support of the militaristic regime coming into power in the decades leading up to the war.  The phrase "floating world" refers traditionally to Japan's pleasure districts--neighborhoods of restaurants, bars, theaters, and brothels.  Much of the artist's remembered past takes place in the bars of the floating world, drinking, arguing, and discussing art with his mentors, his peers, and later with his students.  His art, and that of his contemporaries, focused on depicting the people of this floating world.

This is a very subtle and unusual story.  The first thing we learn about the artist is that he gained his house as a result of his good character and reputation.  He treats his family well and is respected and admired. That there is something wrong with his past we only learn gradually and indirectly.  His younger daughter's marriage negotiations end abruptly when the other family suddenly and inexplicably pulls out.  A new suitor appears, and his elder daughter suggests delicately that he visit certain old associates to make sure that they do not tell the suitor's family anything "unfortunate."  The oblique Japanese style of discourse, in which nothing is stated baldly, but only approached in stages, makes a wonderful mirror for the artist's thought processes.  The impression is that he would prefer not to name, even in his own mind, the deed of which he is ashamed.

The central portion of the book is taken up with these visits to former associates and students.  With each conversation, the picture of the past becomes a little more detailed.  We come to understand that the artist, gradually becoming enamored of the belligerent, militaristic mood of the new regime in the prewar years, changed his style of painting and began producing propaganda art.  In the process he alienated some people, including his beloved teacher, and influenced others to join him.

Eventually, the artist calls on a man who refuses to see him.  This man and his refusal are the link to the deed that the artist has not named.  When he names it, and we learn it, the story has gone from vague and indirect to, finally, direct and specific. 

There are no shocks here, really.  This isn't a suspense story in which the point is to find out what the terrible act was.  Rather, it's a man's process of facing his past actions from the vantage point of a now very different (floating?) world, and the good and bad effects of that confrontation, delicately and subtly told.


  1. Thanks for this review!! I own this but haven't got to it yet, though I've loved The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. Need to get to this one!

    1. It's really a fascinating story. It's made me want to read more of his work, and Remains of the Day and A Pale View of Hills are on my TBR list, too.