Manly Scowls

Patrick Parrinder

  • An Artist of the Floating World by Kazuo Ishiguro
    Faber, 206 pp, £9.95, February 1986, ISBN 0 571 13608 7
  • Revolutionary Road by Richard Yates
    Methuen, 337 pp, £4.50, January 1986, ISBN 0 413 59720 2
  • Young Hearts Crying by Richard Yates
    Methuen, 347 pp, £9.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 413 59730 X
  • Ellen by Ita Daly
    Cape, 144 pp, £8.95, January 1986, ISBN 0 224 02833 2

Now that the three-volume novel and the circulating library are dead,’ I imagine someone as saying around the year 1900, ‘novels will have to be shorter, sharper, more up to date. The future lies with an Associated Press dispatch, not with the slow unfolding of generations. Nobody wants to read elaborate descriptions of things that might have happened, but didn’t, decades ago.’ The fact is that no prediction of the shape of the modern novel could have been more misleading than this one. Nor is it just a question of writers like Proust and Mann, who may be said to belong to the last flowering of the 19th century. In the 1980s the tradition of setting a certain kind of novel ‘one generation back’ in time remains as vital as ever. We are accustomed to the paradox that most people’s notions of the texture of life in, say, the 1830s are derived from George Eliot’s novels, written more than thirty years afterwards. Yet it is strange to consider that – after all the instant histories and TV documentaries – the versions of the 1940s and 1950s with which future generations will be most familiar may still be in process of construction.

The year 1945, like 1830 and 1914, now seems a natural watershed – above all in countries which experienced national defeat, social upheaval and military occupation. An Artist of the Floating World, a beautiful and haunting novel by the author of A Pale View of the Hills, consists of the rambling reminiscences of a retired painter set down at various dates in the Japan of the late Forties. Americanisation is in full swing, national pride has been humbled, and the horror of the bombed cities and the loss of life is beginning to be counted. The young soldiers who came back from the war are turning into loyal corporation men, eager to forget the Imperial past and to dedicate the remainder of their lives to resurgent capitalism. Ishiguro’s narrator, Masuji Ono, has lost his wife and son but lives on with two daughters, one of whom is married. Were it not for his anxieties over his second daughter’s marriage negotiations, Ono could be left to subside into the indolence of old age. As it is, ‘certain precautionary steps’ must be taken against the investigations to be pursued, as a matter of course, by his prospective son-in-law. The past has its guilty secrets which Ono must slowly and reluctantly bring back to consciousness.

Ono was trained as a decadent artist, an illustrator of the night-time ‘floating world’ of geishas and courtesans, but at the time of the ‘China crisis’ in the Thirties, he broke away from that style to create a more morally uplifting and patriotic form of art. In his painting Complacency, the image of three well-dressed men drinking in a bar was offset by three ragged youths brandishing sticks and wearing the ‘manly scowls’ of samurai warriors – the two images moulded together by the outline of the Japanese islands. In his declining years, however, Ono has relapsed into the decadence of the barfly and the maudlin old-timer: and now it is his turn to confront the anger of the young with a Polonius-like complacency.

Some of Ishiguro’s most delightful scenes portray the mutual incomprehensions of the old and the young. Ono is frustrated in his attempts to initiate his eight-year-old grandson into the male mysteries of sake-drinking and the samurai warriors, for example: the youngster is more exercised by cowboys, monster movies and Popeye the Sailorman. (At least it makes him eat up his spinach.) But there is more serious business afoot. At the height of his career Ono had won an ‘auction of prestige’, in which the most suitable buyer was chosen for an imposing town house. (This incident is presented at the beginning of the novel as if it were a baffling oriental custom: in England such grace-and-favour methods are reserved for the appointment of Regius Professors rather than for the selling of houses.) Now, as he tries to marry off his daughter, Ono’s prestige as a former Fascist painter is a rapidly dwindling asset. For who needs a father-in-law who was once official adviser to the Committee on Unpatriotic Activities, and who turned over his favourite pupil to the secret police?

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