Taking note of the Kazuo Ishiguro archive
By Stephen Enniss
As Kazuo Ishiguro was preparing his archive for transfer to the Harry Ransom Center, he spent weeks sifting through the papers, making notes about the manuscripts and other documents he found in it.
Some of his notes run to a page or more, while others are scribbled on post-it notes and are scattered throughout the archive. Combined they provide a rich and deeply personal commentary on the writing life of one of our finest contemporary novelists.
In the first of the notes, Ishiguro explains how the archive came to exist at all:
“For many years, I’ve been in the habit of keeping a large cardboard box under my desk into which I throw, more or less indiscriminately, all papers produced during my writing that I don’t want to file neatly and take into the next stage of composition: earlier drafts of chapters, rejected pages, scraps of paper with scribbled thoughts, repeated attempts at the same paragraph, etc.”
He added, “I’d originally started this box-under-the-desk system not because I’d anticipated one day preparing an archive, but because I was nervous I’d throw out work I’d need later.”
Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954 and lived there until the age of five, when his father took a research post in the U.K. at the National Institute of Oceanography. The young Ishiguro attended a grammar school for boys in Woking, Surrey. The earliest creative work present in the archive is a short story called “Run Melody Run,” written when he was a pupil at Stoughton County Junior School, in 1964 or 1965. “I remember producing a whole collection of ‘stories’ in green exercise books” he recalls on one of his attached notes. “Occasionally Mr. Gwyn Jones, our exuberant teacher, would call silence and read out extracts from our stories to the room. I can still remember him reading a passage from this particular story.”
The teenage Ishiguro wanted to be a songwriter, and the first song he ever wrote, “Shingles,” survives among his papers as a reminder of this youthful ambition. “Will your eyes never re-open upon the shore where you once lived and played,” it begins, announcing a persistent theme in the future novelist’s mature work. Other early attempts at song writing appear on the back of oceanographic data charts, which his father discarded.
When he was 19, Ishiguro taught himself to type using a typing manual, High-Powered Typewriter Drills, present in the archive. “My parents had bought me the Olivetti Portable, on which I wrote my university essays as well as all my early attempts at fiction.” Later he would use this same machine to type his first two published novels, A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World.
In the mid-1970s the young Ishiguro was still making “endless attempts at couplets” and preparing demo recordings, which he would send to record companies in hopes of getting an appointment. “I remember Virgin, Chrysalis, Warner Brothers, etc. all being surprisingly indulgent and helpful given how dreadful my demos were.” Song titles from the period include “Lady Blue” and “If only with my eyes.” Among these songs is a single sheet with the words “I want to be a brilliant poet, musician, by 8th August 1974.”
Ishiguro’s first serious attempt at fiction was a “pulp Western” written the following year. For a long time he thought all drafts of the novel had been lost. Only as he was going through his papers in preparation for their shipment to Austin did he rediscover the hand-written draft of his first attempt at long fiction.
He recalls following his Western with another short novel, To Remember a Summer By, which he worked on during a gap year from the University of Kent, 1975–1976. He sent the manuscript to at least one potential publisher, but when it was rejected he abandoned it and began a new novel called Sylvie. Later, when he began to receive some literary acclaim, he would silently pass over these earliest efforts. “In most media interviews over the years,” he writes, “I’ve carefully avoided mentioning them.”
While a student at Kent Ishiguro also kept a diary that records his “gradual acceptance that I would fail in the music world, and the movement of my ambitions towards literary projects.” It was the only time in his life he has kept a diary. A script for the radio play Potatoes and Lovers opened a new direction for him. “I submitted it unsuccessfully to BBC Radio, but then sent it the following spring (1979) to Malcolm Bradbury when applying for his (then little known and little respected) Creative Writing M.A. at University of East Anglia (UEA). It was because of this play that he accepted me on the course,” he recalls.
As valuable as the UEA experience was, the archive offers a competing, and more solitary, narrative of how Ishiguro learned to write. It was while away in rural Cornwall, far from the seminar room in East Anglia that his personal breakthrough came with a short story called “Waiting for J.” “It’s the first time I figured out how to write fiction properly—there was some crucial inner revelation—and so though this story is not so great, it remains for me personally a turning point.” The surviving manuscript is heavily revised with clear traces of his labor. The archive reveals he wrote a second story, “The Playground,” at the same time, but unlike the first he never showed it to the UEA group and never submitted it for publication after his future wife, Lorna, called it “shite.” Nevertheless the Cornwall time was unquestionably a formative experience for him. “These two stories were the result of my locking myself away in my room for 4 weeks day and night. I feel I learnt to write fiction properly in the farmhouse—it was the most crucial turning point for me.”
An untitled manuscript that Ishiguro calls simply “The 3rd Novel” (he chose not to count his pulp Western) was originally intended to be his MA thesis. “But after the transformative experiences of the previous year, I could hardly carry on with the novel in anything like the form I’d left it. I was no longer the same writer I’d been at the start of the year: crucially, I’d discovered a deep interest in the theme of memory… at the same time, I found I no longer felt much interest in depicting the anxieties and uncertainties of young middle-class people in late-70s Britain.”
“From the outside, the relationship between ‘The 3rd Novel’ and A Pale View may not be obvious,” he notes. “But in my mind, they have always been parts of the same work. It remains impossible for me to recollect the writing of A Pale View without thinking of the initial dry run set in 1970s Cornwall… Summer 1979 is the marker that separates my juvenilia from my ‘proper’ writing: ‘The 3rd Novel’ lies on one side of it, A Pale View on the other.”
When A Pale View was published in 1982 he and his wife compiled a scrapbook of the reviews and notes of congratulations. There are notices from Anthony Thwaite in The Observer, favorable reviews from The Times and the Times Literary Supplement. “It makes me feel nostalgic and happy to see it,” he writes of this scrapbook more than 30 years after the fact, “and I’m somewhat sad to let this go.” Inside is Angela Carter’s postcard with the congratulatory message “You have ARRIVED.”
The archive is similarly revealing about other periods of his writing life. A red ring binder includes early notes for The Remains of the Day and a discarded opening chapter. He was working out ideas for the novel through other occasional writing he was doing at the time. A short story, “England in October,” offers, he writes, “the first clear manifestation of ideas that later became The Remains of the Day. There is “no sign of a butler yet, but the idea of a mythical version of England and Englishness created for ‘nostalgia’ and the consumption of foreign Anglophiles began, in a literal way in this story.”
A 1984 television drama A Profile of Arthur J. Mason, also bears a direct relationship to the later novel. “This was my first outing with a butler character,” he writes, “and later, as I began work on Remains, I remember I saw in my mind for Stevens the face and manner of Bernard Hepton, the actor who portrayed Arthur Mason.” A film proposal for an unproduced drama, Service in Japan, recounts the experiences of an English butler who travels to occupied Japan with his employer only to find himself impersonating his lordship in delicate negotiations of global significance. In the end, after recognizing the possibilities of the plot, he thought better of submitting it to Channel 4 and began incorporating many of these elements into the new novel.
The novel that we know was woven out of these cast-off projects. The bulk of it was written during self-imposed “lock-in” sessions when he literally would not leave his study morning to night for weeks. Across a 1986 manuscript for A Butler in England is the single word “SCRAPPED.”
All archives are negotiations with the past, but rarely does one dramatize so fully the play of memory and its intimate ties to the novelist’s art.
This story originally appeared in the Spring 2016 Ransom Edition. See the issue at http://en.calameo.com/read/00464396824b619b7a80f.
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