Kazuo Ishiguro, Japan-born British novelist, wins Nobel Prize

Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, known for books including The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, has been awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature.

'One of the most exquisite novelists in our time,' says academy's permanent secretary Sara Danius

Japanese-born British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, the 62-year-old author of Never Let Me Go and The Remains of the Day, is the latest winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. He called the win a 'magnificent honour' and 'flabbergastingly flattering' at a press conference in London. (Ben Stansall/AFP/Getty Images)

Nobel literature laureate Kazuo Ishiguro first suspected he was the victim of "fake news" when he was told by his agent that he had been awarded the prize on Thursday.

"I thought it was a hoax," Ishiguro told reporters, sitting on a bench in the back yard of his home in north London.

Japan-born British novelist reacts to winning the Nobel Prize for Literature 2:06

Eventually, though, "a very nice lady called from Sweden and asked me first of all if I would accept it."

The Japanese-born British novelist, best known for The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, said he was "surprised how low-key" the academy officials were.

"It was like they were inviting me to some kind of party, and they thought I might turn it down."

The selection of the 62-year-old Ishiguro marked a return to traditional literature after two years of unconventional choices by the Swedish Academy for the prize, worth nearly $1.4 million Cdn. It also continues a recent trend of giving the award to British authors born elsewhere: V.S. Naipaul, the 2001 winner, is from Trinidad and Tobago; the 2007 honoree, Doris Lessing, was a native of Iran who grew up in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe). 

For his part, Ishiguro said Thursday he hopes he is contributing to helping solve some of the big problems of our times.

"Some of the themes that I have tried to tackle in my work — about history, about not just personal memory but the way countries and nations and communities remember their past, and how often they bury the uncomfortable memories from the past — I hope that these kinds of themes will actually be in some small way helpful to the climate we have at the moment."

"He's a very interesting writer in many ways," said Sara Danius, the academy's permanent secretary. "I would say that if you mix Jane Austen — her comedy of manners and her psychological insights — with Kafka, then I think you have Ishiguro."

Moving beyond deceptive surfaces

The academy said Ishiguro's eight books are works of emotional force that uncover "the abyss beneath our illusory sense of connection with the world."

In The Remains of the Day, a bestseller that came out in 1989 and won the Booker Prize, a butler at a grand house looks back on a life in service to the aristocracy. The novel's gentle rhythms and Downton Abbey-style setting gradually deepen into a darker depiction of the repressed emotional and social landscape of 20th-century England.

An Associated Press review from the time noted that "Ishiguro neatly reverses the cliche of `what the butler saw' by building a novel around what the butler didn't see."

The 1993 film adaptation by the Merchant-Ivory production team starred Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson and was nominated for eight Academy Awards.

Like The Remains of the Day, his 2005 novel Never Let Me Go is a story of deceptive surfaces and uncertain memory. What appears to be a narrative of three young friends at a boarding school gradually reveals itself as a dystopian tale with elements of science fiction that asks deep ethical questions. The 2010 movie adaptation starred Carey Mulligan, Andrew Garfield and Keira Knightley.

"I've always liked the texture of memory," Ishiguro told www.writerswrite.com around the time Never Let Me Go came out.

"I like it that a scene pulled from the narrator's memory is blurred at the edges, layered with all sorts of emotions, and open to manipulation. You're not just telling the reader: 'this-and-this happened.' You're also raising questions like: Why has she remembered this event just at this point? How does she feel about it? And when she says she can't remember very precisely what happened, but she'll tell us anyway, well, how much do we trust her?"

Screenwriter Alex Garland, left, actor Carey Mulligan and author Kazuo Ishiguro pose at the TIFF press conference for the 2010 film adaptation of Never Let Me Go. (Frank Gunn/Canadian Press)

Japanese heritage

Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki but moved to England as a boy after his father, an oceanographer, was invited by the head of the British National Institute of Oceanography. Although Ishiguro did not return to Japan until his 30s, his first two novels, A Pale View of Hills and the Booker-nominated An Artist of the Floating World, both centered on Japanese characters.

"I discovered that my imagination came alive when I moved away from the immediate world around me," he told the Paris Review in 2008.

"When I tried to start a story: "I came out of Camden Town tube station and went into McDonald's and there was my friend Harry from university," I couldn't think of what to write next. Whereas when I wrote about Japan, something unlocked."

Author Kazuo Ishiguro speaks to CBC in 1995 about his new book, The Unconsoled. 6:47

He said in 2015 that he'd noticed that "because it was a novelty that someone with a Japanese background was writing novels in English, all the [reviewers'] metaphors tended to be Japanese-y. They would talk about a very still pond. With carp."

Ishiguro's preferred art form is fiction, but he works in other media. He has written several screenplays, including for the Merchant-Ivory release The White Countess, and has collaborated on songs performed by jazz singer Stacey Kent. He also contributed liner notes for Kent's album In Love Again.

"Songwriting was an old passion of mine. Earlier in my life I'd been a singer-songwriter until I turned to fiction," he told the Independent in 2013.

No tie to Dylan decision

The Swedish Academy stunned the literary world last year by giving the prize to Bob Dylan, while in 2015 it offered a rare spotlight for nonfiction writers by honoring Belarusian journalist Svetlana Alexievich.

Danius said the choice of Ishiguro did not show intention to avoid kind of the controversy sparked by last year's pick of Dylan.

"No, we don't consider these issues," she said. "So we thought that last year was a straightforward choice — we picked one of the greatest poets in our time. And this year, we have picked one of the most exquisite novelists in our time.