An Artist of the Floating World is a tricky novel to review because it is impossible to talk about it without comparing it to Ishiguro’s subsequent, Booker Prize-winning The Remains of the Day. Many readers have rated An Artist of the Floating World unfavorably. To many, the lesser-known ugly duckling is simply an inferior copy of The Remains of the Day, transplanted to a Japanese setting. Even Ishiguro fans offer less a defense than a wan explanation of its existence. An Artist of the Floating World is simply an embryo for the future, preferable The Remains of the Day.
I loved An Artist of the Floating World; I mentioned in previous posts that it is my second favorite book of 2015, second only to, yep, The Remains of the Day. So is An Artist of the Floating World, indeed, a second-rate The Remains of the Day?
Not at all. Yes, even I, who is very enthusiastic about An Artist of the Floating World cannot talk about it without mentioning The Remains of the Day (which I have reviewed here). Yes, both novels are very, very similar. Almost identical, even. But there’s a good reason for that. I think An Artist of the Floating World and The Remains of the Day are companion pieces. An Artist of the Floating World is a complement, neither a copy nor an embryo.
An Artist of the Floating World is what The Remains of the Day would be if it were told from Lord Darlington’s perspective, not Stevens. In The Remains of the Day, a loyal butler (Stevens) realizes too late that he has devoted his life to an authority figure (Lord Darlington) championing a misguided cause. In An Artist of the Floating World, an authority figure (Masuji Ono) spends his twilight years wrestling with the misguided cause he attached himself to during his youth.
Masuji Ono, our narrator, is a painter who, appalled at the helpless poverty of Japan during his youth, decided to create political art in service of Japan’s imperialist ambitions pre-World War II. Ono becomes well-regarded and well-feted, something of a celebrity, complete with devoted protégés and a toadying audience. Of course, we all know our history. Japan’s expansionist ambitions crumbled. Post-World War II, a new generation armed with the gift of hindsight looked upon the authority figures leading Japan into such a disastrous scheme unkindly. Ono is now an old man, and while he lives a comfortable life, he is generally looked down upon.
So yes, An Artist of the Floating World is a slow, measured story; not at all plot-driven. All the meat happened in the past –Ono’s biggest present worry is finding a suitable marriage for his daughter. This is a character study through and through. In fact, both An Artist of the Floating World and The Remains of the Day are individual characters studies and as such, these two novels wouldn’t work if Masuji Ono and Stevens have the same personalities. Both men are markedly different.
And oh, Masuji Ono made me cringe. Such delusion, pomposity, and lack of self-reflection! Ono is depicted as someone more pitiful and less sympathetic than Stevens. Stevens himself can be deluded, but Ono sorely needed self-reflection; more so than Stevens. In the early pages of An Artist of the Floating World, Ono is flattered that his old student Shintaro remains admiring. Simultaneously, Ono is appalled that Shintaro still worships the old guard who supported Japanese imperialism.
(Seriously, Ono is incapable of putting two and two together! Although I did wonder throughout whether Ono’s delusion is natural or willed as a defense mechanism.)
Ono gets better and worse throughout An Artist of the Floating World. Through flashbacks, we find that he has done some very terrible things during his career. He can be hypocritical; asking old friends to lie and whitewash his past yet refusing to do the same things for people who once looked up to him. Yet Ono grows to understand that what he did was wrong, even becoming the “big” person and genuinely apologizing for his past. Ono’s virtues and flaws are both exposed to us as readers; he is just human. Who among us has the gift of foresight? In his youth, Ono truly felt he chose the right cause.
Thematically, An Artist of the Floating World is rich. The thread of the youth vs. the older generation runs strong. Ono is baffled at young men, with their values and harsh view of their elders, completely forgetting that in his youth, he himself was against his elders’ values. There’s something almost fatalistic here. Almost as though we are doomed to repeat and recycle ourselves.
Something else to consider and unpack: how we perceive people who are “evil.” No doubt, in school textbooks, Masuji Ono would be a real-life historical villain, an evil man. His job makes him evil –we couldn’t call Hitler anything but evil considering what he did. But if you read An Artist of the Floating World, things become more complex. Masuji Ono is just human. Is he evil? Does a man like Ono deserve to be happy? Questions to ponder.
(My own very personal interpretation is: no, Ono is not evil. Yes, he deserves to be happy eventually. Not at the end of the novel. He hasn’t atoned enough for the damage he wrecked in his past. Yes, he apologized – but apologizing and atoning are different.)
So, which Ishiguro novel should you start with first, Artist or Remains? On a technical level, both novels are similar: prose style, technique, point of view, etc. I don’t think An Artist of the Floating World is less accomplished than The Remains of the Day. Both are excellent novels. In both novels, Ishiguro’s extraordinary talent for writing fiction that feels fluid and effortless despite requiring lots of planning and plotting really shines through. The only reason The Remains of the Day is my numero uno of 2015 is that I felt intensely connected to the novel’s narrator. It’s a pure emotional choice, not at all because The Remains of the Day is better.
The Remains of the Day tugs at the heartstrings more, I think. But An Artist of the Floating World generates more thought. Depends on what you want at the moment: do you want to read with your head or do you want to read with your heart?