In my early 20s, having moved to Washington without either a television or a computer, I spent most of my evenings reading novels. Because I had so few distractions, and no responsibilities of family or home, I could read for hours at a time, something I cannot do today, limited as I am to 20 minutes on the subway and 10 minutes before bed. Back then, however, I was able to finish several long novels—The Brothers Karamazov, Great Expectations, The Sleepwalkers—and one sprawling book that absorbed me like no other: The Unconsoled by Kazuo Ishiguro, who was recently awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature.
Nothing in Ishiguro’s previous works—A Pale View of Hills, An Artist of the Floating World, and The Remains of the Day—prepared me for this splendid nightmare of a book, part tragedy, part comedy, part melancholic farce. It tells the story of a man named Ryder, a pianist of great renown who arrives in an unnamed Central European city after a long and tedious airline journey. He thinks he’s come to perform a recital on Thursday night, yet from the start, the details are foggy. Utterly exhausted, he is unable to remember his itinerary, and so, he stumbles, as if through a dream, through one strange encounter after the next. We do learn that the city he’s in had flourished in the past, with music and the arts essential to those halcyon days, but it has now fallen into some sort of a crisis. The program on Thursday night, if successful, will supposedly rouse the city out if its torpor and herald a new moment of promise.
From the start, Ishiguro stretches time and place well beyond credulity; physical laws are turned on their head. A single elevator ride lasts several pages. Roads do not lead where they should. Buildings many miles away from each other happen to be connected by a single passageway. At every turn, some obstacle impedes Ryder’s progress, and many familiar tropes from the classic anxiety dream appear. At a black-tie event, at which he is expected to deliver a speech, Ryder finds that he is wearing only a dressing gown. (It comes undone, exposing his nakedness to the gathered crowd.) Oddly, Ryder happens to know several of the city’s residents. Long-lost friends or acquaintances appear to live there, and Sophie and Boris—the daughter and young grandson of an elderly hotel porter—share a more intimate bond with him: Sophie is Ryder’s wife (or partner), with whom he has had some sort of falling out; Boris is his son. Thus does Ryder seem to inhabit multiple worlds at once, with present and past strangely colliding.
The novel made a deep impression on me, and I read it in a kind of trance, filled with a profound sense of sadness and loss upon finishing it. And yet, every review that I came across was unconditionally negative. The critics, expecting another Remains of the Day, I suppose, were bored, baffled, even outraged—none more so than the composer Ned Rorem, who wrote a scathing essay in The Yale Review that was subsequently published in his 1996 collection Other Entertainment. I’d wanted to reread The Unconsoled for years, something I recently did, completing the book just a few days before the announcement of the Nobel Prize. Afterward, I decided to reread Rorem’s essay, too. I wanted to see how his criticisms had aged, and whether I might be more sympathetic to them this time around.
Not surprisingly, given the intervening span of 21 years, I had forgotten a great deal about Ishiguro’s novel, including what now seemed to me a fundamental element: Ryder’s omniscience. The pianist somehow knows intimate details about many of the characters he encounters, in some cases, their life stories. As a narrator, he is able to describe scenes that he couldn’t possibly be observing (recounting a conversation taking place inside an apartment, for example, while ensconced in the back seat of a car). Memories come back to him like dim mists—not only his own, but those of the city’s residents, too. Yet many gaps remain in his understanding—of who he is, why he’s here, and what the people want from him.
Just about everyone Ryder meets imposes upon his time, asking favors of him both small and large. These people unburden themselves in monologues of great length, revealing to Ryder their problems, hopes, and fears. For Rorem, the result was a kind of narrative bloating. “The Unconsoled,” he wrote, “weighs in at 535 pages, yet the impression is that nothing is said that couldn’t be said better at half the length.” The characters’ speeches, I think, are meant to be unrealistically long. It’s as if these people were all reclining upon the couch, repeating themselves, dwelling on the trivial and the obscure, with Ryder listening carefully, pad and pen in hand. As a psychoanalyst, however, Ryder fails. He has no answers for those who seek consolation from him. He is utterly ineffectual, but not by accident. It seems to me that his failure is indicative of the failure of Freudian psychology to sooth a restless populous in the tumultuous years of the 20th century. If Ryder is less of an analyst, and more of a god-like figure, then religion itself, even more so than psychology, may be on trial here.
All of Ishiguro’s novels deal in some way with memory and forgetting, both on an individual and societal level. As it dredges up memories of broken homes and lonely upbringings, The Unconsoled becomes a book about childhood trauma and how it lingers into adult lives. For Ryder, nearly every attempt to come to terms with the past results in frustration, anxiety, blockage. The parent-child relationship turns out to be particularly crucial. We learn that Ryder, the most accomplished pianist of his time, has spent a lifetime trying desperately to please his parents, ultimately failing to live up to their expectations. We might expect him, as a result, to be more sympathetic to his own son, Boris, yet he maintains the iciest of relationships with the boy. Rorem dismissed Boris as “an obnoxious kid,” but the child is hardly that. All he wants is to please his father. You can feel the urgency in every passage, every line. All Sophie wants, moreover, is to have her peripatetic husband settle down into something resembling a quiet domestic life. Indeed, only the most stone-hearted soul could fail to be moved by the painful interactions between father, mother, and child, Sophie imploring Ryder to show some warmth to their child, and Ryder remaining indifferent to them both. There’s cruelty, and there’s pain—all the more intense given the stony, dispassionate tone of Ryder’s narrative voice.
Ryder, then, in his relations with Boris, cannot help repeating the mistakes of his parents. All of the characters in the novel seem afflicted with the same malaise, unable to break free from the stultifying effects of their pasts. In one unnerving scene, Ryder and Boris are trying to find the apartment where they once lived, but are stuck traversing a circular walkway, going round and round, seemingly without end. In the novel’s moving final pages, Ryder is similarly confined, this time on a tram, traveling indefinitely in a circle around the city’s Old Town. When Rorem wrote that “the book remains static, without climax, heading nowhere except back into itself,” he was missing the point. Heading nowhere except back into itself is one of the novel’s essential metaphorical qualities.
To read The Unconsoled successfully, we cannot be beholden to linear history as we know it. This fictional world is filled with alternative histories, multiple outcomes, different possibilities. We have to accept, for example, that Clint Eastwood, not Keir Dullea, is the star of 2001: A Space Odyssey—not “an editorial oversight,” as Rorem mistakenly believed. The book is filled with corridors, passageways, roads, all of them leading Ryder astray, distracting him from his mission—a far from insignificant point, when one considers the metaphorical implications. “History,” T. S. Eliot wrote in “Gerontion,” “has many cunning passages, contrived corridors / And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions …” All around Ryder are those deceptive, cunning passages. The larger question seems to be one of memory and forgetting: When is it better to remember certain strands of the past, and when is it more convenient to forget?
Rorem, bored to the point of tedium, either missed all of this or chose to ignore it. And I think what must have irritated him most, what surely colored his perception of the book as a whole, what had to have rankled the finest composer of American art song this side of Charles Ives was Ishiguro’s treatment of classical music.
In The Unconsoled, contemporary music has lost its ability to move and excite its audience. The composers Ishiguro mentions—La Roche, Grebel, Kazan, Mullery, Yashimoto, Yamanaka—are all made up, and certainly there is something satirical about the titles of their works: Verticality, Dahlia, Glass Passions, Grotesqueries for Cello and Three Flutes, Asbestos and Fire, Globe-structures: Option II. Furthermore, Ishiguro invents his own musical language, referring to crushed cadences, vented rests, fractured time signatures, struck motifs, semibreves, elongated discords, pigmented triads. “This high-sounding gobbledygook,” Rorem wrote, “is as deep as Ishiguro dares go into music. Is it ignorance, poetry, satire? Certainly it is aimless.” Yes, it may be satirical, it may perhaps be poetic, but only the most literal-minded of readers would find it born out of ignorance. Given what we know about the novel’s attention to alternate histories, why shouldn’t music theory in this fictional space be based on crushed cadences and elongated discords, in lieu of triadic harmony and sonata form?
At one point in the novel, a controversy over “ringed harmonies” becomes the subject of a civic committee meeting, and a long argument erupts over whether to abandon “the circular dynamic in Kazan.” It’s as if the fate of the city depends on the outcome of this discussion. Naturally, the idea of a public meeting devoted to formalist structure and emotion in music is absurd. It’s meant to be. We live in an age in which very few people seem to care about classical music; indeed, it’s because we’re so beholden to low art and pop culture that this kind of satire is so biting. In Ishiguro’s fictional world, the very values of a city seem dependent on the championing of music and art. Imagine a culture in which music could doom a city, or launch it to great heights. Talk about an alternative history. After the advent of the Second Viennese School—that is, after Arnold Schoenberg, Anton Webern, and Alban Berg—contemporary classical music began to appeal less and less to the public at large. Those who hungered after Rachmaninoff and Brahms invariably found the masterpieces of Pierre Boulez, Luigi Nono, and Karlheinz Stockhausen to be impenetrable walls of noise. Ishiguro’s novel seems to be aware of all this, as it asks fundamental questions about the role of the arts in a cultured society, and about the importance of music to an audience that can no longer make sense of it. If only the circular dynamic in Kazan really were so crucial to the functioning of civil society! Rorem thought that Ishiguro was mocking composers. He couldn’t have been more wrong.
Rorem closed his essay with these damning lines: “If in the end The Unconsoled signifies nothing, neither is it filled with sound and fury. Ryder may be the world’s greatest pianist, but for the reader he remains a cipher. Let his nightmare be his problem. For nothing is more boring than another person’s dream. When that person is himself a bore, the result is fatal.” Well, upon rereading, I cannot disagree more—though I suppose that loving a book that others hate can make one all the more obstinate in its defense. The novel is so much richer than the cheap Kafka knockoff that its critics portrayed it as. It brilliantly comments on the rise of a multicultural, globalized society, asking slyly what the consequences of such a society are. Are we more rootless than ever, despite the fluidity of our borders? Do we feel less attachment to place, to home? Is the global individual in fact lonelier? Are societies more fractured? The only way to live, Ishiguro suggests, is to put aside our differences with one another, to let go of our misunderstandings, and simply make the best of the time we have left. If we spend all our time wondering what might have been, we will continue on along that endless loop, on the tram bound for nowhere, enduring a miserable existence without consolation.
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