In 2016, the Swedish Academy shocked, delighted and, yes, outraged the world by awarding the Nobel Prize in literature to American musician Bob Dylan. Even Dylan seemed ambivalent about the honor, refusing to acknowledge it for days and then declining to attend the awards ceremony.
The academy’s ways are mysterious, but this year’s choice — British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro — certainly looks like a course correction, a return to mean, as it were.
Sara Danius, permanent secretary of the academy, said she hoped the committee’s choice would “make the world happy.”
It has. Very happy.
Ishiguro is the traditional “great” writer everybody likes to see win the Nobel Prize. Japanese-born and 62 years old, he’s known across the globe for “The Remains of the Day” and “Never Let Me Go,” best-selling novels both adapted into well-received movies. He’s popular but not pop, liberal but not a wacky communist, mature but not is-he-still-alive? If you belong to a book club, you’ve read at least one of his books.
He is, in other words, the kind of choice that makes us think the Swedes know what they’re doing — as when they picked beloved Canadian short-story maestro Alice Munro in 2013, as opposed to when they selected Italian left-wing playwright-provocateur Dario Fo in 1997.
But at least one very important person doesn’t see anything “corrective” about the Swedes’ latest choice. Among those who weren’t disappointed by Dylan’s win last year is the new laureate himself.
“Bob Dylan was my creative hero when I was growing up,” Ishiguro said Thursday by phone from London. “When he won the Nobel, I was ecstatic. It’s an added thrill that I follow directly in his footsteps.”
That’s not surprising. While some Nobel Prize-winning writers have been known for works of arid intellectuality, Ishiguro is after something else entirely. “I’m not a message person,” he said. “It’s been important to me that my work works through the emotions. I went into this because I wanted to share emotions with people, rather than intellectual ideas. Yes, I use words, and ideas certainly go in there, but, for me, the reason I want to write novels instead of essays is because I want to say, ‘This is how this one person over here feels’ — and you recognize it. That’s an important thing to do, a simple thing to do, to try to connect with each other.”
Others’ reactions to the news have been overwhelmingly positive — if surprised.
Ishiguro’s wife, Lorna MacDougall, saw the announcement first on her phone. “I thought it was fake news,” she said from London. “When I got home today, there was the whole world press in our little suburban street.”
Salman Rushdie, a longtime contender himself for the Nobel Prize, issued a statement: “Many congratulations to my old friend Ish, whose work I’ve loved and admired ever since I first read ‘A Pale View of Hills.’ And he plays the guitar and writes songs too! Roll over Bob Dylan.”
Britain’s former poet laureate Andrew Motion told the Guardian, “Ishiguro’s imaginative world has the great virtue and value of being simultaneously highly individual and deeply familiar — a world of puzzlement, isolation, watchfulness, threat and wonder. How does he do it? Among other means, by resting his stories on founding principles which combine a very fastidious kind of reserve with equally vivid indications of emotional intensity. It’s a remarkable and fascinating combination, and wonderful to see it recognized by the Nobel Prize-givers.”
Joyce Carol Oates, a novelist whose name is often mentioned as a possible Nobel winner, tweeted: “Ishiguro very deserving. Beautiful melancholy work. Favorite is ‘Never Let Me Go.’ ”
Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Richard Ford commended the academy’s choice. “I’m thrilled for Ish to win, and personally for him, as he’s an old pal,” he wrote via email. “He’s the genuine article: uncommonly serious and complex of thought, but not unmirthful, and not sobersided. And he’s immensely readable. What else would you want from a Nobel laureate?”
And, of course, his American publisher is delighted, too. Sonny Mehta, Ishiguro’s editor at Knopf, said, “I’ve always thought that Ish is an amazing writer. The breadth of his work as a novelist is astonishing. We’ve had the good fortune of being his publisher since ‘The Remains of the Day,’ a book that readers around the world have come to cherish. This acknowledgment from the Swedish Academy is the most wonderful news.”
Knopf immediately announced plans to print 200,000 copies of Ishiguro’s backlist, including 75,000 copies of “Never Let Me Go,” 50,000 for “Remains of the Day” and 25,000 for “Buried Giant.”
Ron Charles is the editor of Book World.