An Artist of the Floating World

An Artist of the Floating World Study Guide

An Artist of the Floating World is a novel by British author Kazuo Ishiguro, published in 1986. Ishiguro is a prolific and well-known novelist, famous for his books The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go. He has won the Man Booker Prize and won the Nobel Prize in 2017, and was knighted in 2019. An Artist of the Floating World, his second novel, is an example of his earlier writing, and was well-received, earning a Whitbread Award. This novel is particularly well-known for its use of an unreliable narrator, Masuji Ono. It tells the story of Ono, a retired Japanese artist trying to come to terms with changes in his country after the Second World War. Ishiguro himself was born in Japan, but emigrated to the United Kingdom as a child and did not return to Japan until after publishing An Artist of the Floating World. He has said that, by writing about places with which he is unfamiliar, such as post-war Japan in this novel, he is able to write more imaginatively.

Though the book dwells on events from Ono's childhood and early adulthood, it is held together by a linear thread taking place in the novel's present, the late 1940s and early 1950s. This thread describes Ono's attempt to arrange a marriage for his younger daughter, Noriko. He believes that his reputation is in shambles because of his early nationalistic paintings, and he grieves for the family members lost in the war. Over the course of the novel, Ono's narration flashes between past and present, and he often calls his own reliability into question by interrogating the accuracy of his own memories. The novel deals with themes including war, solitude, aging and death, and grief. Stylistically, it is rather spare and direct, though its structure calls that directness into question with poignant omissions. The book is split into four sections, which are titled using time markers: October 1948, April 1949, November 1949, and June 1950.

An Artist of the Floating World is not Ishiguro's best-known novel, but it is one of his most critically acclaimed, and was shortlisted for a Man Booker Prize. Robert McCrum listed it as one of the 100 best novels in the English language in the Guardian in 2015, and it was a finalist in the ALA Best Books for Young Adults. In the New York Times, Kathryn Morton, reviewing the novel, wrote that it "stretches the reader's awareness, teaching him to read more perceptively." Ishiguro, speaking of his early novels, notes that he tended to be focus on the way older people viewed their younger selves, saying, of his youth, "I'd spend long nights with my friends sorting out moral and political positions that we thought would take us through adult life. And part of that would end up meaning we despised some people not for what they did, but for the opinions they professed to hold. But as I've got older I think I've realised that while it is important to have principles, you have far less control of what happens. These principles and positions only get you so far because what actually happens is that you don't carefully chart your way through life."