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The London Monk's Philosophy on the Art of Life and Writing

October 04, 2000|SUSAN SALTER REYNOLDS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

LONDON — It's drizzling and gusty in London. People don't come in off the street, they blow in. Men stand in phone boxes, their eyes lifted heavenward as they scan the business cards with photos that line the walls for the perfect prostitute, London's answer to street violence and cat fights. One must step over puddles of vomit that signal the understated entrances to trendy West End pubs. In better neighborhoods, book parties and readings announce one of the city's most glittering literary seasons in years. Anita Brookner, Will Self, William Trevor, Jeanette Winterson and Caryl Phillips all have books out in October.

But perhaps the most exciting of these, the most hopefully awaited by fans on both sides of the Atlantic is Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel, "When We Were Orphans." Ishiguro, author of some of the most arresting novels of his generation ("A Pale View of Hills," "An Artist of the Floating World," "Remains of the Day" and "The Unconsoled"), sits quietly at the center of London's famously nasty literary life. Everyone likes him (suspicious, eh?). He engages just enough to be a player, but not enough to fall into the kinds of squabbles that clutter the careers of writers like Martin Amis.

On the morning I visit Ishiguro at home in Golders Green, the Times reads more like Agatha Christie than a source of news. The front page sports an oversized photo of the tony blond who was so recently aide to a duchess and who, it seems, has killed her boyfriend with a single stab. She, who was born to the lower middle, the reporter gloats, always thought she was posh, dressed a little too fancy.

"Which duchess was it?" Ishiguro wants to know. "Must have been the Duchess of York."

Like Christopher Banks, private detective, the hero of "When We Were Orphans," the author's mind wanders a ways down the path to solving the case. One can imagine this latest intrigue rippling through the city's subconscious, an echo of the gray car carrying the famous politician that moves through a London morning in Virginia Woolf's "Mrs. Dalloway." These are the currents that Ishiguro, like Woolf, plugs into. His books often begin with the feeling of an era, then the feeling of a culture, then a city, moving like arrows shot from an extremely focused consciousness, into the minds and hearts of his characters. The prose is restrained, precise and very evocative.

Ishiguro did time on the fringes of society as well. In 1974, age 19, with long hair and a Fu Manchu mustache, he hitchhiked for two months down the west coast of America, searching at one point for a boy guru in San Francisco, yeah. His guitar was stolen in his $1.30-a-night lodging--and it was a relief to get rid of it, to travel light. Ishiguro (publishing nerds who want to seem cool call him Ish; only a few close friends call him Kazuo) picks up one of several guitars leaning against the walls of the light-filled room.

It's a Dobro, a Delta Blues guitar with a rich, belly-provoking sound. He picks a few perfect chords, then demonstrates how it sounds with the slide. He spent a few years in his early 20s making demos and getting 30-second meetings with record producers. "I did so much failing," he says with a grin, "that as a writer I was allowed not to do it all again."

This is the day's understatement. Ishiguro, at 46, has won the Winifred Holby Prize, the Whitbread and the Booker. He got his gentle start in a writers group led by Malcolm Bradbury but, perhaps more importantly, in conversations about writing with the fantastic fiction writer Angela Carter, who died a few years ago. "She didn't actually read any of my writing until it was published," he says. "But we'd have these wonderful conversations about, say, how long it takes a drowned cat to die, very abstract for her--but useful for me."

Robert McCrum, an editor at Faber and Faber, gave him his first advance, "not a huge amount, but enough to live on, enough to say to myself, 'I'm a writer.' " Today, with his brown eyes, calm mind and black clothes, it's tempting to think of him less as a famous figure than as a Zen monk.

Ishiguro's last novel, "The Unconsoled"--about a pianist who arrives in a city to give a recital but can't recall who he is or why he's there--was the first to get even slightly critical reviews. Much wilder than his previous books, it was the monk unhinged. "You can lose your audience," he says. "With music, people are more loyal. I had that relationship to Miles Davis' music--loved 'Kind of Blue' and 'Nefertiti' and 'Bitches Brew,' but I struggled to get into the later stuff." (It's nice to talk to an author who actually cares about his audience. "I don't want to be understood," Will Self snickered the night before over drinks at the Groucho Club. "I want to be misunderstood.")

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