In Transition Book Review, -The Unconsoled

I just want to write, and I’ve not finished any book yet, aside from a quick and unsettling read on January 1st, The Solitude of Prime Numbers. This book was also made into a movie that I have not watched. The Solitude of Prime Numbers is too bleak for me, it affected me negatively, almost physically.

Mine is the classic complain about some modern books. The prose was very straightforward. The book stock was on the plot, and some tricks of the structure. It jumps from past to present, and it moves from girl protagonist to boy protagonist, until early in the book they meet. I can’t fault the book, if modern issues and easy to read but hard to shed from your mind reads is what you are after.

This may be a daring observation on my part, but are more and more western writers adopting eastern ways in their endings, or simply opting for the unsettling? And I also ask, is there any value in writing these books, so close to our lives that they seem to be like a Facebook post? Am I too harsh with these books because I can’t take the needed emotional distance?

These books are a mystery to me. So many praise them, yet others are underwhelmed by them.

Back to unresolved endings, this is something I heard for the first time many years ago, when I read The Elegance of the Hedgehog. This book has been made into a movie that I haven’t watched either. Have you? Do you recommend it?

Abrupt or unresolved endings was something that’s been noted as a feature of Japanese literature. It was said that Muriel Barbery, author of The Elegance of the Hedgehog, chose that Japanese treatment for this title.

I’ve enjoyed her previous book, Gourmet Rhapsody, a precursor of The Elegance of the Hedgehog. Gourmet Rhapsody focuses on the life of a chef that was one of the tenants of the building where The Elegance of the Hedgehog novel takes place. I recommend it.

I was very excited about her latest book, The Life of Elves, published in 2015. My sister came to visit us that summer, and she brought it for me in Spanish. Sadly, I did not find it as compelling as the previous two. The Life of Elves had some excellent parts, but as a whole, it wasn’t as impressive. And it has nothing to do with me expecting a well rounded end or anything. Much to the contrary. When excellent books have abrupt or unresolved endings, one can see how they couldn’t have ended in any other way.

I checked Goodreads reviews after I typed this, just to see what others think of it. I has a disappointing 2.75 stars rating.

The Makioka Sisters, and all books by Ishiguro, -to mention what I know first hand-, awake more questions than give us answers. They stay with us forever. Once I close the last page, I can’t stop thinking about them. One realizes they are not written to provide you with answers or an interpretation. Ishiguro, I’m sure, is after enveloping you in a certain atmosphere. He’s provoking, not providing. I bet he’s aiming at not just our intellects or to that neat controlling attitude we have when we approach literature, but it’s aiming at our heart.

His is the domain of the ‘what ifs’, the space between what’s happening out there, and in our minds, what happened in the past, and what’s going at the present situation, and how both things overlap in unresolved scenarios. And there’s not neat lines that separate and compartmentalize life in his books. This is not a crystallized and polished story that he sets up to tell. He writes that fog, that vapor, the fluid element of our minds, the state between fully awake and in deep sleep.

My 9th grader’s Spanish teacher told me yesterday that when she reads some short Latin American stories to her students, -many of which don’t also have a ‘lived happily ever after’ sort of ending-, they complain and say, ‘that’s all?’, ‘I don’t get it’, ‘it’s silly’, etc. We need to have fed our imagination, and use our minds, to enjoy this type of books and stories.

Janakay commended me for reading The Iliad and The Unconsoled, at the same time. It’s not difficult. But maybe because I am cheating. I’m listening to The Unconsoled. I am probably missing something by listening and not reading. My attention is best when I read. But given that The Unconsoled is long, the excellent audio immerses me in the mood of the book.

Many, -myself included before I started the audio-, are intimidated by The Unconsoled. I must say the challenge with it won’t be difficulty, only extension, or commitment, and taste, if you wish. Unlike The Iliad, -which in my case required a guided hand-, The Unconsoled is not removed from our day to day experience, it doesn’t have tons of characters with many different names, and Ishiguro’s writing is simple and elegant. Don’t picture any Henry James long and difficult sentences here!

Listening to this title after having read all his other books it’s neat, since I see the other books characters and topics at place in here, lavishly developed. Ishiguro indulged in this title. So, if you like him, you’ll get a lot of him, 🙂

Taste, based on affinity, is of the essence when it comes to this, Ishiguro’s longest novel. However, it’s not War and Peace either. It’s 535 pages. If you like to ask the questions he asks on memory, failed relationships, childhood, the tension between duty and personal life, between individuals and the collective or community, the duplicity between events and how we recall them, or the lack of certainty between what happened as seen by others in contrast to our memory of it, lack of certainty between what is lived, thought, or dreamed; if you like all this, you’d love this book.

As always, if you can hear the humor in it, your chances of appreciating it will be higher. Though the humor is there, so far, heart-wrenching is the adjective to describe it. As Bellezza advises, it’ll help you not to read it anticipating any clear resolution.

The book’s main character, Mr. Ryder, talks about his life and what’s going on in his head simultaneously. It’s not XIX century realism, neither magic realism, -even though, as in dreams, some events are not real life coherent. Leave your controlling rational natures aside when you embark in Ryder’s world.

It’s, though, as someone said at Goodreads, not a book for everybody. If you haven’t read anything else by Ishiguro, something shorter could be best. I say the same about Gabriel García Márquez, Steinbeck, and many others. It may be best, if possible, to encounter them in something less committed in time/pages. Northanger Abbey was the book that attached me to Jane Austen for life.

My objective was to tell Ishiguro’s fans that this is an obligatory stop. To those who haven’t read any other books by him, start with any but this or The Buried Giant, (that one is slightly different and more polarizing.) And if you like him okay, I give you permission to skip it. There’s only so much contemporary literature one can read, and many longish excellent titles claim for our time investment that I don’t find this title crucial. However, his A Pale View of Hills, followed by The Artist of a Floating World, are shorter and very underrated books, not as widely read as The Remains of the Day, but, to me, those two titles, in terms of time/page count, pay high dividends.

41 thoughts on “In Transition Book Review, -The Unconsoled

  1. Absolutely. Reading should give us a superior experience not an inferior one.

  2. Oh, wow. I’m empowered by your comment. I’m going to join you in the rant. The Solitude of Prime Numbers, it was so depressing too. Why write with that sense of life being a horrible journey full of pain, despair, ugliness, loneliness. And the writing is so common, not an ion of redemption. Sigh. I get those feelings at times, and those problems they write about, I suffer them or see them around. Why on earth would I want to intensify them with my reading?

  3. I have found that, unless it’s non fiction, I don’t even want to read books written in the past fifty years. Especially European ones (no offense). They’re just so bleak, like the authors suffer from clinical depression. I haven’t found the writing to be all that sterling either. What’s with writing in the present tense now?

    Ironically (and I’m embarrassed to admit it) the BBC literature program, a TV program in the UK sends me requests to send in questions to their show for their guest authors. I sent in one off the cuff answer and they took it. I had to get up early for their phone call and ask the question in front of their audience. I was so nervous and I felt like such a hypocrite because I hated the story (about a young man who chooses to go to Switzerland and commit suicide).

  4. Hahaha. How different we are. I couldn’t use modern as a palate cleanser for the love of me! But I agree that it is interesting to see their view of the world.

  5. I’m one of those that adored The Buried Giant. I believe it may be my favourite Ishiguro to date. But I’ve yet to read the Unconsoled or the Artist. One of the things I love about his writing are all the things left unsaid.

    I read a lot of modern stuff for work, I tend to use it as a palate cleanser between the juicier, richer reads. I find the younger writers fascinating, seeing their view of the world they’re coming of age in.

  6. Thanks for the comment, Cleo. Modern literature requires, to me, some picking and choosing, to be sure there’s, as you say, that redeeming qualities in it. The Elegance is not bleak, it’s more the way you described Dorian Gray, which I also appreciate.

    In small quantities, some modern lit, I find that it provides me with something that enriches me too. But I am bold enough now to not be ashamed of quitting some books, or taking long breaks from anything too recent and not yet confirmed as having value, or something of value that simply violates my conscience.

  7. I have the same issues with much modern literature … its bleakness. When I read, the book doesn’t have to be all goodness (one of my favourite books is The Picture of Dorian Gray which certainly has disturbing scenes) but there does have to be something redemptive in it. I don’t what to live a life full of hopelessness, why would I waste my precious time immersed in a book which is full of it?

    I am glad to have you to steer me some useful modern reads. I have The Elegance of the Hedgehog … now I know it’s worth reading. And Ishiguro … maybe one day …

  8. Agree with your reading of Remains of the Day. Nothing is totally clear. He writes that uncertainty about life very well.

  9. I also found the discussion of Ishiguro interesting. I just finished re-reading The Remains of the Day. In this story, Ishiguro truly does a fantastic job of setting the atmosphere that draws you into the world of the butler….not just the specific butler Stevens, but also the life of the butler in general.

    It’s interesting to analyze this character Stevens, the butler. And Ishiguro gives us the story without making judgments….presents the situations, let’s his butler Stevens ruminate over his life as a butler (and Stevens does certainly make his own judgments). As readers, we don’t receive answers to all our questions. Questions like: Was Lord Darlington truly a Nazi sympathizer or not?

    We are also left to wonder: Did Ms. Kenton actually have feelings for Mr. Stevens and vice versa? By the end of the book, we are led to believe that it’s possible Ms. Kenton did have feelings for him. But it’s not made abundantly clear. And with Stevens’ manner, it’s really hard to tell if he had romantic feelings for Ms. Kenton or not.

  10. I have been known to buy a book because I heard it recommended but then it just sits on my shelf because I feel a bit intimidated to read it. I can count at least 2-3 right now off the top of my head that are on my shelf in that status. LOL The good thing is, one of the books has sat on my shelf so long that thanks to some of my readerly friends having read it and loved it, I am now not feeling so intimidated by it and will likely try to read it sometime this year (or next year…..). 😉

  11. It’s rich. Yes. It’s a good wrestle. I may continue reading it for the second half. A blogger described the book as told in a dream state, not the narration of a dream, but dreamlike, as in things of reality mixing up with things half remembered. I find that accurate, it’s a zone there not clearly in the conscious or subconscious. I’m under his spell. He evokes, and mixes his own past with the present of ‘others’. It’s never clear if Ryder is talking about others, himself, the present, or the past. I just listen and paint pictures and images in my head, or at times I feel I’m privy to the conversations happening in this unknown town and time.

    Can’t wait for you to read An Artist. Thanks for this challenge. I’ll write a final review later, and link it to your blog.

  12. At the risk of adding to the confusion (I DO have problems restraining myself at times; just had to add my little comment responding to Bellezza on Ducks, Newbury): I’m SO glad to fine someone else who does this, i.e., acquires a book because it’s listed for the Booker, or some other prize, and then is too intimidated to start! More than a few of those went on my discard pile, during my recent “big sort!”

  13. Oops, this was supposed to be a reply to a Ducks Newburyport comment somewhere above. Not sure what happened, and sorry to be confusing.

  14. I have it sitting on my shelf, purchased when it was long listed for the Man Booker. But, I haven’t read it yet. I am a bit intimidated, I think, so don’t look for my opinion. 😉

  15. Silvia, I absolutely love this sentiment from the middle of your post:

    “One realizes they are not written to provide you with answers or an interpretation. Ishiguro, I’m sure, is after enveloping you in a certain atmosphere. He’s provoking, not providing. I bet he’s aiming at not just our intellects or to that neat controlling attitude we have when we approach literature, but it’s aiming at our heart…”

    I think you have captured Ishiguro’s writing, and much of the style of Japanese authors, perfectly with this sentiment.

    I can’t imagine how you’re listening to it, and able to grasp all that’s going on. I am not a good audio ‘reader’ at all, too much passes me by, and I found The Unconsoled a book to wrestle with even in print. But, it was a good wrestle, and it remains my favorite so far. Of course, I still need to read An Artist of the Floating World which I will begin this week. Xo

  16. In reply to CathyC and her long haul trip — I really had to laugh! I did a similar thing on a much less courageous level about three years ago. I had an extremely long flight on an airline that because of some major security issue (don’t ask which one! There have been so many) didn’t allow its passengers to have electronics. With a similar “now or never” attitude I took Joseph Roth’s Radetzky March as my main entertainment (it was one of my jinx books) but, weakling that I am, also stuck a favorite Georgette Heyer, one of my comfort reads in my carry-on as well. To my surprise, I didn’t even peak at Georgette, I was so absorbed in Radetzky! It’s almost like a “tough love” therapy to get yourself to read a difficult book!
    I’ve never tried Pamuk, BTW. Too bad I don’t have any long flights coming up . . .

  17. Thanks for the advice for future Isiguro titles: for me at the moment it’s a toss-up between Nocturnes and Never Let Me Go, both of which I happen to have waiting.

  18. I haven’t been able to read your whole post yet but I hope to at some point today. Then hopefully I’ll be able to comment at that point or at least soon. 🙂 It’s a busy day today…..

  19. I guess there’s a type of too on your face unsettling that I can’t deal with. But I don’t have any problem with Ishiguro.

  20. Very keen observations. I do not like to read unsettling things–period. I don’t like shows or films like that, either. Even Remains of the Day left questions, but not necessarily ones that haunt me. Good post.

  21. No need to apologize for the comment, it was easy to figure out you were conversing with Cathy.

    I too adore that quality Ishiguro has. And yes, the butler, Mr. Stevens, was just like that, unreliable. His total admiration and service to his master, -who was a Nazi-, gives so much depth. Ishiguro manages to place us, readers, at the heart of moral and life dilemmas like nobody else, it’s so masterfully done.

    The Unconsoled will be a treat for you. Summer is a good time to take it up.

  22. And yet, although I thought Museum was a truly fine book, I took a strong dislike to The Book of Red.

  23. Good point about traffic accidents, for sure not everything of impact is of value. That’s also how I see things, Mudpuddle, there’s form and content, and if there’s no excellence of prose, the book’s quality suffers.

    I liked the Hedgehog book too. It was philosophical in some sense, it had depth.

  24. Oh, I’m glad to see you like Pamuk. I loved his Book of Red, and have his Book of Black. Great reminder of an author I want to read more of.

  25. I’ll be doing a long haul trip in a few weeks – 30 hours or so – and I think I’m going to try it then. I did that with Museum of Innocence (Pamuk) a few years ago, took it and said ‘now or never’ and despite the exceedingly uncomfortable conditions (and the flu) I could scarcely put it down. I’m hoping for another experience like that. I will report!

  26. Hi Silvia! Loved the discussion, particularly as it pertained to Ishiguro. I think you’ve nailed his appeal and his method — if you crave certainty and clear answers, he’s not your guy; he’s more about the questions than the answers (you have to figure those out for yourself). In the past, that was a problem for me at times, since I liked clarity (don’t we all, at some level?) regarding meaning, or a character’s ultimate fate. As I knocked about the world a bit more, I came to realize that while we want clarity, we don’t usually get it; things aren’t black or white and we’re stuck interpreting various shades of grey! Ishiguro is so subtle and just so very skilled as a novelist and THAT is what he’s showing you. I think a part of this plays out in his tendency to use an unreliable narrator. An easy example is the butler in Remains of the Day and how your viewpoint about him shifts as you read. As I recall (it’s been a long time!) he worships one of his employers, whom you realize at some point was a Nazi sympathizer. A third point about Ishiguro (which you described so well) is his ability to create an atmosphere that just draws you into his fictional world. Although I value ALL his qualities, this is probably the one I enjoy the most.
    You’ve convinced me about The Unconsoled! It may have to wait until the summer, but I’m definitely going to give it a try.
    My apologies about my earlier, puzzling comment — I was responding to CathyC and her remark about Ducks, Newburyport but either I did it wrong or wordpress put my remark in the wrong place!

  27. If you read (or attempt!) it, I’d love to hear your reaction! I’ve read several reviews of Ducks but am far too intimidated to try it; its sheer length keeps me away. The critics, however, are so uniform in their praise I’ve wondering whether I might be missing a great read. I’d love to hear a “real” reader’s opinion!

  28. it’s complicated… i think you have a valuable point about internet communication affecting the way authors write, but it might be too soon to see just how that will all work out… i read the Hedgehog book and quite liked it, which was unusual: i normally don’t read much modern lit… about books sticking in memory: traffic accidents do also, but that doesn’t make them admirable… sorry to sound grouchy, but i still believe, in my old man milieu, that the mechanics of composition have a lot to do with the excellence of prose… and books… interesting questions, tx…

  29. The Solitude is basically plot. If time passes and you don’t remember much, I believe it’s indicative of a book that had not much beyond a story. Is it a bad book? I don’t think so. Our problem is that we love not just okay books, but personally, I like my meat medium rare, and my reads to be excellent, ja ja ja.

    I’ll watch the right Hedgehog, LOL. I love that book, I was excited with the Elves one, but, though I don’t idolize Goodreads ratings, it just happens that my books, the ones I love, usually have no less than 4 stars, and I see a group of usual people who read those books I have read, or I’m interested in reading. (Though I agree that books in translation sometimes can have rating discrepancies due to the fact that they may be more successful in the original language for diverse reasons).

    Ishiguro is wonderful. I don’t know what I do, but I always end up reading Ishiguro, year after year, re-reads, and re-reads. And I agree with your recommendation of Never Let Me Go. The movie doesn’t follow close, but the atmosphere of the novel is well captured. I watched right after reading the book. I’m not a big crier, but I was bawling with both book and movie.

    I need to explore more Japanese authors.

  30. Oh, and modern books are hard to put down. As hard as The Solitude book was, I had to keep reading it until the end.

  31. I think The Pale View, his first book at 23, has to be his best. I don’t call many books perfect, but this one is perfect.

  32. I don’t mind unresolved endings, it’s some content that it’s so heavy, as self inflicted pain, hahaha. I can’t…

    I can only be doing something mechanical while listening to The Unconsoled. I have replayed some parts, though, and I am thinking about reading the second half. I don’t know, I like the audio. It’s not the easiest audio. I need to be careful and replay when needed.

  33. If you like dystopian books, Never Let Me Go, if you like a mix of Japanese and noir, A Pale View of Hills, if you like a full Japanese book that explores Japanese culture a la Ishiguro, The Artist, if you like a more scenic British flair book, The Remains of the Day.

  34. I gave 4 stars to The Solitude of Prime Numbers, but I read it 10 years ago, at a time when I was really writing too many reviews. My 1 line opinion about it doesn’t say much, and to be honest, I really don’t remember anything about it!
    The Elegance of the Hedgehog was so good, and yes please watch the movie, really really great – watch out, there are 2 movies with the title The Hedgehog. I loved a lot the Japanese character.
    I had meant to read The Life of Elves, but haven’t done so yet, and now I’m not so sure… I just went to check the ratring on Babelio (the French Goodreads). Sometimes, the rating for French book is very different on these 2 platforms, but it’s even worse here: Note moyenne : 2.61/5 (sur 198 notes).
    I loved Never Let Me Go, and also The Buries Giant, even though it was different for him. The Unconsoled is still on my TBR. Right now, I’m in a Natsume Soseki binge mode

  35. I’m trying to imagine The Unconsoled as an audio book. I feel like if I couldn’t look at the words I’d find it very difficult to keep track of it. As a practiced audio book listener, you probably have the skills to do this that I don’t. I agree with your opinion of The Pale View and The Artist. I now want to watch the movie The Solitude of Prime Numbers.

    And finally, I don’t have any answer to your question re endings now as I so rarely read books that are this modern, though I do have Ducks, Newburyport in my sights. I’m scared to start as I think it will be so hard to put down.

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