It’s rare that I finish a novel that I really haven’t enjoyed and find myself obsessed with it. That’s what’s happened, though, with Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. This is a novel I was strongly recommended to read, and I can see why. I can recognise its beauty and brilliance. I can recognise the things it has in common with works that I love and revere – Butor’s L’Emploi du temps, for example, and W G Sebald’s Vertigo, or The Rings of Saturn.
But the experience of reading it – I so nearly gave up. It was as if I was trapped in one of my own anxiety dreams. Knowing I need to be somewhere, that I’m responsible for something, and finding that time and space are conspiring against me. From the start, the protagonist appears to know, vaguely, that he is here (wherever that is) in order to do something important, but not precisely what, when, or why. As in dreams, the relationship of the people he meets to him and to each other shifts and some who appear at the start to be strangers to him become in the course of the novel his father in law, wife and son. Other people from his past appear, incongruously, whilst his parents, expected throughout the course of the narrative, are never encountered at all. Even the common feature of such dreams that one is inappropriately (or not at all) dressed occurs as Ryder is swept off to undertake high-profile public engagements in his dressing gown (the inappropriateness appears to go unnoticed by everyone else). I read on with such reluctance, fearing that Ryder’s experiences would find their way into and would amplify my own nightly unsettledness – and they did.
It also tied in spookily well with my ongoing fascination with labyrinths and mazes. The city in which Ryder arrives, ahead of his concert, is one in which you could walk in circles indefinitely, as Ryder himself notes. He encounters dead ends – a street blocked off by a brick wall, with no way around it and no opening, but which lies between him and his destination. He is constantly getting lost, his journeys taking him seemingly very far from his destination, only for him to realise he has come back to his starting point. The novel traces ‘an odd, sepulchral, maze-like journey’, through a ‘deterring labyrinth’. But it’s not just a static labyrinth or maze, as baffling and disorienting as they can be, because space is constantly distorting itself, like Butor’s Bleston, which ‘grows and alters even while I explore it’ (Passing Time, pp. 182-3).
But it was only after I had, finally, finished the book that I remembered that I had, some months previously, lent it to someone else, someone who suffers from serious problems with short-term memory, and increasingly with anxiety associated with that condition, needing frequent reassurance as what happened even ten minutes ago is lost in fog. I had wondered idly at other times what impact this would have on her reading – and she does read, making good use of her local library – surely after a few pages she would have forgotten what she had just read, and have to go back again and again, so that she would never actually finish the book? But this book … as she read it, did she recognise her own anxieties in its pages?
It seems to me that living with that kind of memory loss must be like a waking anxiety dream. To have, throughout the day, that sense that you are missing something, that you should be doing something, that you should be somewhere, and to be unable to retrieve the information with any sense of certainty… If you write things down, how do you know for sure whether the writing is telling you that something will happen, or that something has happened? As events from the past float into your memory you have no way of anchoring them in chronology, they could have happened yesterday, or months ago. The gaps are troubling so you may fill them with explanations that start off as speculation but become fixed as you hang on to them for reassurance that you know what happened really. And whilst sometimes you are anxious and you know that the cause of the fear is that your memory is so poor, at other times you don’t remember that you can’t remember, and deny that you need help and can’t see why people keep reminding you of things.
I can’t see that I will want to re-read The Unconsoled any time soon. It simply troubles me too much, taps too accurately into my own anxieties and insecurities, and into the fog of memory loss that I witness second hand. But it’s brilliant, and it’s still in my head, weeks after I reached the final page.