Welcome to a special edition of the Strange Horizons book club! This week we also have a discussion of Hild by Nicola Griffith, which you can read here. Our next book will be Atlas: The Archaeology of an Imaginary City by Dung Kai-cheung, and discussions further ahead are listed here.
The book we are discussing here is Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel, The Buried Giant. From the publisher's blurb: "The Buried Giant begins as a couple, Axl and Beatrice, set off across a troubled land of mist and rain in the hope of finding a son they have not seen for years. They expect to face many hazards—some strange and other-worldly—but they cannot yet foresee how their journey will reveal to them dark and forgotten corners of their love for one another. Sometimes savage, often intensely moving, Kazuo Ishiguro's first novel in a decade is about lost memories, love, revenge and war."
We hope you'll join us to discuss the novel further in the comments, but to kick off this discussion, the participants are:
Maureen Kincaid Speller, a critic, freelance copyeditor, and graduate student. She is working on a PhD focusing on indigenous contemporary literatures in North America. She has reviewed science fiction and fantasy for various journals, including Interzone, Vector, and Foundation.
Dan Hartland, whose reviews and criticism have appeared in Strange Horizons, Vector, Foundation and the Los Angeles Review of Books.
Molly Katz, a graduate student at Cornell University. She has taught courses on Shakespeare and on fanfiction. She is currently working on her dissertation.
Aishwarya Subramanian, a critic and PhD student working on post-war British children's literature. She blogs at Practically Marzipan.
Critics and reviewers have made much of the "stilted language" of The Buried Giant's narration. Joyce Carol Oates asserts that in this novel, as in Crace's The Pesthouse and Coetzee's The Childhood of Jesus, "a kind of faux-naiveté prevails, and characters speak and behave with exasperating simplicity, as if some sort of diminution of intelligence comes inevitably with 'genre.'" Her suggestion begs the question: is The Buried Giant condescending to its characters? Is it condescending to its readers and/or the fantasy genre? Much has been made of The Buried Giant as a fantasy novel, but are there other ways we might read it? Elsewhere, David Mitchell has commented of The Buried Giant that "fantasy plus literary fiction can achieve things that frank blank realism can't." Putting aside the genre argument, what might he be suggesting? Finally, to address the substance of Oates's formal concern about narration and The Buried Giant's governing intelligence, who is and where is the narrator of the novel?
Dan Hartland: I find the reception of The Buried Giant exceedingly curious, and unusually vexed. It's echoed, I suppose, in some of the reviews of David Mitchell's own The Bone Clocks. I think, though, that the ways in which they differ lend the lie to Mitchell's attempt to claim that The Buried Giant shares his own project to merge the literary and fantastic. First, Mitchell made a decision to place realist material side-by-side with more obviously generic chapters. There's none of that in The Buried Giant, which entirely creates its own unique space. Second, the novels differ in terms of their respective senses of commitment. The core fantastical section of The Bone Clocks reads like pastiche, as a sort of grand guignol grab-bag of generic conceits, from structure to plot to dialogue. I'd suggest The Buried Giant is, in contrast, anything but a pastiche. It is in fact fairly obviously making an argument against pastiche, insofar as it places itself in opposition to that most strip-mined of twentieth-century writers, J. R. R. Tolkien.
I wonder if this isn't why so many reviewers—even Ursula Le Guin, for goodness sake, from whom I might have expected a more subtle reading of Ishiguro's fantastica—have struggled to parse the novel. (And here, inevitably, we will set ourselves up as uniquely percipient, which seems presumptuous. Anyway.) The characteristics of epic fantasy—the orcs and dwarves, the axes and magic, but also the narrative structures and reading protocols its dominance of commercial fantasy fiction have encouraged—have permeated our culture so thoroughly that it is hard to see the word "ogre," read about a swordfight, or follow a questing band of medieval-ish protagonists without certain assumptions being cued for us. Peter Jackson has a lot to answer for.
But, of course, Tolkienian epic fantasy did not spring forth from an Oxford don's office fully formed. As everyone knows, Middle-Earth (that Anglo-Saxon term) was itself a revivification of the medieval lore Tolkien so loved—and considered to have been sadly forgotten. Not for nothing is the failure of memory a theme of The Buried Giant: it too attempts to bring certain methods and qualities of Old and Middle English literature forward to the post-modern era. Ishiguro seems to be somewhat sympathetic to Tolkien's view that somewhere along the line—perhaps in the emergence of the novel, perhaps in the internalisations of Shakespeare, perhaps for no particular single reason—the landscapes of the literature of the English (and, indeed, the British) have been flattened and domesticated. I think, though, that Ishiguro disagrees with Tolkien that the response to that is to rewrite the inheritance almost entirely, to throw it all together and create something new from whole cloth. Ishiguro seems keener to echo the tradition's plangent tones, its distinctive diction, and to write new adventures for our stock of shared characters and creatures, motifs and locations. This, then, is not fantasy in any meaningfully modern sense. It might be faerie, if we have to label it at all. But really, just as he did in The Remains of the Day (which also initially confounded reviewers), I suspect Ishiguro considers himself to be writing something to some extent or another quintessentially English, but of a stripe of that happily variegated and diasporic identity that has been, alas, flattened, not just by what Tolkien saw as the brutality of the twentieth century, but also by the clunking fist of the epic fantasy genre he accidentally seeded.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I think Dan hits the mark when he notes that "it is hard to see the word "ogre," read about a sword fight, or follow a questing band of medieval-ish protagonists without certain assumptions being cued for us."
I saw this reflected so often in the reviews I read prior to reading the book, and was very disappointed that so many reviewers seemed willing to trot out that same tired theme without interrogating it in any way. And not even addressing LOTR as a written text but, as Dan observes, referring to the Jacksonian vision of LOTR. They were using pastiche to discuss a novel that is certainly not about pastiche. But it's fascinating, in its way, that they can't see beyond the pastiche, or indeed LOTR itself.
One could argue, in certain instances, that the reviewers are trying make connections for their readers between a novel said readers presumably haven't yet read, and things the reviewers assume these readers will be familiar with (and we'll put aside whether or not the assumptions the reviewers make about their readers' frames of reference are patronising). But that will not pass muster in publications such as the TLS or the New York Review of Books. And yet those reviews have been among the worst at getting to grips with what is going on in the novel.
I am genuinely puzzled that most reviewers (I exempt Tom Holland from this) couldn't see, for example, that Ishiguro draws not on Tolkien, but on the same sources Tolkien draws on, such as Beowulf, which I think is one of the ur-texts of The Buried Giant.
There is a bit near the beginning of Seamus Heaney's version of Beowulf which runs:
Cain got no good from committing that murder
because the Almighty made him anathema
and out of the curse of his exile there sprang
ogres and elves and evil phantoms
and the giants too who strove with God
time and again until He gave them their reward.
I suppose my question might be, why are elves etc. OK in Beowulf, but shocking in Ishiguro?
Even before I got to the novel itself, my feeling, from reading the reviews, was that, in part at least, Ishiguro was doing one of several different things (and possibly several of these at once).
First, his novel was not creating a secondary world à la Tolkien or Martin, but instead imagining how the world would seem to people for whom ogres et al. were a part of the epistemological framework of the characters' everyday lives, a way of explaining what was going on around them (see Querig).
Or perhaps these fantastic elements were an actual part of everyday life then, but have since vanished. Why not? There is a substantial folk literature about the fairies leaving England, for example. Even Kipling includes a section in Puck of Pook's Hill, "The Dymchurch Flit," in which he describes their departure.
Or perhaps it's a novel that explores cultural changes in England, by embodying the literary motifs that are supposed to typify the different groups present in the country. There's an interesting relationship between the story of the Celtic dragon and the reappearances of the classical ferryman, all wound through with the reworking of the Arthurian mythos.
Or, and this is something I've not seen suggested so far, I wondered if we were in fact in a story going on in the mind of someone suffering from dementia, someone well-read, compiling a story out of remembered fragments, which might account in places for the way the story wanders between literary traditions.
Or, or, or . . .
Aishwarya Subramanian: I think this issue of Ishiguro's relationship to other works of fantasy comes back to the whole question of what genre is and how texts within a genre relate to one another—or whether they need to relate to one another at all, or whether their genre-ness is entirely a function of subject matter. We've had a lot of referential literary SFF or SFF-adjacent work published in recent years, and there's a way of reading Oscar Wao or Kavalier and Clay, or even Among Others (these are all books I love, I don't want to dismiss them), in relation to genre that obviously isn't going to work for The Buried Giant. Pastiche is one of the techniques literary-genre fiction employs, as Dan and Maureen both point out, but I think this is a result of the fact that a lot of literary-genre fiction seems to be more interested in the effects of genre upon readers than in questions of what a work of genre is doing in a more self-contained sense. A lot of genre-genre fiction takes what it's doing for granted. What is Ishiguro (caveats about authorial intent go here) trying to do?
Yet I did think of Tolkien, particularly in those opening pages, with Axl sitting on the hill outside the hole in the ground where he lives; this is conspicuously not The Hobbit, Axl's home is not warm and well-lit and over-furnished, and the morning is cold. Adam Mars-Jones makes this connection too, in his LRB review, but then seems not to know what to do with it (in that he doesn't pursue this line of thought and think about why this similarity, and this difference, might be). But Ishiguro's not-Tolkien mode utilises Tolkien's sources, and there are things we can take from that. What was Tolkien trying to do? I think about Tolkien's oft-quoted desire to create "a mythology for England." If Ishiguro is engaging with Tolkien at all, isn't it much more likely that it's on this level? That Ishiguro's questioning the validity of this desire and the ways to achieve it, the ways to use your source texts? (It's possible that I'm leaning towards this reading because I'm also currently reading Raphael Samuel's Island Stories.)
In Joyce Carol Oates's review of the book in the NYRB, she notes that:
the narrator seems to be addressing a distinct "you"—an invisible and anonymous reader who is English, and part of an "ancient procession" that can be traced back to sixth-century England or earlier. (Ironically excluding Kazuo Ishiguro, born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954 and brought to England at the age of five.)
She seems to think Ishiguro might not have noticed this.
Mars-Jones also raises the intriguing possibility that the book is attempting to capture "a vanished set of perceptions," then decides that it can't be trying to do that because . . . magic is involved? But this may be exactly what The Buried Giant is doing—as Maureen says, recreating the world as people who believe in dragons might see it. This month, Strange Horizons is also running a parallel book club alongside this one, discussing Nicola Griffith's Hild, which I think achieves something similar. In Hild, the possibility of the supernatural is always open; there are rational/materialist explanations for everything that occurs, but to the characters through whose eyes we see, that divide is meaningless. I think there's a useful comparison to be made between these two books, and how they speak of the real.
Finally, when I started reading this book I described it to a friend as "my grandparents going to the bank." There's certainly a reading of this book that is about old age and dementia and death, and not fantasy at all. There are others as well.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: There are so many people queuing up to say what Ishiguro should and shouldn't be doing, but it seems to me that they've not really asked themselves what he actually is doing.
I wonder if the failure to ask that particular question arises in part from the reviewers' feeling that Ishiguro's engaging more deeply with genre than they're comfortable with. Thus they're presenting themselves as though they're afraid of contracting genre cooties, rather than asking pertinent questions.
I don't feel that Ishiguro is "in dialogue" with genre, because to me that implies a more hands-off relationship, as though he is inspecting genre and picking up one or two elements, thinking he might incorporate them into whatever he's doing. "In dialogue with" always suggests appropriation to me, rather than actual engagement.
But taking up Aisha's point about the not-Tolkien, I wonder if the question might be "how did we get to the modern notion of genre, and what happens if I take the same things Tolkien used and see what comes out?." I seem to be thinking a lot about historical fiction and historical fantasy at the moment, and I'm struck by how much of it is either
- attempting to recapitulate events we know about, but providing some sort of speculative psychological or emotional underpinning for these events, so we experience the characters' feelings during them, or else is
- about filling in the gaps in recorded history.
It seems to me, though, that Ishiguro is trying to do something else—not retelling, nor filling in a gap, but maybe engaging in some sort of narrative expansion—what else might we do with these people, these ideas, if we decide to go off-piste with them?
There is an interesting side-discussion to be had in re: Oates's comment about Ishiguro's relationship to the "ancient procession" of Englishness—one that feels slightly presumptuous given that I'm not Ishiguro and cannot know the paths of his intellectual development, but here goes. First, I am struck by the way that almost every article I've read, and every interview I've read, watched or listened to, sooner or later comes to the matter of Ishiguro moving to England at the age of five. The implication is clear, to my mind; even after 55 years he is still not quite "of here," and there is some sort of implication that he thus cannot be expected to engage with "our" traditions. I strongly suspect that Ishiguro is kind of playing with people when they ask the same old questions. After 55 years, I am fairly sure Ishiguro has a pretty good understanding of the culture he has, after all, mostly grown up in. To me, then, it would seem more probable that Ishiguro is looking at the ways in which a country absorbs or rejects new arrivals, and the discussions that come up about that. And after so frequently being reminded that he's different, Ishiguro might want to deal with a country shaped by immigration's failure to grasp that it has always been shaped by immigration, and that this is reflected its storytelling.
Molly Katz: Fantastic points, Maureen! I never thought of "in dialogue" as implying appropriation, but I see what you mean. Do you sense a difference between the phrases "in dialogue" and "in conversation," in this respect? I think you're right that dialogue implies distance. You have to be outside, looking in, to be "in dialogue" with something, don't you? There's something about "dialogue" that implies, to me, articulation. I wouldn't mind someone saying they were having a conversation with themselves—there's enough room for the unformed, the uncertain, the exploratory—but "dialogue," to me, implies a level of articulation that makes a statement like that sound a little pompous. You could say that to be "in dialogue" with genre means you are not writing genre (which must, then, be quite articulated and clear in what it is saying), but that you have something to say to genre.
I wonder what would it mean, with this idea of distance in mind, to say that Ishiguro is in dialogue with the cultural mythology of England? I wonder if to say that he is in dialogue with this mythology would actually be to diminish Ishiguro's own place in England and to deny his contribution to the cultural mythology of England? But then, on the other hand, to deny distance, to forget distance, seems very much to be something this novel opposes. Wistan cannot forget his alienation, cannot forget that he is not a Briton. Even as he carries his sword like a Briton and speaks the Briton tongue, he is not allowed to forget—and thus does not want others to forget—what was done to his people.
I completely agree with everyone else's thoughts about how ideas about the fantasy genre might be running interference for readers of this book. I also really like Aisha's point that reading Tolkien might let us understand better what Ishiguro is and isn't doing. I do think there are some senses in which experience reading Tolkien specifically and the fantasy genre in general—rather than simply absorbing our cultural ideas of fantasy—might help prepare someone to read this book. I'll focus on one way I think this is so: Oates appears to see fantasy as a genre that doesn't ask its readers to change their perceptions of its people and places, but rather exists as a flat landscape populated with stock characters. Oates doesn't seem to have been expecting a world that demands that we change our perceptions of it as the story progresses, and thus doesn't seem to have read the book as such. I think she misses a great deal because of this.
Although not all fantasy novels prompt the sort of perceptual shifts that Ishiguro demands of his readers, some certainly do. Tolkien asks us to entirely re-imagine the stakes of finding the ring. In The Hobbit, the ring seems to be one small part of the tale. It is a wondrous, whimsical object and a symbol of Bilbo's cleverness. At the start of The Lord of the Rings, however, Tolkien asks us to re-envision this same ring as the locus of the world's evil. George R. R. Martin also asks us to change our views of his world as he reveals more and more about characters like Jaime Lannister. I think if Oates had a deeper appreciation for the fantasy genre, her sense of what she might expect from the characters and world of The Buried Giant might be quite different.
Ishiguro shows us the world he's created in bits and pieces. We get glimpses through a mist, we're shown many different views of the same picture. I think it's quite reasonable to see some of these glimpses, these partial views of the entire picture, and to feel frustrated with the characters, with the story, and with Ishiguro's writing. But in my reading, Ishiguro eventually stitches those jarring pieces together into something both poignant and coherent. He redeems these moments entirely. Not everyone seems to see it this way, though. Oates describes Gawain like so:
Elderly Sir Gawain flies into a blustering rage when it's suggested that a younger man should kill the she-dragon Querig, since Gawain has not been able to kill her for decades: "By what right . . . does your king order you to come from another country and usurp the duties given to a knight of Arthur?" When Gawain boasts of having faced "wolves with the heads of hideous hags . . . and at Mount Culwich, double-headed ogres that spewed blood at you even as they roared their battlecry," and undertakes an ill-advised sword fight with the young warrior Wistan, which (predictably) he loses, it is hard to resist recalling the solemn absurdities of Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
It seems that Oates's early perceptions of Gawain as a farcical character stay with her until the end. I, too, found Gawain's seemingly irrational insistence that he, not Wistan, should be the one to slay the dragon jarring. But for me, this frustration was the result of my partial knowledge at this point in the novel. Gawain's bluster is a misdirection. He does not want the dragon dead. In fact, he is her protector. In the end, he proves an able warrior and an able observer of his world. Far from being a character to condescend to, Gawain voices an argument that I keep returning to, again and again, unable to fully dismiss it however much I'd like to.
Some critics have called the characters in the novel static, and, indeed, Gawain does not seem to change much in the novel. But I think our picture of him should change. By the time Gawain dies, his death to me seems not predictable, but rather tragically, achingly inevitable. Rather than Monty Python's Black Knight, whom we see chopped into smaller and smaller pieces, whittled away, diminished, we have in Gawain a figure who becomes fuller and fuller.
Aishwarya Subramanian: Molly's suggestion that the practice of reading fantasy (for want of a better way to put it, though I'm sure there is a better way) may better prepare us to read The Buried Giant, and Maureen's on the ways in which SF and Fantasy as genres affect the ways in which their readers, well, read, are making me think about my own history of reading genre, and to what extent the way I approached this book reflected it. I've said this before (though probably not in a book club), but one of the results of being a fantasy fan in India in the 90s, when books didn't arrive in any sort of organised way, was that I became used to having to piece together worlds and contexts from book three in a series, because that was all I had access to. Often, I had to accept that I had no idea what was going on, and I had to trust that the characters were probably doing something important. One of the consequences of the mist is that it forces us as readers to do something quite similar. I don't know if we're ever really expected to perform the SFnal piecing together of puzzles, or to achieve the sort of stable understanding of the world that a lot of fantasy, with its maps and glossaries, seems to promise.
I'm wary of suggesting that any book is concerned with the question of Englishness (by which I mean what counts as English history, or folklore, or English identity, and what/who is included in those definitions) at the moment, because since concerns of Englishness are bound up in my academic work, I have a tendency to see them everywhere. And in Ishiguro's case I'm particularly hesitant, because to read him through that lens implies that his own claims to British (or English) identity are in some way more contestable than, say, those of Alan Garner (subject of last month's book club, in which we also discussed landscape, history and identity!). And yet I think this is something the book's concerned with—with Wistan, as Molly says, and with Gawain's and Beatrice's constant return to the deaths of children. How do we deal with history, how do we create some sort of unified society while at the same time remembering past atrocities, what are the stories and traditions that we can draw on to construct stable identities in the present, and how might we use them?
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Your comment that "there are some senses in which experience reading Tolkien specifically and the fantasy genre in general—rather than simply absorbing our cultural ideas of fantasy—might help someone read this book" suggests to me that Ishiguro is not so much "in dialogue with genre" as writing something that he knows that a lot of people will immediately "get" because, bluntly, they've done the reading. His audience may be familiar with this fantasy, and may also retain a memory (see what I did there?) of studying medieval English lit.
I'm genuinely surprised that someone like James Wood fails the test I've admittedly just invented here by not getting to grips with Arthurian legend, specifically the accounts of Arthur that turn up in medieval chronicles (and here I'm thinking of Nennius and his account of the battle between the English dragon and the Welsh dragon). He also misses the glaring reference to Beowulf. But on top of that, Wood seems not to have a clue about the other ways in which that period in history has been represented in stories. I've said elsewhere that the storytelling voice reminds me somewhat of Kipling's Puck of Pook's Hill, in which Kipling keeps coming back and back to the moment of the encounter between the Anglo-Saxons and the Normans. The voice also reminds me of T. H. White's Once and Future King (Gawain reframed as White's Pellinore, for example), as well as Lewis Carroll's White Knight in Through the Looking Glass. It's as though Ishiguro is tracing out a line of influence.
I think that emphasis on bits and pieces ("Ishiguro shows us the world he's created in bits and pieces. We get glimpses through a mist, we're shown many different views of the same picture.") is interesting, particularly if you follow the argument that many SF readers are used to parsing a fictional society and assembling the story from bits and pieces. Though this leads to an unedifying counter-argument that would suggest fantasy readers aren't, which is not true, in my view. Maybe fantasy has a different emphasis, and is more like a chronicle, in that it records everything for you rather than laying out scant clues. In contrast I see The Buried Giant as being replete with clues that may or may not fit together.
(And I shall pause because I'm sure there was something I wanted to add, and rather in keeping with the novel, I just mislaid it.)
What (if anything) is distinctive and/or novel in the way Ishiguro approaches Arthurian myth?
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I suppose the most distinctive thing for me must be the absence of Arthur himself, but also the presence of his absence. He is a trace, embodied in Gawain's continued devotion to his lord, and also in the way people view him as embodying a better time, one that can't at this point be reclaimed. And yet at the same time I have the sense of Arthur's being as utterly unreal to the people in the story as he is to us now. He's already romanticised, and already part of narrative of national identity.
Molly Katz: I agree! That's very well said. It's interesting that you conceived of this as an experiment with space (i.e. absence), where for me, until reading your response, I conceived of it more in terms of time. I think both are really true to what Ishiguro is doing that's novel. So, viewed through the lens of experiments with time, this story does two things that I, at least, haven't seen before in Arthuriana.
The first, you've already mentioned: it's set when those who knew Arthur are still alive, but Arthur himself is dead. I was going to say that I've never seen any story set at this "point in the myth," but actually, the wrongness of that phrasing really shows, for me, what makes the The Buried Giant different from other stories in this tradition. This isn't a point in the myth at all. I'd go so far as to say that, from the perspective of the myth, the time period in which the novel is set doesn't exist.
Maureen, you said "[i]t seems to me, though, that Ishiguro is trying to do something else—not retelling, nor a filling in a gap, but maybe engaging in some sort of narrative expansion—what else might we do with these people, these ideas, if we decide to go off-piste with them?" Is this novel not filling in a gap? It almost seems to me like it is—I struggle to articulate why it wouldn't be—and yet I do agree with you. Perhaps gaps require a narrative tightness, a narrative coherence, upon which that new story is built. This feels more like an expansion. If I had to find a metaphor, I'd say Ishiguro is playing with an old piece of cloth, stretching it and pulling it out so that it's larger, differently shaped, more frayed. I'm still not sure, though. I hope others will take up the question of whether he's filling in a gap, and if not, why not.
The other thing The Buried Giant does with time, oddly, since I just talked about how the story seems to be stretching and expanding the myth, is to seemingly take Aristotle's claim that "tragedy endeavours, as far as possible, to confine itself to a single revolution of the sun" seriously. Most fiction I've read that takes up Arthurian myth is interested in long periods of time, in slow becomings, in tracing the course of lives. The duration of this story is remarkably short. Though it does span more than one day, it doesn't span many more. I'm not totally sure what what this short timespan does, but I like it. Perhaps it drives home the idea that so, so much history, so many stories are nested inside even a brief span of a few days. Thus what has happened in the past continues to matter and have import and meaning and weight. One does not have to chronicle fifty years to feel the narrative weight of half a century. Or perhaps it's because time is so short for our protagonists. They have so little time left, even at the start of the story.
Dan Hartland: It's the sign of an exciting book that a discussion like ours can so quickly proceed down so many fascinating—but competing—paths. I also think that this multiplicity is part of what Ishiguro is doing with his Arthuriana. Really, our only link with King Arthur in this novel—as Maureen points out, by the time The Buried Giant begins he is already to all intents and purposes a myth (and there's been a telescoping of time—can recent history ever be so rapidly mythologised in reality?—Ishiguro goes some way to suggesting that myth is what Arthur has always been)—is Gawain. I think it's important, actually, that it's not Lancelot or Merlin or even Guinevere. That our apparently bumbling, actually capable knight is the dimly-remembered-by-most Gawain, the cousin with the funny-sounding name. It plays to the novel's themes of memory and otherness, but also to the sense of an arm's-length connection with Arthuriana, a vague familiarity born, as Maureen points out, of study long ago.
We've been skirting the question of whether we think The Buried Giant is not fantasy, although it might share many of the genre's ur-texts. We think, I think, that it's trying to do different things with those sources—to revivify them in new ways. As Molly and Maureen's discussion suggests, this is part of the way "in dialogue with" doesn't quite work as a description of the novel's relationship to Tolkienian fantasy. The recent works this novel most put me in mind of—the ones I kept recalling as I read—are Simon Armitage's "translations" of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight and the alliterative Morte Arthure. Not necessarily because of their diction—although there is, in Armitage's vocabulary, a lot of the domesticity that Molly sees in the relatively shortened time spans of the novel, as compared to its epic forebears—but more because of their apparent goal: to re-engage modern readers with the Arthurian myth.
Arthuriana, of course, is polyglot. With The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go, Ishiguro has, as Maureen says, made some hay with teaching the bewildered English about Englishness; with The Buried Giant, he is of course looking at a cornerstone of English literature's very foundations. But he's also emphasising the split between Briton and Roman, throwing in Classical allusions, and writing Arthur as much in the French romance tradition as in the English heroic manner. Ishiguro's Arthur is both virtuous and villainous, mythical and historical, British and English. He is the start and end of English amnesia.
Eugène Vinaver famously argued that Thomas Malory, in uniting all those sources in new ways, and in focusing on a sort of interiority and a kind of narrative causality, created the modern mindset in English fiction. What I see as fresh in Ishiguro's treatment of Arthuriana is a newly post-modern approach to the material. Here is an Arthurian gumbo, a vital kind of reading of the medieval inheritance, which doesn't retell the same old lays, or recreate them entirely in the manner of fantasy, but reframes them in a variegated, energised way. In fact, if Maureen's right and The Buried Giant's reviewers are obsessed with its relevance, they have precisely missed where it is really located: in fresh tessellations of its sources.
Aishwarya Subramanian: As you all say, Arthur's absence is a pretty notable feature here—he's dead, and he's already been mythologised (it's interesting that he works as a shared myth for people who are forgetting their own histories). And yet, I'm not sure this is in itself a particularly new way of writing this set of myths. I grew up on 20th century Arthuriana that placed Arthur at its centre, and in my head the definitive version of the myth is still T. H. White. But if I think back to earlier than Malory, to Chrétien de Troyes and to Sir Gawain and the Green Knight, in a lot of the stories Arthur isn't really present except as a framing device or referent. (Which I suppose chimes well with our general agreement that, as Dan puts it, revivifying source texts is one of the things that this book is doing.) I think Arthur's relative absence from the larger body of work is part of what allows Arthuriana to be such a polyglot, multicultural (though I wince at that term in this context) thing; it's what enables this body of work to pull together stories from Welsh myth, from the French romance, from all over the place, and to group them together as part of a single mythos. I think Dan's right about The Buried Giant's approach to Arthuriana and why it's relevant, but I do think that Ishiguro's only emphasising something that has been fundamental to the tradition for a very long time now.
I don't think anyone's yet mentioned it, but The Buried Giant makes specific, repeated references to a particular event in the Arthurian corpus: the killing of the Saxon children. Beatrice in particular dwells on this, but Gawain also attempts to justify the event to himself, as well as to Axl. According to Malory (I think— all of the stories blur together in my head after a point), Arthur does order the slaughter of all children born at the same time as Mordred. It's not the same story, obviously, but I think there's an echo of it here. I don't remember what Malory makes of it, but T. H. White makes it central to Arthur's downfall, and obviously there are connections to be made, should you wish to make them, to both Biblical and Greek classical traditions here. Ishiguro's use of a similar incident to topple Gawain's idealised narrative of Arthur strikes me as a deliberate (and very clever) use of the source story.
Having said multiple times that we think Ishiguro's more interested in engaging with the possibilities of ur-texts than in engaging with what genre has made of them, though, I remain convinced that the early Gawain scenes, which reveal Gawain's protectiveness towards Querig, are the work of someone who has read and enjoyed the Sir Pellinore and the Questing Beast sections of The Once and Future King.
Ishiguro has said that he always feels the pull of the metaphorical landscape. How should we regard the landscape of The Buried Giant? Is it historical, metaphorical, literary? Something else altogether? To what extent is Ishiguro genuinely interested in the actual experience of Britons and Saxons in post-Roman Britain?
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I've been trying to decide how best to describe the landscape of The Buried Giant, though without a huge amount of success. Which itself might be indicative. There is no either/or about the landscape. In a way, I wonder if it isn't a personal landscape, not just for Ishiguro but for everyone who reads it, that varies according to the things they bring to it.
I thought initially that it might simply be a metaphorical landscape, and that it was being misread by reviewers who sought a historical landscape. But having read the novel, while I think the landscape is somehow all those things simultaneously, it's also something else I can't quite reach. It's like it's a landscape made out of bits of other people's ideas, from fiction set in that rough period, and later. The set-piece where Wistan sets fire to the tower at the monastery feels like it belongs to a fiction set later. Bizarrely, it mostly reminds me of one of Ellis Peters's Cadfael books, the one where Cadfael meets Olivier de Bretagne and realises that Bretagne is his son; there's a big sequence in which they are trapped in and escape from a tower, if my memory doesn't misserve me. And as I write that, I realise that it reminds me too of an old BBC dramatisation of Ivanhoe, from 1970 (I bet Ishiguro saw that too). Of course Ivanhoe is interesting because, again, it's about a point where English society is in flux, post Norman invasion.
None of which is very helpful, perhaps, but it does suggest that the landscape Ishiguro employs in The Buried Giant is not fixed.
Is the novel about Britons and Saxons in post-Roman Britain? In the same way that Red Shift is, I think, though without the claims to an attempt at historical accuracy that attend Red Shift. I think I could make an argument that it's about the way that Britons and Saxons have been portrayed in fiction, which might account too for the patchwork feel of it at times.
I am left with this feeling that the unidentified narrator is, at least sometimes, Rudyard Kipling, because the novel makes me think so much of Puck of Pook's Hill and Rewards and Fairies.
Dan Hartland: It's hard to add much to Maureen's thoughts here. I, too, felt the landscape of the novel to be a patchwork of not necessarily contiguous locations. Can the bizarre dungeon in which the protagonists kill the dog-monsters really be said to belong to the same world as the Saxon village? The Saxon and British villages resemble nothing so much as Bree and Hobbiton, respectively. So what do we make of the vaguely enchanted woods in which we first encounter Gawain? These proceed more clearly from an older, weirder literature. As Maureen says, there is a sense here of throwing every stripe of the English landscape at the wall, and creating a new, orthogonal, layered landscape in the process. (In this way, Ishiguro seeks to contain what Robert Macfarlane has conveniently recently described as the "eeriness" of the English countryside.)
This polyphony extends even to the purpose of the novel's landscapes. In some cases, it's impossible not to read some elements as almost purely metaphorical: I found the final scene of the novel, in which Axl comes to terms with allowing Beatrice to cross to the island alone, moving in the extreme. The whole passage straightforwardly reads like a parable about death. Indeed, the same is true of the exchange in which we first hear of the island and the boatmen who take people to it. Yet that exchange takes place within a ruined villa described in avowedly historicist terms, the character and condition of which anchor the characters rather clearly in post-Roman Britain.
The Buried Giant is littered with this sort of valence, not least in its title: odd that reviewers have focused on the book's literal ogres when its title refers to a metaphorical monster. This is typical of a work which, to borrow a perhaps over-used conceit of SFnal criticism, consistently refuses to collapse its wave-form. It is a novel that seeks to hold multiple readings, multiple interpretations and multiple traditions in balance. In this, it is anti-literalist, but not, I think, purely allegorical at any point. This is so tricky a task to pull off that, in half-hearted defense of its lukewarm reviews, I can see how a reader might conclude that there is little meaning behind all the novel's hemmings and hawings: the novel so steadfastly refuses to collapse into a single reading that it's possible to read this balancing as vagueness. But I note that, not entirely deliberately, I've repeatedly used words in these paragraphs that point to deliberation: avowed, consistent, steadfast. This is a novel that indeed knows what it's doing.
There's that sequence early on in which Beatrice and Axl walk through a landscape which they believe holds a variety of dangers, of unknowns: walking single-file, calling backwards and forwards to each other, checking the horizon and the peripheries . . . there's something in that, I think, about how Ishiguro perceives navigation. What do we make of that?
Aishwarya Subramanian: To answer the last part of this question first, I don't think The Buried Giant is particularly interested in the actual historical experience of those who would have inhabited this landscape—but it is interested in the idea of history:
An old burial ground . . . I dare say, sir, our whole country is this way. A fine green valley. A pleasant copse in the springtime. Dig its soil, and not far beneath the daisies and buttercups come the dead. . . . Beneath our soil lie the remains of old slaughter. (p. 186)
This is relevant to the ways in which the landscape of Britain has been constructed historically, which is something we've already touched on in this discussion, but also to the extent to which history is embedded in the landscape, buried (of course) beneath the surface. And specifically histories of violence, and we're back again to memory and national narratives.
And "history" is literary history as well, and I like Maureen's description of the landscape as a sort of patchwork of the settings of other historical fiction. I think that Macfarlane piece which Dan links to feels very appropriate here, and that Ishiguro is invoking a lot of the literature that it's drawing on. One of the things that struck me about The Buried Giant was the occasional presence of a narrator who is aware of the reader, and aware of the sort of thing with which this reader might be familiar. Quite early on, as Axl and Beatrice reach the Saxon village, we're told that it "would have been something more familiar to you as a 'village' than Axl and Beatrice's warren" (my emphasis, and it was more familiar to me. Described as if from a height, it sounded like the village where Asterix and Obelix live). I think Maureen's invocation of Puck of Pook's Hill in connection with this narrator is really interesting, because one of the things that Puck does is collapse time periods, and in so doing Puck creates a sense of history (and, again, a national story).
It is possible, at points, to read this as a purely metaphorical landscape—I'd go a step further than Dan and suggest that one could read the whole of the novel as a story about aging and dying. You'd lose a lot of the other things the novel's doing, but it would still be a coherent reading. Whether anyone would want to do that (perhaps the critics who were struggling to make sense of it, but we've agreed not to talk about them anymore) is a different matter, obviously; as Dan says, this is a novel that seems consciously to be sustaining multiple readings. Which is itself a reflection on how we might read its landscape(s).
Molly Katz: I too love Maureen's description of the landscape as a patchwork of other fictional landscapes, and agree completely that it is one. But to me it doesn't feel like a patchwork, and I think that's thanks to that odd (Kipling-esque?) narrative voice that Aisha draws our attention back to. Our narrator speaks with an authority that elides ruptures and stitches. Like Dan, I find myself drawn to the passage in which Beatrice and Axl navigate around the literal "buried giant," though I don't really have any answers for you, Dan, as to what this passage might mean for Ishiguro's view of navigation. What strikes me is the language, there:
This too might surprise you, it seeming more natural for the man to go first into potentially hazardous terrain, and sure enough, in woodland or where there was the possibility of wolves or bears, they would switch positions without discussion.
The narrator's awareness not only of an audience, but of an audience's expectations ("This too might surprise you"), allows him (or her, though I feel that the narrator speaks with the voice of someone entirely at the center, rather than the margins of history) to speak with authority. And that authority makes this patchwork landscape look like something whole, real, and historically accurate. We seem to have access to a real history, a true history, a history untarnished by the complex processes of stitching together various stories and ideas. A history, in short, that post-modern approaches to knowledge deem entirely a fantasy.
I'll admit, I'm easily swayed by rhetoric and authority, and even after finishing the novel, I found myself taken in by our narrator in many respects. As someone who doesn't know a great deal about how post-Roman Britons and Saxons actually lived, I found myself thinking that surely the description of Beatrice and Axl's Hobbit-esque home must be based on the historical record, must go back to a source that predates Tolkien. But is it really? I think I've been played. The world these characters inhabit seems to be the world that all those other literary texts are drawing on (and imperfectly representing), not a world drawing on other literary texts. Even the various encounters with uncanny sights—the aspect of the story the most critics have praised—generally seem to occur because, for a moment, we see things through Axl's imperfect eyes. We then see the "real" object. Take, for example, the wonderfully horrifying first sight of an ogre's body:
Axl saw what appeared to be the head of a thick-necked creature severed just below the throat. Dark curls of hair hung down from the crown to frame an eerily featureless face: where the eyes, nose and mouth should have been there was only pimpled flesh, like that of a goose, with a few tufts of down-like hair on the cheeks. A growl escaped the crowd and Axl felt it cower back. Only then did he realise that what they were looking at was not a head at all, but a section of the shoulder and upper arm of some abnormally large, human-like creature.
I don't think the way this uncanny vision shifts into a far less terrible image takes the eeriness out of England (to again glance at your idea without really answering it, Dan), but what it does do for me is create a sense of an objective, clear-sighted vision. We don't feel lost in the subjective maze of Axl's mind anymore. We feel we've arrived at the truth.
The patchwork quality of the landscape, for me, is always concealed by the narrator's voice. And yet the themes of the story, which for me include broken contracts, betrayals, forgetting, and myth-making, call the world's seeming-realness deeply into question. And I don't think that's an accident, on Ishiguro's part. I think the story deliberately puts this real-seeming landscape in tension with a story that explicitly challenges the process of "making history."
Does Merlin's mist, which does not discriminate between different kinds of memory and forgetting, encourage us to elide real differences between different types of memory and the way they're maintained or suppressed?
Maureen Kincaid Speller: Brilliant question (I can say that—I didn't propose it), and complicated, too.
I was reading Ian Buruma in the Guardian yesterday, talking about Günter Grass, the collective amnesia of postwar Germany,and the ways in which Grass's fiction set out to challenge that amnesia.
Admittedly, Grass's own approach to remembering and forgetting is rather complex—Buruma comments at one point that if Grass had mentioned having been in the SS sooner, it would have been absorbed and accepted by now, rather than having come as a shock when he finally did mention it.
Then again, given Buruma's other comments, we might wonder if Grass deliberately recalled it when he did, as if to puncture an accepting complacency that had developed.
But I think what I'm trying to get at here is Buruma's apparent distinction between a personal amnesia and a collective amnesia, and how it's somehow permissible for fiction to continue to discuss the latter, while personal memoir seems to have some sort of cut-off point that Grass managed to overstep by finally talking about his membership in the SS, so long after the event, rather than continuing to discreetly "forget."
And I'm not sure where that takes me with regard to The Buried Giant, other than that it seems to point towards some sorts of "forgetting then remembering" being more acceptable than others, and seems to suggest that remembering can become institutionalised, or formalised in certain ways that in themselves become a form of forgetting, in that they shape the remembering in a certain way. (I'm reminded here of something I read by a Canadian native theorist, criticising government-generated efforts to remember, which effectively become a means of self-exoneration and forgetting.)
I wonder if Ishiguro is suggesting in The Buried Giant that collective amnesia brings with it a personal cost: the need to forget on a national level denies personal memory.
Dan Hartland: I think Grass is a really interesting—and timely—reference point for The Buried Giant, because Ishiguro is so obviously interested in the hypocrisy of memory (and of forgetting), but also in its actualising potential, its weird healing power. I'm not entirely sure that the novel, so sceptical of the questing and heroic modes in general, considers Wistan's own putatively heroic goal of slaying Querig as a Good Thing—it will lead to such evil. And yet the novel also seems invested in the idea that avoiding evil at the cost of denial and injustice is itself a sort of sin. The novel's narrator appears to be located at some future distance from its events, which implies that the land survives its remembering, and the shocks are, eventually, absorbed.
I think this tension, though, isn't quite resolved by the novel. As Maureen says, it's most obvious in the faultline between personal and cultural memory. Because the heart of the book is so obviously with Beatrice and Axl, the reader can find herself unambiguously rooting for their memories to be restored, almost without regard for the effects this will have on their country—because those effects are necessarily more abstract and distant. I'm not sure the novel ever really resolves this difficulty, and perhaps that's deliberate; but in this way, perhaps, memory is The Buried Giant's one weakness. Although Ishiguro includes dialogue to explain why the amnesia is weakening as his story begins, I found myself plagued by almost procedural questions: would Querig's breath ever necessarily have forced short-term memory loss of the sort we see at the novel's opening (the red-headed woman), or of the sort that Axl and Beatrice experience in regard to their son? I understand this sub-plot is meant to stand for the manner in which national tragedies split families, but still—what is the mechanism of that breath?
Material questions such as this might seem out of place when considering The Buried Giant, but at the same time it's hard not to stop and ponder them just a little. He always takes the easiest shots, but John Crace's digested read gets to the heart of this issue:
"That's the trouble with this mist sent to us by Querig the Queer She-Dragon, Princess—it makes us forget everything."
"Does it? How would you know?"
"I seem to remember, though, Princess, that we might have once had a son."
"I'll take your word for it. Shall we go and look for him?"
The rest of his piece is woefully narrow-minded on the subject of the book (although that can seem the point of these waspish digested reads); but the manner in which memory is simultaneously fundamental to The Buried Giant and yet not quite fully thought-through did seem, to me at least, to weaken the overall super-structure just a little. As Maureen says, memory is complex and it comes in many varieties. I know what variety The Buried Giant is interested in, but I'm less certain it's fully aware of the others and how they might all interact.
Maureen Kincaid Speller: I suppose we could argue that the act of narration is itself a kind of remembering (or memorialising) and (selective) forgetting too. Is Ishiguro suggesting that the act of writing is also a form of elision?
I've puzzled over that "faultline between personal and cultural memory" on and off, at times coming to the conclusion that one just has to run with it, so to speak.
It seems to me that on the novel's personal level, Ishiguro is also grappling with the question of whether relationships work through forgetting as well as through remembering, and the ways in which some families find it works better to forget. I notice my own family has a way of "forgetting" about things it doesn't like, or else of telling itself stories about situations that I think are inaccurate. But challenging these stories would cause more problems than simply letting them pass. It's as though there's a comfort to be derived from telling the story that lies somewhere between simply not telling it or else baring all, a half-acknowledgement that something has happened while eliding the detail. Axl and Beatrice have all sorts of negotiations around things they don't want to speak about, like their son's death and Beatrice's liaison. So forgetting isn't necessarily forgetting, so much as telling a story of forgetting. A sort of forgetting in plain sight, so to speak.
Molly Katz: Questions the novel seems to me to be interested in:
- Why we want to remember
- Why we want to forget
- The price of forgetting
- the price of remembering
- How different life actually is when we remember versus when we forget
Questions the novel does not seem to me to be interested in:
- How we forget, personally and culturally
- How we remember, personally and culturally
So, essentially, I agree with Maureen and Dan.
There isn't space for me to explore all of ways in which Ishiguro treats the questions I do think he's interested in, but I will say that one of my favorite surprises in this story is that when Axl's memories return, there is no glorious rush, no sudden healing. The memories are there, and his world is different—subtly, quietly different, in a way that matters to the story and to him, but which does not immediately remake his world.
For me, perhaps the most baffling, tricky, unruly passage in the entire novel is this one:
Some of you will have fine monuments by which the living may remember the evil done to you. Some of you will have only crude wooden crosses or painted rocks, while yet others of you must remain hidden in the shadows of history. You are in any case part of an ancient procession, and so it is always possible the giant's cairn was erected to mark the site of some such tragedy long ago when young innocents were slaughtered in war. This aside, it is not easy to think of reasons for its standing. One can see why on lower ground our ancestors might have wished to commemorate a victory or a king. But why stack heavy stones to above a man's height in so high and remote a place as this?
I found this passage difficult even before I really paid attention to the line, "some of you will have only crude wooden crosses or painted rocks." I feel that with that line, our sense of whom this story is addressed to unravels perplexingly.
But beyond that, I think that in this passage Ishiguro is showing us his refusal to draw seemingly crucial distinctions between different mechanisms of memory.
Some of you will have fine monuments by which the living may remember the evil done to you.
The phrase is so simple that it becomes complex. What is a "fine monument"? I'd suggest that the vagueness of the phrase calls the whole premise of this list—the premise that one might successfully list monuments in decreasing order of effectiveness—into question. And this list to me expresses a strong disinterest in exploring the impact of specific mechanisms for cultural remembering and forgetting.
Aishwarya Subramanian: I don't really know how I feel about this one. The past year or so has been a particularly good time to think about the ways in which institutionalised remembering is also a form of forgetting, for those of us who've been watching the form the WWI narrative has been taking. And I think Maureen's right, both in the distinctions she makes between personal and collective memory/forgetting and in the connection she draws between them at the end. I'm curious as to how The Buried Giant might work in combination with Howard Jacobson's J, which I haven't read, and which seems to be more focused on the collective rather than the individual sense of memory. I think it's important that we're constantly brought back to Axl and Beatrice, and what Maureen describes as the personal cost of that loss to them.
I also want to think about genre (again, sorry!) and our expectations of what sorts of questions particular sorts of books address (in part because Molly's set of questions for The Buried Giant feels like a very useful way to think about this book). This is going to be only partially thought out and full of generalisations, but: Literary fiction, or at least a particular idea of it (caveats! So many caveats) often seems to come back to questions of personal history, loss, nostalgia, and often aging. Literary fantasy often seems to use the genre as pure allegory. (Core? Genre?) Fantasy likes its worldbuilding to be consistent.
The Buried Giant is either all of these things or none of them. It is, fundamentally, about an old white man and his memories (I suspect Ishiguro realises this and is amused by it). It is readable as an allegory for national histories of violence. Partly as a result, as Dan shows, its attitudes towards memory (which, for me, do a kind of world building, as does Ishiguro's insistence on historically accurate monsters) aren't entirely internally consistent. As we've already discussed, the book does address a reader and that reader's expectations of fiction set in the past. I think it's reasonable to suggest that it also addresses the different expectations we have of different sorts of fiction. And historical fiction too is a kind of forgetting.
For further discussion:
- To what extent does the story build towards and prepare us for its ending? To what extent does the ending come as a surprise? What else might Ishiguro have done with those last pages? What would it have done to the story for the boatman to have taken Beatrice and Axl to the island together? What would it have done to the story to end with the resumption of hostilities between Saxons and Britons?
- What function does Gawain serve in the novel? Why include so familiar a figure at all?
- Does the relationship of and between Beatrice and Axl change during the course of the novel?
- It is unusual for Ishiguro to deviate from a single perspective in a novel. How well does he balance the various viewpoints he uses here, and why does he choose to change the POV at all?
- Ishiguro has often half-joked that he writes the same novel again and again. How and where does The Buried Giant fit in his wider oeuvre?
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