Browsing the Dickens shelf of Waterstones after my graduation in June, a certain question inevitably posed itself. Just how did such an enthusiast of Victorian literature get through an English degree without once reading Great Expectations (1861)? A long month later, my head plunged into the novel intent on rectifying the situation, another more unexpected question emerged. I felt slightly cheated and taken aback. Are the rumours really true, that three years of studying literature have forever marred my enjoyment of books? Or, I asked myself more reluctantly, have I simply come across a more underwhelming Dickens tale than usual? Against all the odds, apparently the problem was the latter.
It’s the classic Victorian Bildungsroman (or ‘coming of age’ story). Pip, the first-person narrator, recounts the ‘great expectations’ of his youth as he grows from an illiterate, orphaned boy of seven to a high-society gentleman of London. Parting from his dear friend Joe (undoubtedly one of the most bittersweet relationships in literature), Pip’s memoirs become tainted with the bitter regret of a happy world abandoned in the pursuit of a hollow, unfulfilled dream. In his quest for fortune, he turns his back on his childhood friendships, and after the death of the mysterious benefactor who facilitated his social rise, his high hopes for life are deflated without ever coming to fruition. Pip, for all his inherent goodness and sympathetic nature, becomes a sorry pawn in Dickens’ greater exploration of contemporary social hierarchy.
The novel is a paint palette of colourful characters – the crazy Miss Havisham, the compelling Mr Jaggers and the cold Estella, Pip’s love interest – but it ultimately dissipates into a vague puddle of grey. Siding against the conventional ‘happily ever after’, a brave move, Dickens yet lacks the daring to implement an appropriately melancholy climax. He revised his work last minute to opt for something of a non-ending between Pip and Estella, robbing this potential classic of a proper closure. It’s a shame, given the consistent psychological richness with which Dickens shapes and develops the humanely flawed Pip. Don’t trust a title – Bleak House was better. ***
Fastforward a century into the postmodern world, and literature seems to abide by a new golden rule – that art must defy interpretation. While authors can rarely pull this off without an awkward, self-conscious writing that sacrifices the traditional intrigue of plot, Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled (1995) excels and eludes masterfully. The novel might best be described as the heavily solipsistic and phantasmagorical worldview of its narrator, Ryder, an internationally-renowned pianist. After arriving for a concert in an unspecified European city – a perfectly inconspicuous event – we soon come to discover the bizarre and unearthly depiction of Ryder’s own reality. He leads us on a surreal journey where childhood friends pop up at the side of the street, his hotel room is also his childhood bedroom, and the porter’s daughter turns out to be his wife.
Cyclical as the narrative may be, Ishiguro’s writing is tantalising. Ryder is repeatedly distracted from completing his mysterious ‘schedule’ as he stumbles into endless, one-sided encounters where he says nothing. The novel has the bizarre, often disconcerting texture of a nightmarish vision, and this takes on a variously dark and comic quality. The author himself admitted to a particular interest in ‘the language of dream’ in The Unconsoled; it seems a fitting experimental style for an author who is so adept at exposing the self-deceptions, fears and regrets of his central narrators. Saying that, the novel’s more than just a fanciful dream, and Ryder’s more than just an unreliable narrator. Just when you think you’ve got a grasp on the direction of this quirky narrative, Ishiguro pulls the rug from under your feet again. It’s almost tongue-in-cheek; the blurb on most editions of the novel refers to its ‘wicked satire on the cult of art’, and the story is certainly innovative enough to destabilise the status quo of literature. Nevertheless, it somehow manages to retain a peculiarly coherent shape.
The Unconsoled is a minefield of individual accomplishments. Among those, I don’t think I’ve come across a literary work that builds such a richly complex mental landscape of such a strangely unintrospective narrator. Indeed, there is a pervading sense that the action of the novel is somehow taking place in the psychological realm of the narrator’s mind. The abstract quality of the narrative strikes me as the delusional projections of a psyche trying to console itself against something (and of course, the title must be referring to something).
‘Who is Ryder?’ – the book teases us with that question, and never answers it. But whatever we choose to deduce, this cannot fail to be a memorable read – it’s been at the top of my ‘recommended’ list ever since. Ishiguro’s best. *****