Kazuo Ishiguro writes prose that appears to be doing nothing at all. At the end, though, you close one of his books gingerly, rub your eyes and stare into the middle-air for who can say how long. The “emotional force” that won him the Nobel Prize for Literature is achieved through that very stiffness of language. It is the language of narrators who are in denial about something. As his publishers trail his first post-Prize novel — expect it, and perhaps a film, next year — we can only salute this cradle-to-grave devotee of his craft.
Except that he is no such thing. Writing is Ishiguro’s fallback career. He wanted to be a musician but his demo tapes failed to make 1970s A&R men put down their tightly rolled fivers. He still dabbles and two of his richest books — The Unconsoled, Nocturnes — have a theme of blocked musical talent. The one fault that critics find with him is a certain bloodlessness, as though the dry prose is less a trick than the natural register of a man who would rather be doing something else.
The achievement of greatness without passion: it seems so fanciful. But then I think of Shane Warne, the best cricketer of my lifetime, who pined for a career in Australian Rules football. Cricket was the substitute. “He just doesn’t seem that into it,” wrote the academic David Runciman, in an unlikely look at Warne’s memoirs for the London Review of Books last year. (Headline, “Fat Bastard”.)
Or I think of the consistency with which politicians who seem able to walk away from their trade outperform those who crave it too conspicuously. Tony Blair over Gordon Brown. David Cameron over George Osborne. Various people over Hillary Clinton.
No generation has been on the receiving end of as much life advice as today’s young. The most inane of it is that success depends on a sense of calling or vocation. “The only way to do great work is to love what you do,” said Steve Jobs, in a line that would be harmlessly trite if the credulous did not have eyes to read it. What makes it so insidious is that it rings intuitively true: high performance stems from work, and work calls on our reserves of motivation.
It is just that the world spoils us with examples of people who excel at things they don’t love or even like. The cruellest explanation is that underlying talent determines most outcomes. Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule fudges why two people who clock up that much practice-time will have divergent careers.
It is fair to go yet further and say that indifference itself is the advantage. It allows for detached self-analysis. It staves off the ruinous tension that comes from caring too much. (Warne sort of lolloped on to the grass.) In business, politics and other collective endeavours, it allows one to radiate calm to anxious subordinates. It is almost the definition of leaderliness. And without going full Zen, in private life — the making of friends, the attraction of partners — a measure of insouciance, a lack of attachment to the outcome, trumps bushy-tailed keenness.
Janan Ganesh will be among the speakers at the upcoming FTWeekend Festival, which goes digital this year. Tune in on Sept 3-5 for an online extravaganza of big debates, specially commissioned live performances and more. For more information and to purchase a festival pass visit: ftweekendfestival.com
Graham Greene said that a good writer must have a “splinter of ice in the heart”. Sure enough, in my own trade, some of the worst work — charmless, adverbial — is from “campaigning” journalists, not the jaundiced hacks. If Greene erred, it was only in the narrowness of his case for detachment.
The truth is that anyone who is good at anything is liable to have the splinter. The Jobsian idea of success as something that is always and forever the product of enthusiasm is resilient hokum. It does not allow for life-saving doctors who were all but press-ganged into their careers by familial expectation. It does not allow for conscientious parents who would rather not have had children.
And it is stumped by great art in a second-choice field. “There was another life that I might have had,” said Ishiguro once, “but I am having this one.” The record suggests that he meant his departure from Japan at
the age of five. But the line also reads like an allusion to the music he never made, albeit an unconscious one, like something one of his characters might say.
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