More than a quarter of the Nobel prizes in literature awarded since 1901 have gone to authors writing in English. But English is not the mother tongue of all of them. Kazuo Ishiguro is the fourth Nobel prize winner in literature who writes in English but whose mother tongue isn’t English.
He shares the distinction with VS Naipaul, who won the prize in 2000, Wole Soyinka, who won in 1986, and the 1987 winner Joseph Brodsky, who died in 1996 at the age of 55.
Unlike them, Ishiguro grew up in Britain. He was only five years old when his family moved from Japan to England. Soyinka, from Nigeria, and Naipaul, from Trinidad, were older when they came to Britain for university studies. Naipaul went to Oxford, Soyinka to Leeds. Brodsky was older still, in his early 30s, when he settled in America after being expelled from Russia in 1972.
Ishiguro graduated from the University of Kent and then did his Master’s in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. East Anglia is famous for its creative writing programme, which has produced other notable writers such as Ian McEwan and Ann Enright, both of them Booker prize winners. But Ishiguro is the first writer from East Anglia to win the Nobel.
Nobel prizes in literature, physics, chemistry, medicine and for peace have been awarded since 1901. The economics prize is newer, awarded since 1969.
In all, 110 Nobel prizes have been awarded in literature since 1901. There were no prizes on seven occasions – in 1914, 1918, 1935, 1940, 1941, 1942, and 1943.
Nobel prize winners writing in English
More than a quarter of the 110 Nobel prizes in literature have gone to English-language writers. Here is the list of 30 English language writers who have won the Nobel Prize.
1. Kazuo Ishiguro 2017
2. Bob Dylan 2016
3. Alice Munro 2013
4. Doris Lessing 2007
5. Harold Pinter 2005
6. John M Coetzee 2003
7. VS Naipaul 2000
8. Seamus Heaney 1995
9. Tony Morrison 1993
10. Derek Walcott 1992
11. Nadine Gordimer 1991
12. Joseph Brodsky 1987
13. Wole Soyinka 1986
14. William Golding 1983
15. Saul Bellow 1976
16. Patrick White 1973
17. Samuel Beckett 1969
18. John Steinbeck 1962
19. Ernest Hemingway 1954
20. Winston Churchill 1953
21. Bertrand Russell 1950
22. William Faulkner 1949
23. TS Eliot 1948
24. Pearl Buck 1938
25. Eugene O’Neill 1936
26. John Galsworthy 1932
27. Sinclair Lewis 1930
28. Bernard Shaw 1925
29. WB Yeats 1923
30. Rudyard Kipling 1907
The Remains of the Day
The New Yorker book critic James Wood says he was surprised Ishiguro won the Nobel prize. But he adds The Remains of the Day was “an almost perfect novel”. That was the book that made Ishiguro famous, It won the 1989 Booker prize and was made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.
It is a touching story about an English butler named Stevens who comes to realise that the lord he loyally served was a foolish man and that he cannot get back the woman with whom he could have had a happy life because she is now married to someone else.
Set in Britain after the Second World War, recalling even earlier times – before the war broke out – The Remains of the Day evokes a vanished order of lords and butlers and great houses. And it was written by a Japanese immigrant. Dwight Garner makes that point in the New York Times. “It escaped no one’s notice that an immigrant to England had written the most moving, witty, ironic and British book of its time.”
The Remains of the Day is a deeply moving novel, which can be even better appreciated when reread.
Ishiguro has published four more novels since then: The Uncensored (1995), When We Were Orphans (2000), Never Let Me Go (2005), which was also made into a film, and The Buried Giant (2015). The Remains of the Day was his third novel, after A Pale View of Hills (1982) and An Artist of the Floating World (1986).
Ishiguro wrote The Remains of the Day in four weeks. He recalled that experience in the Guardian in 2014. It was the summer of 1987, barely a year after he got married to Lorna.
“I was then 32 years old, and we’d recently moved into a house in Sydenham, south London, where for the first time in my life I had a dedicated study. (I’d written my first two novels at the dining table.) It was actually a kind of large cupboard on the half-landing and lacked a door, but I was thrilled to have a space where I could spread my papers around as I wished and not have to clear them away at the end of each day. I stuck up charts and notes all over the peeling walls and got down to writing,” he wrote. “This, fundamentally, was how The Remains of the Day was written.”
“I wrote free-hand, not caring about the style or if something I wrote in the afternoon contradicted something I’d established in the story that morning. The priority was simply to get the ideas surfacing and growing. Awful sentences, hideous dialogue, scenes that went nowhere – I let them remain and ploughed on,” he recalled.
“I kept it up for the four weeks, and at the end of it I had more or less the entire novel down: though of course a lot more time would be required to write it all up properly,” he added.
“When Kazuo Ishiguro started to write fiction, he wasn’t steeped in literature. He said that he had not read very much at all. His distinctive style grew out of a desire to write the cleanest sentence possible, line by line; he has spoken of a wish simply for readers to understand his work,” says The Economist.
“Above all, Mr Ishiguro is a writer of deceptive simplicity. The language he uses seems clear as water, and yet what marks out his work is his ability to evoke the disturbing depths of human experience, our fallibility and willingness to deceive ourselves with stories. In a world where ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ have dangerous currency, Mr Ishiguro’s ability to see beneath the surface makes him a Nobel winner perfectly suited to these shifting and treacherous times.”