Many conversations I’m having at the moment—you, too, probably—include a preamble that tries to acknowledge the current situation: “It feels, I don’t know, unreal? Like a dream, or a nightmare. I can’t quite grasp the enormity of it. I keep expecting to wake up and find that normality has resumed.” Meanwhile my actual sleep tends to feature classic anxiety dreams—of being lost, delayed, imperiled, accidentally in the wrong place or at the wrong time, dropped into a context both familiar and alien—that cause an abrupt awakening in the small hours. Displacing the bewilderment of the dream with waking reality is, obviously, not much of a relief. Especially if attempted via my usual method of scrolling Twitter.
Instead, I’ve been rereading a novel that captures the peculiar landscape of dreams with an accuracy few other authors have come close to: Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Unconsoled. When I first read it, soon after it came out in 1995, I was at first intimidated (not least by its 500+ pages), then progressively awed but also perplexed by Ishiguro’s flagrant jettisoning of fiction’s rules. Isn’t it cheating, for instance, to let your first person narrator access the inner life of whomever he meets? Now, though, with a further quarter-century of anxiety dreams behind me, and with life as we know it splintering and dislocating before our eyes, I found myself submitting utterly to the novel’s uncanny, déjà vu–steeped spell.
Mr. Ryder, an English pianist of international renown, has arrived at a hotel in a small Central European city, where he is to give a recital at an important concert. His visit has high stakes for the city, which is suffering a loss of civic morale due, somehow, to the decline of the local classical music scene. A once-distinguished conductor, Mr. Brodsky, has become a pitiful alcoholic; a cellist, Mr. Christoff, has fallen calamitously out of favor. There is, Ryder is told, a “spiral of misery gaining ever greater momentum at the heart of our community.” But as he is repeatedly reminded, his recital—and his very presence—will restore the city’s reputation and the self-esteem of the populace. Everyone he encounters is obsequious and needy in equal measure, insisting between blandishments that he bestow random favors and perform small services. It all conspires to derail the packed timetable of activities planned for his two-day stay. He keeps emphasizing, with mounting impatience but to no avail, “I have a particularly tight schedule…”
To make matters worse, Ryder cannot recall the details of his schedule, nor where his copy of it might be. All he knows is that the concert, on which so much depends, is to take place on his final evening. As successive obstacles threaten his fulfillment of his principal obligation, and as the precious hours tick away, he is deprived of food, sleep, and crucial preparation for the big night. While it is harrowing to read, the feeling elicited is not so much suspense—clearly, a triumphant conclusion is not on the cards—as a rare and heady familiarity.
All the classic nocturnal manifestations of a tense mind are here. Ryder realizes, to his horror, that he hasn’t practiced for the concert. He hasn’t even chosen which piece to perform! But he is hampered in doing so by encounters with strangers who are also old friends from school, or with whom he shares a murkier yet tangled past. Situations outside his purview are suddenly his absolute responsibility, and guilt trips abound. When he needs to correct a critical misunderstanding, he tries desperately to speak, but only grunts emerge. Inevitably, the normal laws of time and space are in abeyance. A formal dinner a long drive away turns out, when Ryder tries later to leave the event, to be taking place in the atrium of his hotel. His hotel room, it dawns on him, “was the very room that had served as my bedroom during the two years my parents and I had lived at my aunt’s house on the borders of England and Wales.”
Within the anarchic playing out of dream logic, Ishiguro weaves several strands of conventional plot that, as they deepen and build, withstand the confusion of Ryder’s perspective. The conductor, Mr. Brodsky, is trying to affect a reconciliation with his long-estranged former love. An elderly hotel porter, Gustav, hopes to mend his strained relationship with his daughter, Sophie. The hotel manager and concert organizer, Mr. Hoffmann, wants to win the respect of his disappointed wife. And their son, Stephan, plans to heal unspoken family rifts by displaying his own underestimated gifts as a pianist at the concert.
Each figure in a dream, the theory goes, represents an aspect of ourselves. As Ishiguro has acknowledged, this is true of Ryder, whose excellence as a musician grew from a longing to reconcile his warring parents. In his subconscious, as in all of ours, the terror of failure, rejection, and humiliation lives on, not to be mollified by any level of worldly success. Achievement and respectability or “duty,” Ishiguro tells us throughout his fiction, are unworthy substitutes for, and often impediments to, the intimacies that give life true meaning. The city in The Unconsoled won’t cure its malaise by pursuing cultural prestige, Ryder cannot redeem his unhappy childhood by giving the best performance of his career, and the other characters are misguided to view living up to their imagined potential, to others’ elusive expectations, as the key to deserving love.
Ishiguro, who has written seven novels and was made a Nobel Laureate in 2017, maintains no fidelity in his body of work to any historical era, geographical setting, or type of protagonist in terms of age, gender, or class. What does recur is his exquisitely attuned rendering of human fragility, the tragedy of self-deceit, and the almost unbearable poignancy in people trying, despite setbacks and injured pride, to get things right. The Unconsoled, his fourth novel, is no exception. Yet on publication it was dismissed, more often than not, as an ill-advised departure, an overlong flight of fancy. “The short attention span of readers and critics in the electronic age,” lamented Anita Brookner, who loved it, “was never more amply demonstrated.” Perhaps in this time of unprecedented mass isolation, readers will have the time and the mindset to appreciate Ishiguro’s unorthodox inquiry into the costs of emotional alienation. Poor Mr. Brodsky, brought to rock bottom and warned he is headed for a dark and lonely place, now speaks for all too many of us: “I don’t want to go, Ryder … I don’t want to go.”
Emma Garman has written about books and culture for Lapham’s Quarterly Roundtable, Longreads, Newsweek, The Daily Beast, Salon, The Awl, Words without Borders, and other publications. Read her Feminize Your Canon column for The Paris Review Daily here.