Kazuo Ishiguro and Max Frisch: Bending Facts in Unreliable and Unnatural Narration

by Zuzana Fonioková (Author)
©2015 Thesis 268 Pages


Since the late 1990s unreliable narration has garnered popularity in narrative theory and has sparked a lively debate among scholars. This book traces the theoretical discussions surrounding narrative unreliability and examines the relationship of unreliable narration to antimimetic techniques of portraying self-deception. Standing on the border between classical and postclassical narratology, the study analyses Kazuo Ishiguro’s and Max Frisch’s innovative narrative strategies, offering new perspectives on their œuvre and on unreliable narration as a narratological concept. A comparison of the methods Ishiguro and Frisch employ to explore the psychology of their narrators reveals a fascinating parallel in their development as novelists.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Table of Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Introduction
  • Part One: Establishing Fictional Facts
  • 1.1 Bending Facts in Unreliable Narration
  • 1.1.1 Potential Textual Signals of Unreliable Narration
  • 1.1.2 Types of Unreliable Narration
  • 1.2 Delineating the Borders of Unreliable Narration: Possible-World Theory and World-Constructing Homodiegetic Narrators
  • 1.3 Relevant Philosophical, Psychoanalytical, and Psychological Theories and Concepts
  • Part Two: The Retold and Relived Identities of Kazuo Ishiguro’s Narrators
  • 2.1 The Distorted Self-Portrait: Unreliable Narration in An Artist of the Floating World
  • 2.2 The Contagious Wound: Unnatural Narration in The Unconsoled
  • 2.3 The Dream Come (Almost) True: Unreliable and Unnatural Narration in When We Were Orphans
  • Part Three: The Invented Identities of Max Frisch’s Narrators in Comparative Perspective
  • 3.1 The Guided Coincidence: Unreliable Narration in Homo faber
  • 3.1.1 Homo faber and Ishiguro’s novels
  • 3.2 The Man without a Past: Two Levels of Potential Narrative Unreliability in Stiller
  • 3.2.1 Stiller and Ishiguro’s novels
  • 3.3 The Search for a Story: The Narration of Possibilities in Mein Name sei Gantenbein
  • 3.3.1 Gantenbein and Ishiguro’s Novels
  • Conclusion
  • Works Cited

← 6 | 7 → Acknowledgements

The extensive research that went into this book would not have been possible without my academic stays in Freiburg (in 2007 and 2008) and Zurich (2008–2009), funded by the government of Baden-Wurttemberg, the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), and the Swiss government, respectively. I wish to take this opportunity to thank these institutions for awarding me research grants.

The origins of this monograph go back to my doctoral thesis on unreliable narration at the Department of Comparative Literature of Masaryk University in Brno, Czech Republic. I owe an enormous debt of gratitude to three women who played a crucial role in the development and completion of this project. Monika Fludernik kindly allowed me to work under her supervision during my two stays at the University of Freiburg, helped me to get my bearings in the world of narratology, and has continued to support me to this day. Her priceless advice and expert criticism of my doctoral thesis contributed greatly to the present form of this book; I also thank her for suggesting I publish this monograph in the present series. I am also immensely grateful to my doctoral supervisor, Milada Franková, who ceaselessly encouraged me not only during my work on my thesis but also throughout the whole course of my university studies. She has always been ready to help and give advice. The same pertains to Kateřina Prajznerová: I would have been lost without her meticulous reading of my papers and drafts, her invaluable comments, and tireless encouragement.

I am further indebted to Zbyněk Fišer, the head of the Department of Czech Literature in Brno (my current affiliation), for his helpful attitude and patience with me as I prepared this book. I also owe thanks to several scholars currently or previously affiliated with the University of Freiburg, especially Jan Alber, Dorothee Birke, and Greta Olson, for their willingness to discuss my research and their valuable advice. Further, I wish to thank my former fellow doctoral students at the Department of English and American Studies in Brno for their useful commentary on my work in progress.

I owe special thanks to my editor, Nicholas Orsillo, for painstakingly proofreading the whole manuscript and making precious suggestions. Any remaining errors and infelicities are my own.

← 7 | 8 → Cordial thanks go to my family for their unstinting support and to my friends and colleagues for encouragement and inspiration. Last but not least, I thank Martin Širůček for unfailingly supporting me and believing in me, and for patiently listening to my ideas and willingly discussing them.

← 8 | 9 → Introduction

Since I started examining unreliable narrators in fiction, I have heard numerous jokes from friends and other people about the subject of my research, often along the lines of “so you’re writing about me” or “you should have a good look at [a friend’s name].” People have also shared with me their speculations about what this thing called unreliable narrator might be. These reactions probably result from the fact that the terms unreliable narrator and unreliable narration make use of common words widely used in everyday language. Compared to the concepts of, say, homodiegesis or focalization, unreliable narration is much more likely to elicit ideas about its meaning in people who do not engage in literary studies. Such ideas, however, often fail to fully coincide with how theorists of narrative understand this concept. This situation is not so surprising and provides no reason to be alarmed. However, the terminological ambiguity is repeated on a smaller scale even among students and critics of literature: I have had to learn to differentiate between the wider and narrower senses in which the term unreliable narrator is used.

It is the narrower sense that interests me in this book: unreliable narration as described by narratology. The living handbook of narratology defines this concept in the following way: “In its narratological sense, unreliability is a feature of narratorial discourse. If a narrator misreports, -interprets or -evaluates, or if she/he underreports, -interprets or -evaluates, this narrator is unreliable or untrustworthy” (Shen, “Unreliability” par. 1). However, this definition raises further questions. What does the narrator report, interpret, or evaluate? How do I know if the narrator mis- or underreports, mis- or underinterprets, or mis- or underevaluates? If we read on in the entry on unreliability in the living handbook, we find out about several approaches to these questions. No single and universally accepted explanation of the concept of unreliability exists. Even within the narrower, narratological sense, there are multiple ways in which the term unreliable narrator is used.

This realization brings me to the first aim of this monograph: to formulate a definition of unreliable narration that will help me examine the boundaries of the concept. I feel that too wide a range of narrative techniques are sometimes subsumed under the heading of narrative unreliability. More specifically, I am concerned with the overuse of the concept on experimental works portraying a reality incompatible with the extratextual world—when an antimimetic narrative ← 9 | 10 → technique is confused with the narrator’s faulty perspective.1 In short, one of the goals of this book is to differentiate between unreliable narration proper and related, yet different, forms of distorting (fictional) reality. I will contrast unreliable narration with narratorial fact-bending in unnatural or antimimetic narration.2 In the type of unnatural narrative that I examine, the fictional world adopts the narrator’s subjective perspective so that nothing within that fictional world contradicts the narrator’s version of the story. This narrative strategy thus differs considerably from unreliable narration in which the reader discovers an implicit correct version of what happened.

The first part of this book deals with differentiating between bending facts in unreliable and unnatural narration on the theoretical level. I subsequently apply my approach to selected novels by Kazuo Ishiguro and Max Frisch. Hence, the second goal of this book, which is related to the first, is to explore the way these two authors employ unreliable narration and move beyond its borders. The theoretical and analytical parts work in collaboration: the theoretical concepts explored allow for new insights into Ishiguro’s and Frisch’s writings while the examinations of the novels help refine the theoretical findings. In addition, the presented analysis of the distinctive and innovative features of the two writers’ narrative strategies can enhance our understanding of other works that employ unreliable narration and related techniques.

The third goal of this study is comparing Ishiguro’s and Frisch’s novels and thus drawing attention to a fascinating parallel in their development as novelists. Both authors consistently focus on exploring the psychology of their narrating characters. While they do so by using unreliable narration in their early novels, in their later fictional works they move beyond the limits of this concept: they ← 10 | 11 → leave the realm of realist representation in pursuit of an even more profound depiction of the psychological condition of their narrators. Despite the huge amount of scholarly and critical writing on Ishiguro and Frisch separately, to my knowledge no study comparing the two has been published to date. Due to the considerable resemblance between the two writers’ narrative techniques, I believe such a comparison to be a worthwhile undertaking.

By the way, there is something to the jokes I mentioned at the beginning of this introduction, jokes about real-world unreliable narrators. They reflect the fact that unreliable narration is a narrative technique largely derived from real-world situations. Works featuring unreliability often focus on the psychology of their narrating characters, which are to a great extent modelled after real-world people. It is true that unlike real-world untrustworthiness or inaccuracy, narrative unreliability in fiction resides in the structure of the text and amounts to a secret designed to be exposed by the reader: someone has created the unreliable narrator for the reader to discover. However, the reader’s attempts at sorting out the narrator’s distortions from what really happened in the fictional world resemble our endeavours to distinguish between fact and fabrication in a real-world person’s stories. Whether these endeavours can ever be successful is another question, a question to which there is no simple answer. A number of literary works use unreliable narration to illustrate the difficulty, if not impossibility, of accurately reconstructing past events, even ones we have experienced ourselves. Still, we intuitively insist on the existence of some kind of objective past even if it is epistemologically inaccessible to us. This belief corresponds to the existence of a plane of fictional reality in works with an unreliable narrator: it is this fictional reality that the narrator mis- or underreports, mis- or underinterprets, or mis- or underevaluates.

By contrast, in works that project a fictional world that adopts the narrator’s perspective, no independent plane of fictional reality exists; hence, there is nothing for the narrators to misrepresent. Such works break with the realistic illusion and challenge our faith in an objective reality. Their narrators are not founded on real-world models, at least not in an obvious, mimetic way. When we reconstruct the fictional world, our possibilities of relating it to the way things work in the extratextual world are limited. No one looks for such narrators among the flesh-and-bone people they know.

Therefore, my friends do have a point: we are likely to encounter real-world people bending facts in a manner similar to that of fictional unreliable narrators. In fact, most of the time we ourselves act at least a little bit like such narrators. Yet we will never meet a fact-bending unnatural narrator in real life. This contrast corroborates the need for differentiating between these two concepts.

← 11 | 12 → The Worlds of Ishiguro and Frisch

This study draws theoretical inspiration from both classical and postclassical narratology; one of its aspirations is to demonstrate that rather than discarding older theories and starting from scratch, it proves fruitful to combine structuralist insights with more recent developments in narrative theory. Apart from reviewing, commenting on, and drawing from existing theories of unreliable narration, I also place unreliable narration within the context of possible-world theory as applied in literary studies. To both refine my definition of unreliable narration and to contrast this phenomenon with a different kind of bending facts in fiction, I draw on the findings of unnatural narratology, albeit in a less comprehensive manner than I approach unreliable narration. In addition, my understanding of the theoretical issues in question largely owes to my close readings of Frisch’s and Ishiguro’s novels that reveal the two authors’ innovative use of unreliable narration and related strategies. As the psychology of the character narrators is central to all the works analysed in this book as well as to their use of unreliable and unnatural narration, my interpretations also make use of philosophical, psychological, and psychoanalytical concepts, such as self-deception, narrative identity, and repression. By employing such concepts I do not wish to imply that fictional characters are straightforward images of real-world people; nevertheless, I do believe real-world theories of the human mind can enhance our understanding of fictional characters, and, what is more, fictional characters can tell us a great deal about the way our minds work. This two-way enrichment proves particularly productive in the case of Ishiguro and Frisch as both are excellent observers of human nature.

Kazuo Ishiguro

Kazuo Ishiguro, who was born to Japanese parents in Nagasaki in 1954, has lived in the United Kingdom since 1960, writes in English, and is considered a British author. To date he has published eight books as well as several short stories early in his career; he has also written four original screenplays (the best-known are The Saddest Music in the World and The White Countess). In this study I focus primarily on three novels: An Artist of the Floating World (1986), The Unconsoled (1995), and When We Were Orphans (2000).

An Artist of the Floating World (further Artist), Ishiguro’s second novel, is an entry in what has sometimes been referred to as “a trilogy of aging protagonists reflecting upon disappointing pasts and disillusioned presents” (Shaffer and Wong xi). The other two books in this series are A Pale View of Hills (1982, further Pale) and The Remains of the Day (1989, further Remains). The narrators of these three works look back over their past in an attempt to tell the story of their life. However, ← 12 | 13 → their accounts cannot be taken at face value: there is always something the narrators try to hide and omit, or at least leave untouched. But they also need to go through these memories in order to explain away the results of some of their actions. Consequently, they are attracted to the very territory they have marked as forbidden. In other words, the narrators select and modify their memories according to a certain aim that they—often unconsciously—follow. The goals of Ishiguro’s narrators differ in their particularities, but in general these narrators strive to come to terms with some aspects of their past. As Cynthia Wong puts it, “For all three narrators, the return to the past is prompted by an intense and personal emotion in the present moment of narration […] which the reader will identify as their shame about the past. Each returns to a past which might atone for the present” (“Shame” 131). Their uncomfortable feelings about the past compel them to try to reconstruct their life in order to justify their role in the past on the one hand, and on the other to suppress certain pieces of information that might let their shame and feeling of guilt strike with full force. To reconcile these two contradicto- ry aims, they “employ one or more psychological defense mechanisms—in particular, repression—to keep certain unwelcome memories or intolerable desires at bay” (Shaffer 9). This kind of motivation on the part of the narrators gives rise to gaps in the narrative. The reader can find material to fill in the gaps within the narrator’s discourse, but this material is transformed and displaced into other elements of the story. Therefore, an alternative account of what the narrator explicitly conveys is hidden in the text: all three narrators are unreliable.

Ishiguro’s fourth novel, The Unconsoled (further Unconsoled), marks a radical break with the form of his retrospective trilogy. Right from the beginning, readers need to adjust their expectations of what is possible, for the fictional world of this novel departs far from the real, extratextual world, defying some of its basic rules. Unlike his predecessors in Ishiguro’s earlier novels, the narrator, Ryder, does not look back over his distant past but recounts recent events. Yet it is gradually revealed that Ryder’s memories, though not related by him, are present in the text; more precisely, they are staged as his actions, as the other characters and their actions, and as other situations or objects. Thus, the scenario familiar from Ishiguro’s first three novels, that is, the character narrators’ preoccupation with the past, recurs in Unconsoled, where, however, it is represented by significantly different means.

The theme of the narrator’s struggle with his own past thematically reappears in Ishiguro’s fifth novel, When We Were Orphans (further Orphans). Here the struggle transpires in the memories of the narrator, Banks, who recalls a series of traumatic events in his childhood, but it also affects the novel’s setting, events, and other characters. At the level of form, therefore, this narrative combines the modes used in the first three novels on the one hand and in Unconsoled on the ← 13 | 14 → other. While Banks functions as an unreliable narrator, his psychological condition and subjective perspective are also enacted in other aspects of the narrative.

In his sixth novel, Never Let Me Go (2005), Ishiguro’s innovativeness resides mainly in the chosen topic: the story is set in a society that allows breeding cloned individuals for spare parts and is narrated by a clone. Nevertheless, apart from these fantastical elements, the fictional world follows the rules of our extratextual world. The narrator, Kathy, can be anthropomorphized; although her situation is unusual (she watches her old friends die after their vital organs are removed to be donated and calmly expects the same destiny), her emotions and sensations are not incompatible with the way human beings feel and experience. It is precisely this humanlike character of the clones that makes the narrative a chilling warning about the dangers of technological progress. Kathy comes close to the narrators of the retrospective trilogy as she, too, strives hard to reconstruct the past and faces gaps and haziness in her memories. Yet she is a much more reliable narrator: rather than hiding aspects of her past from herself, she reliably reports her past self’s avoidance of unwelcome knowledge, repression of undesired emotions, and illusory hopes. The lack of clarity in some of her memories only emphasizes her humanlike quality and her strenuous effort to render as precise a picture as possible of her and her fellow clones’ past.


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (July)
Narratology 20th-century English literature 20th-century German literatures narrative theory
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 268 pp.

Biographical notes

Zuzana Fonioková (Author)

Zuzana Fonioková is Assistant Professor of Literature and Intercultural Communication at the Department of Czech Literature, Masaryk University, Brno, Czech Republic. Her research interests include narratology and contemporary fiction.


Title: Kazuo Ishiguro and Max Frisch: Bending Facts in Unreliable and Unnatural Narration
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270 pages