At the beginning of Kazuo Ishiguro’s 1995 masterpiece The Unconsoled, Ryder, our English hero, arrives in an unnamed city in Continental Europe. He is a renowned concert pianist due to perform at the local civic hall in a few days time. He has worked uncompromisingly at his calling since he began pursuing the life as a youngster. People await him with great anticipation wherever he ventures, keen to reap the benefit of his artistic prowess and the wisdom that comes with it. The inhabitants of the city that is the latest stop on his perennial round are no different in this respect. They are delighted to welcome the celebrated figure.
The lackadaisical nature of his initial reception at the hotel where he is booked to stay, however, would suggest that all may not go quite as planned. Hoffman, the Fawltyesque hotel manager, is not on hand to meet him. It is left to an underling to check Ryder in. While helping him with his bags, the ageing porter Gustav talks at length about job and other personal concerns. Stephan Hoffman, the son of the manager, seeks out his counsel on the matter of his own performance at the upcoming concert. While Ryder does meet Miss Stratmann, the woman charged with the task of overseeing the minutiae of his stay, the fact does little to instil confidence that his packed schedule will run smoothly – in spite of her assurances that it will.
Gustav is, in fact, the father of Sophie and the grandfather of her son Boris, Ryder’s estranged partner and stepson respectively. The estrangement stems in large part from the musician’s peripatetic lifestyle and is so decisive that it takes him a while to recognise the pair when, at the urging of Gustav, he goes to meet them in the city. Gradually, the details of their off and on life together come back to the pianist, details often far from savoury, exposing as they do a residual callousness in the artist’s nature.
Sophie is a deeply insecure woman. She lives in perpetual fear of letting her illustrious man down, especially in the public sphere. Though the periods when she, Ryder and Boris have lived together have not gone well, she is still resolute and determined that they will establish a proper home one day. Indirect encouragement comes from Ryder when he bemoans the life that he leads, the relentless pressure and expectations. He finds deep-seated problems wherever he goes, he points out. But the people beset with difficulties need him and are grateful when he comes to visit, he adds, by way of justification for his unwillingness to give up the wandering life.
He informs Boris that he must go on travelling because ‘the very important trip’ (important not only for him but for all mankind!) may be near. Sophie and Boris, meanwhile, can attend to the mundane and often thankless task of searching for a place where they might live happily and at ease at some indeterminate point in the not too distant future. Until such a time, Ryder and Sophie would appear fated to go on at cross purposes. Often when they converse he is unclear what she is talking about. Paradoxically, he feels protective toward her and Boris; he is quite capable of going to extremes to shield the boy from the dark realities of adult life. The mostly absent father figure, he is determined to do this as long as he possibly can.
He is so pressed for time in the city that he continually makes promises to people he is unable to keep. The unexpected crops up and diverts him from what he intended to do at given times. Commitments made to Sophie and Boris, to his old school chums Geoffrey Saunders and Fiona Roberts, as well as others, either fall by the wayside or are delayed in their fulfilment.
Home truths are repeatedly brought home, for example when he has an unexpected encounter with Jonathan Parkhurst, another figure from his school days. Parkhurst makes it abundantly clear that their classmates viewed Ryder’s youthful pretensions to an exalted musical career with scorn and derision. They secretly laughed at his affected manner and sense of superiority. They still do, Parkhurst assures him, at the alumni reunions that he sometimes attends in England. This is an amusing if bitterly caustic scene, one of several in the novel that wear a similar imprint.
Echoes of the same surface in the city. Admiration and politesse are frequently revealed as skin-deep. There is an undercurrent of contempt as well as scepticism that Ryder is the man to aid the locals in their quest to recapture for their city a degree of lost cultural significance. Some, with good reason, associate him with a mysterious figure, Max Sattler, who bravely stood up for the cause of cultural advance but in too radical a form for many of the staid populace to embrace. In another remarkably inventive scene, a journalist and photographer speak disparagingly of him. They chatter as if he is not in earshot when in actual fact he is right in front of them. Many of the inhabitants of the town are equally wary of Brodsky, an alcoholic conductor, upon whom hotel manager Hoffman (so dedicated to the idea of a cultural renaissance) has come to rest all his hope.
With time running short, Ryder testily demands and is afforded satisfactory practice space in which he is left in comparative peace for a while. Here he runs through the selection that he is to perform at the concert that night. But even at this late stage there are further distractions and diversions. Looking for the venue, which he is anxious to inspect before the night’s events begin, he finds his way obstructed by an impenetrable, ill-positioned wall. Hopelessly lost, or so it seems, Gustav espies him and insists he come and share in the warmth and merriment then prevailing at the Hungarian cafe, a watering hole that the porter and several of his colleagues ritually frequent. Boris is also there. An electrifying porters’ dance gets underway, during which none perform with greater energy and agility than Gustav. But the physical feats prove too much for him. Tellingly, he insists to his grandson that he, though he is only a boy, must be the strong one of the family should something ever happen to him. Ryder and Sophie do not possess their sort of emotional strength, Gustav tells Boris.
Gustav falls ill at the concert hall a short time later, leading to yet another disruption for the increasingly vexed Ryder. Desperate to reach Sophie and Boris, to inform them of Gustav’s illness, he borrows Hoffman’s car but during the transit comes upon an accident. On his way to the concert hall a drunken Brodsky has been struck by a motorist. Ryder rails against the demands made on him at the scene, telling Geoffrey Saunders: ‘I appreciate you’ve got problems here. I’d like to help more, but I’ve done all I can. I’ve got things of my own to worry about now … I’ve got more responsibilities than you could ever imagine. Look, I just don’t lead the sort of life you do.’
Back at the hall, with Sophie and Boris, he refuses to let her browbeat him into staying with them and providing emotional support when the gravity of Gustav’s condition becomes clear. No longer will he be swayed from the original, overriding purpose that brought him to the city. Not even acute family distress will stand in his way.
By no means is he the only character in The Unconsoled who exhibits indifference in his interpersonal relations. Gustav and Sophie have not communicated directly for years, this ‘understanding’ having arisen as a result of an incident in her girlhood. They have maintained it through thick and thin and at first show no inclination to see reason even with Gustav at death’s door. Brodsky and his one-time lover Miss Collins (presumably a former flame of Ryder’s too), a woman the drunken lush dreams of wooing again, have been guilty of similar intractability. The marriage of Hoffman and his wife Christine is strained. We learn that for years he did nothing to remove a misapprehension she gained as to his own musical ability, talent later found to be a myth. The truth having outed, they have played cat and mouse in their relationship and rested their benighted hopes on their son Stephan, making him a victim of their unwise stratagem. We fear that Boris too, in a not dissimilar fashion, may become a victim of Ryder’s and Sophie’s strange ways.
Remarkably, given his injuries, Brodsky ascends the concert hall dais and begins conducting. But neither this part of the show nor any other, including those meant to feature Ryder, proceed as planned. Later, the pianist tells Gustav’s porter friends, who have set much store on a promise he made them but could not keep, that they too have no idea what sort of life he has to lead and no right to bother him.
A paramount consideration of his since his arrival has been the welfare of his no longer young parents. He insists that they are coming to the city to see him perform – at nothing less than the peak of his powers – and that their well-being and enjoyment is of the utmost concern. He conveniently ignores the fact that they too were a couple often at war, a state of affairs that had a decisive effect on him. Alas, they fail to show up though Ryder’s disappointment is attenuated when Miss Stratmann recollects that his parents did once have a happy stay in the city. The visit occurred long ago but Ryder avidly seeks verification of Miss Stratmann’s statements from others.
Basing his judgement on the part of Stephan’s performance that he witnesses, Ryder offers professional encouragement to the young man but receives the news of Gustav’s passing with not atypical phlegm. He rejoins Sophie and Boris at last but there encounters a wall as impenetrable as the physical one that blocked his way earlier. ‘You were always on the outside of our love,’ Sophie tells him. ‘Now look at you. On the outside of our grief too. Go around the world, giving out your expertise and wisdom. You’ll never be one of us or love Boris like a real father.’ The boy is open to the idea of a ‘reconciliation’ with Ryder, but Sophie hurries off with him. Shattered, Ryder breaks down.
But his despair is short-lived. A sympathetic onlooker insists that his broken-heartedness is unnecessary. Things may not turn out as one plans in life but still there is much to be thankful for. Ryder recognises the wisdom in this viewpoint. Treating himself to some delicious breakfast, he concludes that he has every reason to be satisfied with what he achieved in his limited time in the city. He has already begun thinking about his next engagement, in Helsinki, and is duty bound to soldier on, in much the same manner as many other stalwart Ishiguro males.
We have seen such stoic figures in Scandinavian film. Ryder’s tears near the end of The Unconsoled are reminiscent of those shed at painfully insightful moments by David, the writer, in Ingmar Bergman’s Through a Glass Darkly (1961) and Gabriel, the poet, in Carl Theodore Dreyer’s Gertrud (1964). In the Bergman film David has reunited with his daughter Karin, his son Minus and son-in-law Martin after a trip abroad. When it is revealed that he is to set off again in a month despite having promised he would stay, the others are noticeably upset. In a bid to lighten the atmosphere the hapless writer hands out ill-chosen presents before excusing himself and weeping in private.
Gabriel’s tears in Gertrud flow in circumstances different to this though the moment is imbued with equal pathos. Gertrud, a former opera singer, has already asked her lawyer / politician husband Gustav for a divorce. She has met a young man, Erland, and wishes to go away with him. But in due course she finds out that her lover is expecting a child with another woman and cannot make a life with her. Much like Ryder, poet Gabriel is highly esteemed in his chosen field. He and Gertrud have been a couple in the past. Seeing how Erland jilts her, he suggests they reignite what they had and that Gertrud leave with him instead. She refuses, telling the poet that when they were a couple he, just like her husband has done, valued his career and status above her. Gabriel sobs like an overwrought child.
As with Ryder and David, career and a name, the high calling, the greater good, has come at a cost. The price Ryder pays for his next trip, David his next book, Gabriel his next poem is incalculable in that love cannot be quantified. And yet that ‘next’ may never be realised, like the pianist’s eagerly anticipated but never realised performance. Here and there, including at social gatherings held in his honour, Ryder is not even recognised as the great artist come to give generously of his artistry. To paraphrase a line from Gertrud: between a woman’s love and a man’s work … an inseparable divide.
Another Bergman hero who allows his most important relationships to assume a distant second place while he prioritises ‘finer’ things is Professor Isak Borg in the director’s Wild Strawberries (1957). Isak has scaled the heights in his profession. A seventy-eight-year-old physician, a specialist in bacteriology, he is also a widower and the epitome of an irascible old man. Grumpily, he sets out from Stockholm with his pregnant daughter-in-law Marianne on a car journey that will take them to Lund, where he is to be awarded a Doctor Jubilaris degree at his old university.
Isak reflects on his life during the journey. One of a trio of hitchhikers picked up along the way reminds him of his childhood sweetheart Sara, a girl he lost because of his inherent lack of warmth in matters of the heart. Another couple, a vitriolic husband and wife, spur memories of his unhappy marriage. His calculated aloofness extended to expressions of condescending pity when he learnt of his wife’s affair with another man.
On a brief stop to visit his mother, he retrospectively comes face to face with the harbinger of his own coldness in the figure of the ancient lady. We realise he has passed on the same iciness to his son Evald, a man who does not wish his sad, gentle wife to bear their child. The manner in which a negative trait can become embedded in the fabric of a family is a concern in The Unconsoled too. For all the good that knowing this does them, Sophie and Ryder understand the fragility of the stage of life Boris has reached and that it is incumbent on them for his sake to somehow heal their fractured relationship.
Unlike Ryder, David or Gabriel, Isak never weeps, but by the time he is awarded his distinction he has come to accept himself. He cannot overturn his past, but with death on the horizon he can substitute generosity and loving kindness. At first his near and dear are startled; can this be the same Isak?! It will necessarily entail major adjustment but they may well become used to the changed professor in the time he has left with them.
The nightmares that the encounters on the car journey stimulate give way at the end to a vision of ineffable peace. Isak dreams of a family picnic. He sees his parents by a lake. Peace, for Ryder, is also encapsulated in a vision of his ‘restored’ parents though it is Miss Stratmann’s discourse that gives rise to his. But one can imagine him taking in her words with exhilaration on a par with the newly mellow doctor.
Ishiguro, Bergman and Dreyer are, at the end of the day, forgiving of the foibles of their determined alpha males. There is much irony in Gertrud, a touch befitting a great director making what would be his final film, not least in the slight overplaying of the males. Even the redoubtable Gertrud herself warrants a smile when, looking back on her tumultuous love affairs from a distance of thirty years, she avers that love is everything. She does not regret her steadfast refusal to compromise, she tells Axel, a life-long male friend, though the upshot is solitude. The devoted Axel hears her out with good-natured understanding and gives Gertrud – and us – a wave in the film’s final frame, a seminal wave not unlike that which Isak imagines receiving from his parents at the close of Wild Strawberries. The gesture on Axel’s part undoubtedly provides parental-like comfort to Gertrud too, this long-suffering victim of male prevarication.
The inevitable heartbreak that comes when one’s parents go ‘missing’ is vanquished at the end of Through a Glass Darkly. David at last bridges his distance and takes time for Minus, speaking to the lad about the factor that gives him hope in life, none other than love. He implies that his son can rally round the cause as he charts a course through the labyrinth that is life. Miss Stratmann provides Ryder immense comfort in her account of his parents’ stay in the city. But greater consolation comes to him by way of a local labourer who witnesses his distress on the trolley car in the last scene of The Unconsoled. The father (the labourer) helps the son (Ryder) understand that doing one’s best is the crucial thing. He, the famous concert pianist, need not live on the outside of warmth and love after all.