Writing songs helped shape the idiosyncratic, elliptical prose style that made him one of the most acclaimed and influential British writers of his generation. “That was all very good preparation for the kind of fiction I went on to write,” Mr. Ishiguro said in a 2015 interview with The New York Times. “You have to leave a lot of meaning underneath the surface.”
Mr. Ishiguro, 62, is best known for his novels “The Remains of the Day,” about a butler serving an English lord in the years leading up to World War II, and “Never Let Me Go,” a melancholy dystopian love story set in a British boarding school. He has obsessively returned to the same themes in his work, including the fallibility of memory, mortality and the porous nature of time. His body of work stands out for his inventive subversion of literary genres, his acute sense of place and his masterly parsing of the British class system.
“If you mix Jane Austen and Franz Kafka then you have Kazuo Ishiguro in a nutshell, but you have to add a little bit of Marcel Proust into the mix,” said Sara Danius, the permanent secretary of the Swedish Academy.
“He doesn’t look to the side,” she said. “He has developed an aesthetic universe all his own.”
At a news conference at his London publisher’s office on Thursday, Mr. Ishiguro was characteristically self-effacing, saying that the award was a genuine shock. “If I had even a suspicion, I would have washed my hair this morning,” he said.
He added that when he thinks of “all the great writers living at this time who haven’t won this prize, I feel slightly like an impostor.”
In a career that spans some 35 years, Mr. Ishiguro has gained wide recognition for his stark, emotionally restrained prose. His novels are often written in the first person, with unreliable narrators who are in denial about truths that are gradually revealed to the reader. The resonance in his plots often comes from the rich subtext — the things left unsaid, and gaps between the narrator’s perception and reality.
After studying English and philosophy at the University of Kent, in Canterbury, he spent a year writing fiction, eventually gaining a Master of Arts in creative writing.
His deep understanding of the social conventions and affectations of his adopted homeland shaped his third novel, “The Remains of the Day,” which won the Booker Prize. Mr. Ishiguro, who writes his first drafts by hand, later said he had written the book in four weeks in a feverish rush.
When he published “The Remains of the Day,” Mr. Ishiguro worried that he was repeating himself by writing another first-person novel with an unreliable narrator, but critics saw the book as an extreme departure.
His 2005 novel, “Never Let Me Go,” was regarded as yet another stylistic leap into futuristic science fiction, although it was set in the 1990s.
In selecting Mr. Ishiguro, the Swedish Academy, which has been criticized in the past for using the prize to make a political statement, seemed to focus on pure literary merit.
The Nobel Prize in Literature is given in recognition of a writer’s entire body of work rather than a single title.
Recently, the academy has often overlooked novelists and poets in favor of writers working in unconventional forms. Last year, the prize went to the singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, “for having created new poetic expressions within the great American song tradition,” a choice that infuriated some traditionalists. In 2015, the Nobel went to the Belarusian journalist and prose writer Svetlana Alexievich, who is known for her expansive oral histories, and in 2013, the Canadian short story writer Alice Munro won.
In an telephone interview on Thursday, Mr. Ishiguro, sounding flustered and stunned, said he was sitting at his kitchen table writing an email in his London home, where he lives with his wife Lorna, when the phone rang. It was his agent, who told him that the Nobel committee had announced his name. Then the BBC called, and a gaggle of journalists and photographers gathered in front of his door. “It was very embarrassing,” he said. “My neighbors probably thought I was a serial killer or something.”
“I’ve got a novel to finish, and it’s not an easy novel,” he said. “It’s going to be just as difficult to get on with it when the dust settles as it was before.”