“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.
Ms. Danius described Mr. Ishiguro as “a writer of great integrity.”
“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.
The Canadian novelist Michael Ondaatje, the author of “The English Patient,” said he was “thrilled” by the academy’s choice. “He is such a rare and mysterious writer, always surprising to me, with every book,” he wrote in an email.
Born in 1954 in Nagasaki, Japan, the son of an oceanographer, Mr. Ishiguro moved to Surrey, England, when he was 5 years old, and attended Woking County Grammar School, a school that he told The Guardian was “probably the last chance to get a flavor of a bygone English society that was already rapidly fading.”
Mr. Ishiguro discovered literature as a young boy when he came upon Sherlock Holmes stories in the local library. “I was around 9 or 10, and I not only read obsessively about Holmes and Watson, I started to behave like them. I’d go to school and say things like: ‘Pray, be seated’ or ‘That is most singular,’ he said in an interview with The Times Book Review. “People at the time just put this down to my being Japanese.”
After studying English and philosophy at the University of Kent, in Canterbury, he spent a year writing fiction, eventually gaining a masters of arts in creative writing, and studied with writers like Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter.
Mr. Ishiguro stood out early among the literary crowd. In 1983, he was included in Granta magazine’s best of young British writers list, joining luminaries such as Martin Amis, Ian McEwan and Salman Rushdie.
He published his first novel, “A Pale View of Hills,” about a middle-aged Japanese woman living in England, in 1982, and followed with “An Artist of the Floating World,” narrated by an elderly Japanese painter, set in post-World War II Japan.
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 and featured a buttoned-up butler, who was later immortalized in a film starring Anthony Hopkins. 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.
“I was afraid that people would say, ‘Oh, it’s the same book again, about an old guy looking back over his life with regret when it’s too late to change things,’” he told The Times. “Instead, they were saying, ‘Your books are always set in Japan; this is a giant leap for you.’ I get this with almost every book.”
A literary iconoclast, Mr. Ishiguro has played with genres like detective fiction, westerns, science fiction and fantasy in his novels. Critics viewed “The Unconsoled,” a surreal, dreamlike novel about a pianist in an unnamed European city, as magical realism when it came out in 1995. “When We Were Orphans” was viewed as a detective novel. 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.
His most recent novel, “The Buried Giant,” defied expectations once again. A fantasy story set in Arthurian Britain, the novel centers on an older couple, Axl and Beatrice, who leave their village in search of their missing son, and encounter an old knight. Though the story was a full-blown fantasy, with ogres and a dragon, it was also a parable that explored many of the themes that have preoccupied Mr. Ishiguro throughout his career, including the fragile nature of individual and collective memory.
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. Winners have included international literary giants like Saul Bellow, Ernest Hemingway, Gabriel García Márquez and Toni Morrison. In other years, the academy has selected obscure European writers whose work was not widely read in English, including the French novelist J. M. G. Le Clézio (2008), the Romanian-German writer Herta Müller (2009), the Swedish poet and translator Tomas Transtromer (2011) and the French novelist Patrick Modiano (2014).
Of the 114 winners who have received the prize since it was first awarded in 1901, 14 have been women.
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.
Mr. Ishiguro, the 29th English-language novelist to win the prize, stands out from some previous choices for his accessible prose style. A rare writer who is beloved by critics and scholars and is commercially successful, Mr. Ishiguro’s work is widely known and read, and has been adapted into feature films, and a television series in Japan. His novels have collectively sold more than 2.5 million copies in the United States.
“He’s got such an extraordinary range, and he writes with such restraint and control about some very big themes, about memory and the loss thereof, about war and love” said Sonny Mehta, the chairman and editor in chief of Alfred A. Knopf, who has worked with Mr. Ishiguro since his 1989 novel “The Remains of the Day.”
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.”
Mr. Ishiguro seems to be in a prolific phase: He said he’s working on a new novel, and has several film adaptations of his books in the works, as well as a couple of theater projects.
“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.”
Who else has won a Nobel this year?
■ Jeffrey C. Hall, Michael Rosbash and Michael W. Young were awarded the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine on Monday for discoveries about the molecular mechanisms controlling the body’s circadian rhythm.
■ Rainer Weiss, Kip Thorne and Barry Barish received the Nobel Prize in Physics on Tuesday for the discovery of ripples in space-time known as gravitational waves.
■ Jacques Dubochet, Joachim Frank and Richard Henderson were awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry on Wednesday for developing a new way to construct precise three-dimensional images of biological molecules.
Who won the 2016 Literature Nobel?
Bob Dylan, the poet laureate of the of the rock era who has sold millions of records with dense, enigmatic songwriting, was recognized with the award, an honor that elevated him into the company of T. S. Eliot, Gabriel García Márquez, Toni Morrison and Samuel Beckett.
When will the other Nobels be announced?
Two more will be awarded in the days to come:
■ The Nobel Peace Prize will be announced on Friday in Norway. Read about last year’s winner, President Juan Manuel Santos of Colombia.
■ The Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science will be announced on Monday, in Sweden. Read about last year’s winners, Oliver Hart and Bengt Holmstrom.