Wednesday, 20 January 2016

On "The Remains of the Day" by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)

'Between what is said and not meant, and what is meant and not said, most of love is lost.' 
- Khalil Gibran

Without a doubt one of the finest, most elegantly wrought works of fiction I have read, Kazuo Ishiguro's 1989 novel The Remains of the Day - winner of the 1989 Booker Prize - rarely drops off any list of the most significant and impressive literary achievements since the Second World War, if not of the 20th century. Ishiguro's third novel (and the first not to be set in Japan) is a remarkable work, and in the central figure of Stevens I would dare suggest we come across one of literature's most enduring and memorable archetypes.

What most immediately impresses about The Remains of the Day - as is often, though not always, the case with novels told in the first person - is the startling authenticity of voice. It is so thorough, so mannered, and so convincing, in fact, that I am almost tempted to hold off reading another work by Ishiguro for quite some time, if only because it will inevitably shatter the illusion that he is not, in fact, a pseudonym for some aging butler who is really out there, somewhere, fictionalizing his own experiences. The quality of the prose slices through that of sloppier novelists like a butler, as it were, cutting through a shoddily sealed envelope with a letter opener. The prose is diligent, worked on, crafted; more, it feels somehow starched. Ironed. Nary a crease or wrinkle - precisely akin to the professional neatness with which a butler carries out his tasks. At times, granted, it is unnecessarily well-structured and tidy, to the point that one suspects human beings do not really write like that - but that, of course, is part of the point. This is the façade that cracks, the tapestry that unravels: Ishiguro wants to show us the mannerisms that are put up as a front, and if they are to convince as a front they need to be as absolute as possible.

The slow, carefully juggled revelations about what is going on - which is so often not what our narrator and guide is telling us - put me in mind of the sleight-of-hand of Browning's poem "My Last Duchess", where the duke's every utterance convinces us more and more of the opposing point of view. This is very hard, no doubt, to pull off, but Ishiguro does it absolutely beguilingly here. Where Stevens sees nothing, we see multitudes; where he suppresses a feeling, we understand how large it really gapes behind these carefully aligned sentences. Some of this is disturbing (his employer's anti-Semitism, for instance). But most of it is quietly tragic. One delightful example - the simplicity of which impressed me enormously - is the following line: "I continued to be surprised by the familiarity of the country around me." This is a very, very smart line, because of what it tells us about Stevens' character. Whether or not he finds the countryside familiar is neither here nor there - that is the surface level of Stevens' thoughts. But underneath, he feels a jolt of surprise that he has actually been a little further out into the world than he would assume, if asked. It indicates just how trapped and enclosed he feels in many ways, how beholden to the weight of tradition - further suggested, of course, by the novel's structure: the story is nominally a motoring trip away from Darlington Hall but almost all of it takes place back at the house, within the confines of those grounds and his own memories; he spends most of his time looking back.

The Remains of the Day begins - and, to an extent, continues - as a funny book, a comedy of manners, although it is not so much a cruel mocking of Stevens' various pernickety foibles so much as it is gently, wryly smiling at them. I like to think of it as a book that expresses the charming yet rare contradiction of being both warm and sad, if sadness can be said to have a temperature. This funny/sad mixture probably makes it sound like a tasteless cocktail, but Ishiguro has self-evidently mastered the ability to incite laughter and melancholy in a single phrase. Take, for instance, "I have always found [romantic] liaisons a serious threat to the order in a house". Stevens' stuffiness is comic, descended as it has from the meticulous nature of Wodehouse's Jeeves and other literary butlers which highlight the British propensity to laugh at our own exaggerated foibles writ large, and yet it is distinctly painful, somehow, that there could be a worldview which excludes the possibility of falling in love so as to propagate the restraint of order; indeed, in the end his worldview breaks his heart. Or - again - "it is all very well, in these changing times, to adapt one's work to take in duties not traditionally within one's realm; but bantering is of another dimension whatsoever". Similarly, a quality which represents light and love and life, a quality Stevens will later admit to containing "the key to human warmth", does not come within his purview at all and indeed is seen as an active hindrance. As before, Stevens thinks he is telling us one thing, but Ishiguro is in fact telling us something else (what the Guardian journalist Peter Beech calls "an unwitting narrator", someone who reveals things about themselves by accident, as opposed to an outright unreliable one).

There are all manners of things that could be said about this outstanding novel, about its portrayal of the slow decline of the English aristocracy towards insignificance, and about the ways in which many members of that "hub of this world's wheel" would cling on to their old roles even as the hierarchy they knew crumbled about them. And, indeed, about class, and the place of butlers and servants and housekeepers, and about the propriety that must be kept in check at all moments, all in the name of quiet, reserved, English "dignity" (though I gather that Ishiguro here finds the perfect intersection between English dignity and Japanese bushido - a code of honour and loyalty to one's liege). But I would like to focus on one of them, for the sake of brevity; since I do not often do anything for the sake of brevity, I hope any potential readers will cherish the sentiment.

This is a book that makes art out of its lack of drama. In that respect, it is a clear product of the second half of the 20th century - bear in mind Waiting for Godot, which is the definition of making art out of lack of drama, appeared in 1953, three years before this book is set. At almost every given point, the most undramatic thing that can possibly happen will occur instead of the most dramatic one. Stevens is kept outside of every room in which every significant conference with Nazi appeasers is held; Stevens does not burst into Miss Kenton's quarters when he hears her crying, but flees the scene instead; Stevens avoids drama and foresees potential problems, nipping them in the bud wherever he can; he does not even allow himself the pleasure of exploring the greenery around a quiet Dorset pond for fear that it may have an adverse affect on his footwear. Even the one single crucial event in 1956 (his reunion with Miss Kenton) is technically skipped over, related as a recollection in a couple of pages. He seems content enough in busying himself with his employer's work, knowing that it is his master who is the principal player and that it his master's life in which the drama is meant to unfold; in his own words, "it's a great privilege, after all, to have been given a part to play, however small, on the world's stage."

But never on his own stage. Never on his own. The world passes Stevens by - both great affairs of state, and the chance of romantic happiness. He is Bilbo Baggins, if Bilbo Baggins never set foot out of his hobbit-hole door and took the risk of an adventure. The Remains of the Day is almost a cautionary tale, though it would sound far too crass to reduce it in such a way. As Stevens reaches the sea one evening - day reaches night, and land reaches water; the traditional ending of a journey in many tales - we know that his story is coming to an end, because there really is little with what remains of his day. That individual day, his entire life, his mannerisms, his generation, his beliefs and those of people like him...all shall pass soon. Viewed from the vantage point of 1987, and even more so from 2016, it is sad but necessary that such things should pass; the "dignity" and "quiet greatness" which people believed suffused Britain everywhere was beautiful in its own fashion, but ultimately destined to die. And the quaintness with which we regard it will no doubt be applied to our own absurd foibles, one day. Stevens' myriad opportunities may have passed him by, but in the end he realizes that he must do what we all must do with the remains of the day: use it. Hold it tight, till it burns your hand, and keep on using it up.

Above all, do not lose love to that which is meant but not said.

No comments:

Post a Comment