Book Review: The Remains of the Day (Kazuo Ishiguro)

With a refined elegance of language consistent throughout the entirety of its pages, Kazuo Ishiguro’s inter- and post-war set novel at once cleanly embodies its main character whilst also enfolding its text around several subtle strands that unwind throughout its whole. The first person reverie of Mr Stevens, whose first name we are never in a position to discover, a butler to Lord Darlington at his grand great house in Oxfordshire, is related whilst the former engages on a motoring trip to Cornwall in 1956. It is, however, the various events both on an international and political scale and on a personal working relationship level that occur during the 1920s and 1930s that Stevens is ostensibly and primarily focused. The book’s denouement is directed, early on, towards a reunion with the former Miss Kenton, erstwhile housekeeper at Darlington Hall; there is, however, a far more subtle, somewhat elegant and endearing strand of storytelling inherent in the piece, regarding Mr Stevens and his relationship with the sometimes volatile Miss Kenton.

The Remains of the Day (published by Faber and Faber, 2005; originally published in 1989) is a slow unfolding of a love story, a story of political shenanigans, a rumination on the concepts of dignity and professionalism, of tradition and the perception of modernity, and of coming to terms. Stevens has learned his trade, has discussed it at length at gatherings of others who also perform the same duties at other great houses, and cannot, on the face of it, not encapsulate the epitome of service. His every waking moment is dedicated to his craft, his reflections on his manner and application, and his consideration of the details. Stevens is, however, somewhat of an unreliable narrator. Such is Ishiguro’s skill at writing in this offering that this epiphany only slowly begins to dawn on the reader.

Stevens has a particular worldview and his explanations of events and ideas appear rational and understandable. Gradually, however, there are hints as to how this worldview begins to unravel. Stevens is loyal to his lordship, but the latter’s political sympathies can, more and more, be perceived as either deliberate or naive in the gathering machinations of 1930s Europe. First there are references to hosting Sir Oswald Mosley, of ‘blackshirts’ infamy, then increasingly there is the suggestion that Lord Darlington’s sympathy for the defeated populace of the Great War is, in fact, a perfect canvas on which Hitler can manipulate political advantage. Darlington is capable and suitably esteemed in the gathering and hosting of conferences of important inter-war politicians and ambassadors, though he is, it transpires (or, as we’re told) being made good use of by the foreign powers. Stevens, for his part, keeps a respectful distance and will not question his lordship as it is not his place to do so.

As the political machinations slowly unfold, so too do the details of Stevens’ sometimes difficult relationship with Miss Kenton. Their staffing responsibilities are largely split between the male and the female employees and, though Miss Kenton is relatively young when we first meet her, she is a capable housekeeper. Stevens is ultimately responsible for the entire staff team. It becomes clear that she suffers much exasperation at Stevens’ manner, though Ishiguro’s writing is careful enough only to paint the finer edges of this. Miss Kenton wishes to brighten Stevens’ private working room with flowers, for example, and Stevens is brusque in his refusal. Miss Kenton adopts a petty insistence on being addressed only through written messages. Ishiguro returns at several stages throughout the book to several periods in the two main characters’ unfolding relationship during the 1920s and 1930s. At times we read a softening of the interactions, borne out of familiarity over years of working together. At other times, we read Miss Kenton’s restrained tempestuousness. There is an interplay between the telling of the death of Stevens’ father (himself a butler, brought to the house to serve in his old age) and the death of Miss Kenton’s beloved aunt: two incidents separated by a fair chunk of the book. In the former, early in the 1920s, Stevens tells the story of the passing of his father in respect of an adjunct to his claims on dignity, whilst Ishiguro affords Miss Kenton the honour of the piece in her actions; in the case of her own loss, years later, Stevens is too tied to professional restraint for him to offer condolences.

The structure of the book is nominally with regard to the motoring trip that Stevens takes, on the insistence of Darlington Hall’s new owner that he take time off. Mr Farraday is an American, someone who Stevens struggles to comprehend the ways of, but Stevens takes his Ford, heading towards the West Country following the receipt of a letter from Miss Kenton (now, in 1956, being Mrs Benn, having married and left the house some years before the war). Stevens reckons on there being some lament in the letter, reading that his former housekeeper has separated from her husband and, in need of good staff, he sees it as an ideal opportunity to ask her if she would come back to work with him. Herein lies a subtle love. Stevens is, on the face of it, aloof to anything that might be perceived as personal; yet, we gradually discover, he and Miss Kenton share an affection, albeit wrapped in professional interaction.

Ishiguro draws a neat connection in the examination of ‘professionalism’ when Stevens relays an account of the behaviour of an American delegate at the house in 1923, regarding the addressing of Lord Darlington. Mr Lewis, the somewhat amiable but ultimately conniving American at the conference brought together to discuss the injustices of the Versailles Treaty following the Great War, eventually stands at dinner to accuse his host of amateurism. Darlington is, according to Lewis, not skilled at the cold politics required, leading with his heart, as it were. Stevens’ narration of professionalism in his stance on dignity in his own role tallies with the clinical approach we read as advocated by Lewis and, in effect, with the relations between Stevens and Miss Kenton.

Ishiguro touches lightly but succinctly on concepts of democracy and aristocracy, on the relative benefits of decisions that might be made by the ill-educated in the steering of the nation’s fate and on those made by those higher up the social food chain. Only several pages later is the reader necessarily aware that a group of West Country locals gathering to meet a man they perceive as perhaps a lord or a duke (that is, Stevens himself, who does not correct their error) is, in fact, a device on which the author hangs a strand of his exposition. We are, to a certain extent, drawn in to the manner of writing that we allow ourselves to be subsumed by the content and strategy of the text. Ishiguro writes, for example, deep in to the work:

. . . but then it is perhaps in the nature of coming away on a trip such as this that one is prompted towards such surprising new perspectives on topics one imagined one had long ago thought through thoroughly.

It is clipped and consistent throughout. Stevens engages with life by the background hum of whatever it might be to make him tick. Characterisation, therefore, and to some extent, goes some way to usurping device, such as other lesser novels make far too obvious. Lord Darlington’s apparent manipulation by Nazi forces is painted as such by Stevens, and though this unravelling becomes evident to the reader, Ishiguro crafts this process through the lens of Stevens’ own naïveté and misplaced loyalty. When Darlington insists that two Jewish maids are relieved of their positions, Stevens does not protest, although there is the hint that he doesn’t agree, but he goes about the task his employer has decreed and for the good of the house, as stated to him. Miss Kenton is vehemently in disagreement and threatens to resign, but she has nowhere to go, it later transpires. We also gather, later, that she too has a loyalty, in her affection, to Stevens.

The Remains of the Day is an entanglement of fine threads, played out on an ostensibly insular backdrop which, nevertheless, has its reach into the wider affairs of inter-war Europe. In his later years, post-Second World War, Stevens embarks on a journey, part holiday, part mission to restore the order and esteem to his great house, but he encounters an epiphany that lends its essence to the book’s title. Stevens’ eventual reunion with Miss Kenton, reconciled now as she is with her husband, is delicately replete with what might have been. Later, at a seaside town, Stevens’ chance encounter with a stranger leaves him pondering on the nature of the past and the future and of what remains of his day, that is, his time. Ishiguro’s novel is clean, elegant, readable and, with its trace of visceral lament, it has the potential to remain memorable for years to come, such is the ‘feel’ that some books are prone to impress.
 
 

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First Impressions and Irrational Readers

[Umberto Eco] shares moments when loyal readers have tried to dissolve the lines between his fictional world and the real world, whilst others have discovered minute holes in his veil of realism.

— Yosola Olorunshola

Yosola writes this in commenting on a previous post of mine, and I find it also sparks off further thoughts, for me, about the ‘truth’ of fiction and the ‘truth’ of the writer. Sometimes, as readers, we’re willing to forgive the writing misdemeanours of our favourite authors because they are our favourites, or because we’ve been with them for longer than we can remember: misdemeanours such as holes in the inner world of the book, in plot, in characterisation, language use, grammar, syntax, etc.

Sometimes, however, we come across the writing of an author we’ve never read before. This is a dangerous moment for that author, even if they don’t know it. On the face of it, what does it matter to them if that one copy doesn’t get sold, or if that one copy sold and read doesn’t amount to further work being touched? Perhaps it does matter.

In his excellent book, Irrationality (1992), Professor Stuart Sutherland highlights what’s known in psychology circles as the ‘primacy error’ and the ‘halo effect’. The primacy error occurs, he writes, ‘because when connected material (such as a newspaper article or lecture) is presented, the interpretation of the later material is coloured by the earlier.’ It’s a form of first impressions count. Sutherland goes on to say something we’ve often been told regarding job interviews: namely, that interviewers are known to make up their minds about an interviewee quite quickly; Sutherland says that the interviewer then conducts the rest of the interview trying to confirm their first impressions.

The halo effect, Sutherland writes, happens ‘if a person has one salient [that is ‘available’ or obvious] good trait, his other characteristics are likely to be judged by others as better than they really are.’ I shall come back to this.

I think here about writers who I’ve only recently ‘met’. That is, I think about writers whose pages I’ve only just got round to reading. Kazuo Ishiguro is one of these writers. I’ve heard of The Remains of the Day, but I’ve never read it. I don’t know if I will. It’s not that Ishiguro’s writing is bad in his story collection, Nocturnes (I read the whole book and it didn’t make me stumble with issues of fiction/reality, plot, characterisation, language use, grammar, syntax, etc.) — I was just expecting better. That’s all.

I’m well aware that the primacy error could well kick in and any future work I might read of his could become coloured by my reading of Nocturnes. The opposite effect to the halo effect is what Sutherland calls the ‘devil effect’. Ishiguro, for me, is now pictured in a certain way, with a certain writerly trait that projects itself, unfairly perhaps, beyond his other abilities. I consider myself an intelligent enough person and I’m aware of what’s going on under the surface of my thinking. I may give him another read some time; I may just forget my rational thinking, however, and let irrationality play itself out, steering clear of the ‘I’ section on bookshop shelves.

Lilian Faschinger falls into the same category. I have her novel, Magdalena the Sinner, sitting on my bookshelf at home. I’ve had it for several years and I may just have been attracted to the cover (I must have seen something in it). Maybe I was swayed, that day in the bookshop, by a line in her author bio: Lilian Faschinger holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Graz. I have tried, I really have, several times, to read this book; however, the author chooses to write as the narrator to her captive priest, and it’s clunky, awkward, jarring. I can never get more than a few pages in.

Perhaps, for me, Faschinger occupies a slightly different territory to that of Ishiguro: I want her to be good; Ishiguro I expected to be so. I tuck her back up on the shelf again.

How co-incidental that she sits there exactly next to Italo Calvino. Calvino can do no wrong. I read his Invisible Cities whilst immersed in architecture over twenty years ago now. There’s a halo hanging over that slim volume because of my immersion in such study, I suspect. Even now his writing has a knock-on effect: other writers who also write about Venice seem to benefit from Calvino’s halo.

Authors flirt with dangerous moments when their writing is picked up by a potential reader. What does it matter to them if that one copy doesn’t get sold? It matters because, as Professor Sutherland points out, humans are irrational creatures. First impressions have lasting effects.