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Thread: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

  1. #1
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    Oct 2014
    Uncanny Valley

    The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

    The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro:
    A Review by PB

    As I often blather, I believe in reading novels before watching film adaptations. That's because I refuse to forfeit my imagination to anyone else's vision of character or setting. Try reading Gone with the Wind (if you must) without seeing Clark Gable or hearing his gravelly, self-confident voice. Try reading The Wonderful Wizard of Oz without envisioning Judy Garland sporting her ruby slippers (even though Dorothy was six to nine years old in the book and the slippers were silver). Try imagining a literary setting in 19th century Kansas without every godawful Hollywood Western trying to mosey on in.

    And why is that so bad? Because it interrupts the human connection between author and reader--that intimate "clairvoyance" as Ian McEwan called it. Instead all is mediated through a director and producer and screenwriter's vision--which, of course, may be worth considering (and is even more interesting) after one's own imagination has had a go. But find out what lives in your own soul first.

    Anyways, I didn't do that with The Remains of the Day. I was reckless in my youth, so I counted my pennies and hurried off to the Academy Award winning motion picture starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Then I read Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, which of course was barely distinguishable from to me. But, in truth, I suffered worse things in those days. It was a great movie.

    Twenty-five years later (in fact, a few weeks ago), I decided to try an experiment. I would reread The Remains of the Day and see if Anthony and Emma were still poking about Darlington Hall. But no, they had moved on. Then I watched a crappy bootleg of the movie on YouTube. It was even better than I had remembered. But I was struck by how much it differed from the book I had just read. I wanted to go back and haunt that dumb kid (if you're allowed to haunt yourself) and tell him it's important to read a book before seeing the movie. But I guess he figured it out.

    On the face of it, The Remains of the Day is about a six-day drive made by Stevens, an aristocrat's manservant, through England's West Country about a decade after the Second World War. It's form is a journal Stevens keeps of his pathetic little tour (apparently his first), in which he waxes on and on about the philosophical ideals of butlerhood. The novel's real plot is comprised of digressions about Stevens' butler father; Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper; and Stevens' previous employer, Lord Darlington, a fascist sympathizer.

    The film version veers between a lachrymose love interest involving Miss Kenton and a sense of tragic historical inevitability: Stevens' way of life is ending--how sad, how sad! But the novel is darker and deeper. There is something wrong with Stevens, something broken. Ishiguro's theme is less tragedy than failure and waste. Stevens has wasted his life by turning it over to his master. His self-respect comes from a conviction that such subordination invests him with aristocratic dignity (this is essentially the argument he makes in his journal). But Stevens is a liar, and he has a gift for lying to himself. Near the novel's end, in a rare moment of candor, he admits that in abrogating moral responsibility to his master he has not even lived with the dignity of making his own mistakes. And his master's mistakes were grave indeed.

    Miss Kenton is another wasted opportunity for Stevens. He resists her attempts to bring a feminine touch to his repressed and sexless world. He is officious to her from the day they meet and is even psychologically cruel at times. Their relationship is softer and sweeter in the movie (Emma Thompson brings a tremendous amount to this character, whom Ishiguro constructs rather sketchily). Unable to verbalize his feelings, he seems a kind of Miles Standish or Cyrano de Bergerac figure. How sad, how sad! But the literary Stevens is simply a repressed neurotic, fearful of about emotional closeness with her or anyone else. But despite the self-deceptions that fill his journal, it is clear there was a moment when he could have gone to her, when she needed him, and that he knowingly turned away. So perhaps he did have at that one mistake of his own.

    Miss Kenton is the real reason for Stevens' journey to the west. He is going to meet her in hopes she will to return. In the movie, this is because (deep inside) he loves her and wants to return to a lost past. Those motives are probably buried somewhere in the literary Stevens' petrified psyche, but mostly he wants her to run things at Darlington Hall for him. During their long and unequal partnership, Miss Kenton's competence matched his own. But now Stevens is growing old and making errors. These terrify him (whatever he says in his journal) because he saw the same thing happen to his father, and he knows what happens to butlers who can no longer walk the supposedly dignified walk.

    If the Remains of the Day were only about an aging butler's personal and professional failures, it would be merely pathetic. But haunting Stevens journey is the memory of Lord Darlington's naive flirtation with fascism--a detail recalling the historical reality of a prewar appeasement movement (and sometimes worse) among certain British aristocrats. The problem of Stevens' passive compliance addresses one of the great mysteries of the 20th century: how could demonstrably civilized and professedly moral people have thrown in with the such blatant evil?

    Lord Darlington's motives are not hard to discern. He knew from 19th century British public schools taught that fair play was helping a fellow you had boxed down back to his feet. An officer in the First World War (where even then he may have been fraternizing with enemy officers), he and his postwar cabal find the Treaty of Versailles an abhoration. It wasn't how gentlemen treated one another. So, in Darlington's case, the road to hell led from a flowerbed of purportedly honorable intentions.

    But Stevens is harder to assess. On the face of it he is simply Lord Darlington's enabler. His greatest professional pride is a discreet international conference he orchestrated at Darlington Hall, which (as it happens) united fascist sympathizers across Europe. But Stevens' holiday journal is more instructive. His generation of butlers, he says (though he is actually talking about himself), "were idealists" to whom "the world was a wheel, revolving with these great houses at the hub, their mighty decisions emanating out to all else, rich and poor, who revolved around them." This is not fascism as such, but the covert power it implies is precisely what allowed the historical British fascists to operate outside popular government. In the novel, moreover, it is what brings to Darlington Hall Joachim Von Ribbentrop (Hitler's infamous foreign minister--later hanged for war crimes) in a successful attempt to circumvent the British Foreign Office. (Sorry to be vague--read the book).

    Not surprisingly, Darlington's progress is a morally degrading one. Eventually he falls under the "unusual influence" of (as Stevens puts it because he's too repressed to say became lovers with) a glamorous widow with ties to Sir Oswald Mosley, leader of the British Blackshirts (The British Union of Fascists and National Socialists). Darlington becomes Mosley's crony/dupe for at least the duration of the affair. During this period he takes the precaution (perhaps for social reasons, though it's hard to penetrate Stevens' bottomless lies) of purging all Jews from his employment. The film and novel handle this episode slightly differently, although both are effective and make their point. In the movie, the (somewhat) kinder, gentler Stevens is ordered to fire them. He protests strongly but politely to Lord Darlington, but when his master tells him there is nothing to be done, he complies at once. But the literary Stevens makes no such attempt. "It was a difficult task," he insists, "but as such, one that demanded to be carried out with dignity." Here again dignity is used as a euphemism for the self-effacing submission to authority from which Stevens ironically or perversely derives his self-esteem.

    After the war, of course, men like Darlington were toast. Mosley left Britain (as did many, including a jollier advocate of appeasement, P. G. Wodehouse), but the fictional Darlington merely dies in disgrace. And Stevens must be quite discreet about his late employer as he journeys through English villages full of families that lost boys in the war. But it is a struggle for him. He sometimes writes his address in guest registers as Darlington Hall, delighting (whatever he says in his journal) at being mistaken for an gentleman by wide-eyed yokels whom he does not bother correcting. At other times, he lies about his connection to Lord Darlington. Once, while stranded in a kitchen filling up with working class villagers, his sham aristocrat act is met by the earnestness of a respectful but opinionated villager who is a political organizer and nobody's fool. The man's sincerity--and genuine dignity--is contrasted with Stevens need to lie (and to compound lie upon lie) to sustain his supposed dignity.

    It is easy to miss this scene's significance in the novel as a whole. It reverses Stevens' cherished notion that Britain's aristocratic houses constitute the hub of a wheel from which morality and power emanate. This proposition--already discredited in the novel by the debacle of British fascism--is exposed as mere snobbery in Stevens' case and dangerous stupidity in Darlington's. What Ishiguro is talking about is democracy: the only real claim Britain has to having won (and not merely having failed to have lose) the Second World War. It is good that men like Darlington and Stevens did not prevail. Their failure was a good thing.

    As narrator, Stevens manages to be bland, unnerving, and funny all at the same time. Of course, he is not intending to be funny, but his lies are so egregious that one cannot help laughing at them. In fact, if The Remains of the Day has a flaw, it is that Ishiguro's devastating irony is something of a one-trick pony. One spends so much time trying to penetrate Stevens' fog of self-deception that it can be difficult find other ornaments of the landscape. Who, for example, is Miss Kenton really? All we know about her, aside from an ambiguous letter, is what Stevens says. And he is the last one we should trust.

    The Remains of the Day is a masterpiece. It may be the most effective subjective narrative ever written (it is the best I've read in any case), and I recommend it without reservation. The film is a masterpiece, too, but it is a different masterpiece. Literary devices like irony do not always carry over well, and the filmmakers did well to understand that. The result was a less harsh though somewhat more sentimental work. Some will want to remember Stevens and Miss Kenton that way and some won't. But all should have the choice. Books before movies. Make your own icons.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 06-08-2018 at 06:01 PM.

  2. #2
    A User, but Registered! tonywalt's Avatar
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    great review! - and you really nailed it that there was something terribly wrong about Stevens. In the end he figured out that he wasted opportunities (and a much better chance at a more fulfilling life).

    I loved this book and the movie. Ishiguro really gets in your head.

  3. #3
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    Oct 2014
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    Thanks, Tony. I appreciate it. Oddly enough, that scene where Stevens finally understands how much of his life he's wasted (the one where he says that he has not even made his own mistakes) was left out of the movie. It was filmed, though, and is reputed to have been quite moving--with Anthony Hopkins' version of Stevens weeping no less. But either Merchant or Ivory pulled it out at the last moment--probably so the film didn't get written off by critics as a tearjerker.
    Last edited by Pompey Bum; 06-08-2018 at 07:11 PM.

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