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The Remains of the Day (1988)
Booker Prize Winners (1989)
On a recent Booknotes, Peter Hitchens (brother of Christopher and resident of the opposite end of the political spectrum) was discussing his book The Abolition of Britain. Framed by the funerals of Winston Churchill and Princess Di, the book argues that the greatness of Britain has passed, subsumed in the familiar morass of statism, political correctness, and egalitarianism. After listening to his lament, Brian Lamb asked him what one thing about that now departed Britain he would most like to bring back; Hitchens answer : "Mainly civility..." Now, much of the conservative yearning for the past must be taken with a grain of salt--no one, or very few, think the world was actually a better place fifty years ago, with Jim Crow laws and the like--but on this one point conservatives clearly have a case for the superiority of the past : nothing good has come of the coarsening of society. The complete abandonment of manners and etiquette has been an unmitigated disaster.
The argument against civility and manners is that they represent an artificial facade; and we after all live in an age when you're supposed to "act naturally," "be yourself," "let it all hang out," etc., ad nauseum. In the first place, the serious and determined cultivation of civility ( a la George Washington) can serve to shape the underlying person : careful tending to the facade can result in the edifice coming to resemble its front. Second, even if public behavior based on strict etiquette is a front, it is favorable to the alternative : better to be treated decently by someone who loathes you than to be treated in a manner that coincides with their true feelings. Which brings us to the final point, having seen what we're all really like without our masks of civility on, does anyone really want their fellow man to keep on letting it all hang out ? While everyone is busy "being themselves," we've come to the sad realization that we don't much like those selves. Which is not to say that we would liked those selves any better fifty years ago, but, thankfully, fifty years ago those selves weren't on display, instead everyone presented an admittedly artificial, but blessedly good mannered self to the world.
Come we now to Kazuo Ishiguro's justly praised novel, The Remains of the Day. In the character of Mr. Stevens, a nearly perfect English butler, Ishiguro created one of the most memorable and sympathetic figures in all of fiction. As Stevens drives his new American employer's car across the countryside, on his way to visit a former housekeeper, Miss Kenton, whom he hopes to lure back top work at Darlington Hall, he reflects on his years of service to Lord Darlington and his own rather complicated relationship with Miss Kenton. Through a series of flashbacks, we learn that Lord Darlington was a leading light in the movement to appease Hitler prior to WWII, and that, though neither ever managed to articulate their feelings, Stevens and Miss Kenton were very likely in love with one another, though she eventually left to marry another former staffer. Eventually, as our modern sensibilities seem to require, Stevens comes to understand that he has made a series of dubious, perhaps even tragic, choices, and that both his service to Darlington and his failure to woo Miss Kenton have resulted in his wasting his life.
That at least is the intended lesson we are to draw from the story. But lurking within this rather flaccid moral is an ever greater tragedy, one which makes Stevens one of the truly great heroes of Western literature, until his rather maudlin closing scenes make him seem pathetic. The more intriguing reading of the story is that Stevens--with his unyielding professionalism, his ethic of service, and his personal reserve--represents all that was best about the society that has passed. Like Don Quijote, he stubbornly adheres to a code which the rest of the world has forsaken, and like Quijote, his idealism, though easily caricatured, is more appealing than the real world that he refuses to accede to.
Ishiguro stacks the deck against this interpretation in two particular ways. First, he makes Darlington and the "appeasers" into pure tools of the Nazis and casts them as a tiny band of wholly deluded aberrations. In fact, appeasement, so-called, was extraordinarily popular at the time. It was actually those few in favor of War, like Winston Churchill, who were the social outcasts and were considered outside the mainstream of political thought. It is instructive that William Manchester's very good book on Churchill during these years is called, simply : Alone. For all that Ishiguro treats Neville Chamberlain like a member of a clandestine cabal, bent on foisting a secret appeasement on Britain, it is well to remember that he was hailed as a hero when he returned from Munich having secured "peace in our time." when a democratic leader achieves the will of the overwhelming majority of the people, he may be said to have acted unwisely, but he can hardly be said to have acted beyond the bounds of reason.
Nor is it as self evident as some would like that the appeasers were wrong, even in retrospect, if we consider only British national interests. There is no likelihood that the Nazis ever could have conquered Britain, nor that they could have long held it had they succeeded. The War, though it ultimately ended with Nazi Germany defeated, devastated Britain. The civilization for which Winston Churchill fought did not long survive him, which inevitably raises the question of whether it was a worthwhile fight.
Ishiguro counts on our willfully blind remembrance of the War, which has been glorified into a popular and noble struggle against the Holocaust and its perpetrators, to make Darlington seem more ridiculous than the events of the day or subsequent history would indicate him to be. The intent is of course to cast a pall over Stevens's service to the man, by debasing the cause he served, but this is manifestly unfair. Moreover, it raises an unfortunate analogy between fascism and the English pre-War culture, such that Darlington's service to the Nazis is akin to Steven's service to Darlington, as if the two are intertwined. This is ludicrous.
There were, of course, British fascists. And anti-Semitism was prevalent and virulent, though not as virulent as in continental Europe. But to portray Darlington as a genuine fascist or anti-Semite would make him so abhorrent that Steven's loyalty to him would not be at all sympathetic. But the demands of the novel should not have led Ishiguro to completely rewrite history. We are ignorant enough of our own history without the popular culture further clouding it.
As for Miss Kenton, here to Ishiguro tries to have it both ways. She is only slightly less reserved than Stevens--after all, it's not as if she ever comes right out and tells him how she feels either. But at the same time, he has her flee, rather than work things out. And they would work out eventually : even proper English butlers married and had kids, witness Stevens's own father. Perhaps their reserve would have made the process agonizingly slow, but we have no doubt it would eventually have happened and, in the meantime, their relationship, though stilted, had always seemed one of immense rewards and real affection, however frustrating at times.
At novel's end, it's hard not to feel that it was Miss Kenton who made the mistake by leaving, rather than Stevens by not stopping her. A Stevens who was capable of the type of emotional openness for which Miss Stevens seems to be pleading, and which Ishiguro apparently thinks healthy, would not even be the same person with whom both she and we have fallen in love. This is the odd paradox of the novel : Ishiguro has crafted this character who readers love, but is suggesting that he should be someone else entirely.
Though the author intends us to see tragedy in Stevens inability to change, it is far easier to perceive tragedy in the way the surrounding world did change. The world of Churchill and Darlington and Stevens has been, as Peter Hitchens says, abolished. In its stead stands the Britain of Tony Blair and Charles and Camilla and Elton John. Gone are gentlemen's gentlemen. Gone are gentlemen. Gone is the ideal of "dignity" of which Stevens so often speaks in the novel. How can that conceivably be a good thing ?
See also:Kazuo Ishiguro (2 books reviewed)
Booker Prize Winners
Granta Best British Novelists (1983)
-EXCERPT : First Chapter of When We Were Orphans
-TRIBUTE : Gentle giant : Malcolm Bradbury has died, aged 68. Kazuo Ishiguro, a former student, recalls a generous and inspiring teacher (November 28, 2000 The Guardian)
-INTERVIEW : Wednesday, October 11, 2000 at the Writer's Guild Theatre, Los Angeles (F.X. Feeney)
-INTERVIEW : A Fugitive from the Past : Mixing memory and desire, Kazuo Ishiguro's new novel [When We Were Orphans] returns to the scene of innocence lost (Atlantic Monthly)
-Interview: Kazuo Ishiguro (Lewis Burke Frumkes, Writer Magazine)
-INTERVIEW : with Kazuo Ishiguro (Linda Richards, January Magazine)
-INTERVIEW : Chaos As Metaphor: An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro (Peter Oliva, Pages on Kensington)
-INTERVIEW : Kazuo Ishiguro (ALDEN MUDGE , Book Page)
-AUDIO INTERVIEW : with Kazuo Ishiguro (Ramona Koval, Books and Writing)
-INTERVIEW : with Kazuo Ishiguro (LESLIE FORBES, The Globe and Mail )
- paleview.com : Kazuo Ishiguro Page
-Kazuo Ishiguro: An Overview
-Kazuo Ishiguro (Levity.com)
-Kazuo Ishiguro (1954 - ) (Booker McConell Prize Pages)(Bradley C. Shoop University of Tennessee--Chattanooga)
-the Internet Public Library : Online Literary Criticism Collection : Kazuo Ishiguro (1954 - )
-PROFILE : Who Is The Unconsoled? : A Profile of Novelist Kazuo Ishiguro (Barbara Ohno, Mars Hill Review, Summer 1996)
-PROFILE : Between two worlds : Kazuo Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki and raised in the home counties. (Suzie Mackenzie, March 25, 2000, The Guardian)
-PROFILE : A Case of Cultural Misperception (SUSAN CHIRA, NY Times)
-PROFILE : An Artist of the World : Born in Nagasaki, raised in Great Britain, Kazuo Ishiguro talks about Japanese culture, English taste and American rock 'n' roll. (Helen M. Jerome, Book Magazine)
-PROFILE : In the land of memory : Kazuo Ishiguro remembers when (Adam Dunn, CNN Interactive)
-PROFILE : Kazuo Ishiguro (Ellen Uchimiya, Central Booking)
-LIST : Granta's 20 Best British Novelists, 1993
-ESSAY : The Remains of the Day : Regret and Repression (Susan Jensen, Suite 101.com)
-ESSAY : Zen Comedy in Commonwealth Literature: Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day
-ESSAY : 'Imaginary Homelands Revisited in the Novels of Kazuo Ishiguro (Rocio G. DAVIS, Universidad de Navarra)
-ESSAY : Americanizing Japan (Neena Gill, Road to East Asia : A journal on contemporary East Asian literature in English, Written by students at Founders College, York University, June-August, 1997)
-ESSAY : From submission to resistance (Sarah Tan, Road to East Asia, June-August, 1996)
-READERS GUIDE : to The Unconsoled (Random House)
-ARCHIVES : "ishiguro" (NY Review of Books)
-ARCHIVES : "kazuo ishiguro" (Find Articles)
-ARCHIVES : "kazuo ishiguro" (Mag Portal)
-REVIEW : of A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro (Carly Wells)
-REVIEW : of A Pale View of Hills by Kazuo Ishiguro (Julie Allen)
-REVIEW : of The Remains of the Day By Kazuo Ishiguro (MICHIKO KAKUTANI , NY Times)
-REVIEW : of THE REMAINS OF THE DAY By Kazuo Ishiguro (Lawrence Graver, NY times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro (Jehan Weerasinghe , The Literary Page)
-REVIEW : of AN ARTIST OF THE FLOATING WORLD By Kazuo Ishiguro (Kathryn Morton, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of THE UNCONSOLED By Kazuo Ishiguro (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of THE UNCONSOLED By Kazuo Ishiguro (Louis Menand, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : of The Unconsoled (Paul Gray, TIME)
-REVIEW : of The Unconsoled By Kazuo Ishiguro (Lauren Walsh, Metro Active)
-REVIEW : of The Unconsoled (Cynthia Kirkby, The Brunswickan)
-REVIEW : of WHEN WE WERE ORPHANS By Kazuo Ishiguro (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
-REVIEW : of When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro (Michael Gorra, NY Times Book Review)
-REVIEW : Pico Iyer: Foreign Affair, NY Review of Books
When We Were Orphans by Kazuo Ishiguro
-REVIEW : of When We Were Orphans (Gavin McNett, Salon)
-REVIEW : of WHEN WE WERE ORPHANS By Kazuo Ishiguro KAZUO ISHIGURO'S LATEST NOVEL EXPLORES THE COMPLICATED AND UNCERTAIN TERRAIN OF THE MIND (Peter Ho Davies. Chicago Tribune)
-REVIEW : of When We Were Orphans (Pam Perry, CNN)
-REVIEW : of When We Were Orphans (James Wood, New Republic)
-REVIEW : of When We Were Orphans (Maya Jaggi, The Guardian)
-REVIEW : of When We Were Orphans (Philip Hensher, The Observer)
-REVIEW : of When We Were Orphans : Ishiguro's infatuation with Englishness deadens tone of 'Orphans' : The author of `Remains of the Day' looks to the East once again in a perhaps overly ponderous exploration of the impact of history on people's lives (Bradley Winterton, Taipei Times)
-BOOK LIST : "This is it!" : The author of "The Blue Flower" picks five novels that rocked her world. (PENELOPE FITZGERALD, Salon)
Your need to mention Elton John is one of the strangest things I've seen on this site.
- Dec-18-2006, 13:55