Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Why Should I Read...?

The Remains of the Day
Kazuo Ishiguro, 1989

Take a lord with some very strange notions and an ability to get himself into all kinds of trouble, and his selfless butler who ensures that everything is running smoothly behind the scenes. That's the set-up for Jeeves and Wooster, but Lord Darlington, the well-bred fool in The Remains of the Day, has peccadilloes more serious than getting in trouble with his aunt. Lord Darlington, in fact, is a Fascist. And his butler, Stevens, is certainly no Jeeves.

The Remains of the Day is deceptively simple. It's a classic unreliable narrator story, with Stevens reflecting on his years in Lord Darlington's service as he takes a motoring tour. Ishiguro captures Steven's voice perfectly: pedantic, opinionated, repressed. The humour in his stiff phraseology is not unlike Jeeves, but where Wodehouse's character is comic, Stevens' lack of self-awareness is tragic. The reader realises long before Stevens the depth of the relationship between the butler and the housekeeper Miss Kenton--and sees all the chances that he had to act on it--and also the nature of Lord Darlington's sympathies. When Stevens' father dies upstairs, Stevens simply gets on with the job of ensuring his lordship's guests are comfortable. Too late, Stevens comes to realise his mistakes, and that all the years he has spent debating the qualities of a "great butler" or the nature of "dignity" have just been ways of blocking off his emotions.

Ishiguro controls Stevens' voice with precision, and he avoids the temptation to make Lord Darlington too obvious a blackguard. His political views are unpalatable, and the episode where he dismisses his Jewish servants painful (although not as distressing as Stevens' quiescence), but he is presented as a sincere, if fundamentally misguided figure.

The Remains of the Day is a deep and subtle meditation on reflection and emotion, and a melancholy love story of the first rank.

How has it influenced me?
The Remains of the Day is an excellent example of how to make the reader care about an essentially unsympathetic character. I've never tried a sustained first-person narrative of this sort, but if I were to do so, this would be one of the first novels I studied. So much of the information the reader is given is indirect--much of the pleasure for the reader is in seeing things long before Stevens does

Lessons for the aspiring writer
  • unhappy endings can be oddly uplifting
  • love stories don't always have to pay off in the expected ways
  • the precise language of the butler/bureaucrat/pedant is a good source of humour
  • you can convey an awful lot of information indirectly--and often the reader will prefer to receive it that way
  • you can rely on the reader to do most of the work, if you plant the right seeds


David Isaak said...

Good points all round. Oddly, there's something about a deeply repressed, unaware main character that works very much like a child as a main character--all this content that is invisible to the character but visible to the reader.

That's one of those books where you say, "They made a movie of what?" But althouhg it lost a lot of layers, it worked surprisingly nicely on screen as well, I thought. (Not everyone agrees, I admit...)

Tim Stretton said...

I haven't seen the film, but "deceived narrator" structures certainly present a challenge. I can imagine Anthony Hopkins doing justice to Stevens - but am less convinced by the thought of Emma Thompson, who eggs always come with a liberal side-order of ham...

David Isaak said...

Emma's pretty restrained in this one. The whole production is kept on a pretty tight rein.

And, yeah--Hopkins is perfect.