The state of the country being what it is, it seems increasingly essential to have a good book nearby to lose myself in as need be, or at least to look forward to losing myself in, a respite from the daily stirring of the pot that our president finds useful to keep the public distracted from what he has already done.
A good friend recommended Kazuo Ishiguro's novel, The Remains of the Day, and I hurried to the library to pick it up.
The story is a week in the life of Stevens, the aging veteran butler at Darlington Hall, as he drives to Cornwall to meet the manor's long-ago housekeeper, Miss Kenton, now married, though perhaps not happily. It's after World War II, and much has changed—his longtime employer, Lord Darlington, died three years earlier, and was recently replaced by an upstart American businessman, Mr. Farraday. He motors along in his boss's elegant Ford, musing on the past, various revered butlers he has known, his father's decline.
The central joy of the book is the tone, the voice, Mr. Stevens always restrained observations on the nature of "dignity," his failed attempts to engage in banter with his new boss.
Passing a signpost for Murssden, the home of Giffen and Company, makers of "dark candles of polish," a technical innovation "which came to push the polishing of silver to the position of central importance it still by and large maintains today," Stevens sets off on several pages on the importance of well-buffed silver, the highlight being:
"I recall also watching Mr George Bernard Shaw, the renowned playwright, at dinner one evening, examining closely the dessert spoon before him, holding it up to the light and comparing its surface to that of a nearby platter, quite oblivious to the company around him."
Either you get that or you don't. The book is one slow reveal, and the less said, the better. The ending also offers up a steaming dollop of philosophy that I know I'll value as the darkness gathers. Or try to anyway.
Though the peril of escaping from the daily headlines in a book is that the news follows you there. I don't think I'm revealing too much to say as The Remains of the Day clicks along like a hall clock, Lord Darlington's politics don't hold up well. In the mid-1930s, Lord Darlington comes under the sway of British fascists, leading to this:
"I've been doing a great deal of thinking, Stevens. A great deal of thinking. And I've reached my conclusion. We cannot have Jews on the staff here at Darlington Hall."That word—"safety"—just glowed on the page. Sound familiar? Though now we'd say "security" and the parties that our best interests demand be kept at a distance are now Muslims. But the logic, or rather, the illogic, is exactly the same.
"It's for the good of this house, Stevens. In the interests of the guests we have staying here. I've looked into this carefully, Stevens, and I'm letting you know my conclusion.
"Very well, sir."
"Tell me, Stevens, we have a few on the staff at the moment, don't we? Jews, I mean."
"I believe two of the present staff members would fall into that category, sir."
His lordship paused for a moment, staring out of this window.
"Of course, you'l have to let them go."
"I beg your pardon, sir?"
"It's regrettable, Stevens, but we have no choice. There's the safety and well-being of my guests to consider. Let me assure you, I've looked into this matter and thought it through thoroughly. It's in all our best interests."