Tuesday, February 28, 2017

On the nightstand: "The Remains of the Day"

    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."
     "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."
     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.


  1. Made into a wonderful film staring Anthony Hopkins, Emma Thompson and James Fox. The late, very lamented, Christopher Reeves played the American Congressman who had, in fact, seen through Lord Darlington.

    I recall in particular a scene in which one of Lord Darlington's guests, making a point that common people are not equipped to understand affairs of state, embarrasses the butler by asking him to address complicated political and financial questions.

    Tom Evans

    1. One of my favorite movies; who doesn't love Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.


    2. I think I saw it too. IIRC, the British fascist sympathizer comes off as quite the dimwit.

    3. Scribe, Yes indeed. But for me, the fascinating role of Hopkins playing the butler Stevens was a treasure. He for all intents and purposes had to deaden his own humanity in order to serve in the turbulent atmosphere of that household, sacrificing all emotion in the process.


  2. Hunh? That abrupt end sounds portentous.

  3. "He motors along in his boss's elegant Ford." Don't know about the book, but in the film it was a Daimler. No such thing as an elegant Ford.

    An insight into the British class system is given when the car and his correct manner garner respect when he stops in a pub, but one customer then guesses, correctly, that he was "in service."



  4. Not sure if you'll see this, TE but a Lincoln is a fancy type of Ford, in a way.

    1. I had that same thought, but wasn't sure that they counted.


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