I is for Isolated (Ishiguro)

What I read: Remains of the Day Kazuo Ishiguro.

Actually, "I" is also for melancholy and poignancy, only I couldn't find any "I" synonyms for those words.

There aren't many "I" authors! I chose Kazuo Ishiguro's Remains of the Day, an excellent choice, and, I might add, not a novel that I ever would have picked up if not for this little exercise (and the dearth of other "I"s).

*Some spoilers included.*

I wouldn't have picked up Remains of the Day because I'm not a big fan of broken-heartedness, and I knew enough about the book to know it nose-dives into broken-hearted territory. However, the structure of the book is so enchanting that the broken-heartedness or poignancy creeps up on you (rather than clobbering you on the head). It is inexpressibly touching and inexpressibly sad and well-worth reading.

It is also surprisingly funny. The whole section about "bird and bees" and young Cardinal is hilarious. There are also a number of sad funny parts, like the section where Mr. Stevens allows the Taylors and their friends to think he is a gentleman (in the titled sense of the word) and then finds himself getting deeper and deeper into a conversation he doesn't know how to stop.

Basically, Remains of the Day is the story of a man with a remarkable gift for self-deception. What he doesn't want to see runs the book. Part of this blindness is choice; part of it seems to be built-in. He adopts his father's lessons about dignity but fails to understand the real lesson of his father's example--for instance, how his father refused to drive around the gentlemen who were criticizing his employer. Stevens sees only the Spock-like "show no emotion/don't react" part of these examples, not the moral rightness behind them.

I knew a law professor who used Remains of the Day (the movie) to explore the idea of attorney ethics: at what point does an attorney have the ethical obligation to object to a client's behavior--not simply do what the client asks? It's an interesting question, especially since the book (and movie) make clear that Lord Darlington (Stevens' employer) is uncomfortable with many of his decisions and that Stevens could, in fact, have influenced him.

On the other hand, however, I think the book illustrates that Stevens' self-imposed isolation is partly psychological: Stevens is a fundamentally decent person as shown by his treatment of his father. Yet, he seems unable to connect with people. At several points in the book, Lord Darlington and young Cardinal give Stevens the chance to open up. These are people who care about him and who could directly improve his life. He backs away from these opportunities. I'm also reminded of Manor House in which the architect-become-temporary-butler reflects that the class structure makes communication--real, thoughtful communication--between master and butler tremendously difficult.

Except . . . Stevens' need to be butler for a man of great moral worth rests directly on the dilemma that his employer, a decent man, is behaving badly. In the one place where Stevens could directly object to that behavior--the dismissal of the two Jewish maids--he does not. The book, consequently, becomes a kind of monologue of justification. He WAS right to serve his master unquestioningly. He WASN'T responsible for the outcome.

The outcome is that his master is stripped of moral worth publicly (after the war) for being a German collaborator and pushing appeasement with Hitler. Stevens' road trip becomes not just Stevens' attempt to reunite with Miss Kenton but also his attempt to become the gentleman (from Darlington Hall) that his master failed to be. In that way, his life will not have been a failure.

I watched the movie immediately after finishing the book. It was something of a disappointment. If I had seen the movie first, I would not have read the book since the movie is one of those depressing-atmosphere-included Ivory Merchant films. However, Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson are right on as Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton. I was especially impressed by Emma Thompson--from the ads (way back in 1993), I got the impression that Miss Kenton was a kind of virago: the stubborn outspoken housekeeper who softens the butler's heart. Well, that's kind of right. But she is much more complex than that, being kind, shrewish, passive-aggressive, emotive, wounded, somewhat immature, and inexpressibly lonely. In fact, what stands out in the movie is the loneliness of these two people.

The movie, by the way, shortens the time period between Miss Kenton arriving and WWII. This makes sense. On the other hand, I like the book's two decade stretch. It helps illustrate how well-meaning elite thinking can, in its well-meaning elite way, cause such havoc in the long-run. Lord Darlington is not, necessarily, incorrect about the nastiness of the Treaty of Versailles. And he is very idealistic. And very honourable. And completely and totally wrong.

This is a good lesson to remember. Many elite intellectuals in England initially supported Hitler as well as Stalin. Whenever people try to tell me that what America needs is a "really smart" president, I always remember this. Mob-rule has its problems. A well-meaning elite, whether aristocratic or academic, is nothing to get all excited about. The politics of environmentalism, for instance, appear idealistic and honourable and right. They are supported by many (long-winded) intellectual and political elites. But I wonder how long it will take political correctness to swing around to condemning supporters of things like the Kyoto Global Warming Treaty as elite racists whose measures held back developing countries in typical "great white man" arrogance.

When it happens, I will be able to say, "They didn't mean it. That wasn't what they saw themselves doing at all." But I can't say I'll be sprinting to their defense.

1 comment:

a calvinist preacher said...

I'm glad you enjoyed it. I loved Ishiguro's use of language in the book. The man can turn a phrase!

Yes, it is poignant. But the moral questions he explores and the way he explores them were helpful to me when I first read it as a military chaplain.

How does a corporal tell his colonel he's wrong without undermining the hierarchy of military class distinctions? Should he just keep silence and assume colonels can't be wrong? When do you take the one path, and when the other, and what sacrifices of humanity, of character, of self does each entail?