Recipe for literature that does not go out of fashion

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Time for a third instalment in my series dissecting the secrets of great writers.

I read The Remains of the Day because I was inspired by an interview with the author following him receiving the Nobel Prize in Literature. Ishiguro sounded like such a thoughtful, collected character. In short, I liked him as a person and wanted to find out more about him as a writer.

In The Remains of the Day, Stevens takes respite from his butler’s duty to undertake a short excursion into West Country to visit Miss Kenton, a woman who once worked with him as Lord Darlington’s housekeeper. On his travels, he reminisces about his life dedicated to serving his master, proudly and faithfully and, somewhat on the margin, about the ups and downs of his volatile relations with Miss Kenton, about his father and about his tiny life in the grander scheme of things.

The mastery of this book lies in how Ishiguro manages to superimpose Stevens’s ordinary, little-man’s life onto the bigger picture of the malfunctioning class system and the politics of appeasement preceding the outbreak of WW2. Or perhaps, it is the wheel of history that is superimposed on Stevens’s life. The distinction isn’t clear. None of them seem to be favoured by the author as more significant. Stevens narrates the story and to him the detail of everyday etiquette and silver-polishing is equally important as Lord Darlington’s anti-Semitic antics and top-secret meetings with influential if disingenuous politicians. Stevens doesn’t judge his employer. He knows his place and doesn’t resent it (unlike the reader). His unconditional loyalty is to his job. It takes precedence of his own father, over his undoubtedly deep but supressed feelings for Miss Kenton and over his better judgment in relation to Lord Darlington’s treacherous politics.

Ishiguro has captured Stevens perfectly: through his tone, his language, his actions. Stevens is more aristocratic than the lords he is serving; he is more dignified, more stiff-upper-lip and more complex, despite his self-deprecating efforts.  His little holiday exposes him to the world at large and the reader watches him squirm on the hook of the unwelcome reality from which he has been detached for the best part of his life. Yet, despite his aloofness and dogged devotion to a rotten aristocrat, one finds him very human, very fallible and very worthy of having his own say before the day is up.

 

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