I’ve been thinking back to that Leo Benedictus article on ‘hindered narrators’ which crossed my mind whilst reading The Quiddity of Will Self. In it, Benedictus refers to the previous generation’s idea of ‘a literary novelist: a titan of the typewriter [whose] own voice was all you ever got from them, even when they swathed it in a made-up “I.”’ I’ve often had trouble with that sort of writing myself; I tend to think that a first-person voice should be tailored to the narrator’s character. That was one of the problems I had with Kazuo Ishiguro’s novella collection, Nocturnes – each of its narrators had the same voice, and it was one which didn’t suit all of them.
It was time to try Ishiguro’s work again, and I went for his most lauded novel, The Remains of the Day. I found that same first-person voice here, but its slightly stuffy formality works perfectly for this narrator: Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall in Oxfordshire, whom we join in July 1956, as he’s preparing to take a drive to the West Country. He’s planning to visit Miss Kenton (now Mrs Benn), a former housekeeper of the Hall, who has written to Stevens after many years, describing how her marriage has foundered and hinting (so Stevens reads into the letter) that she may wish to return to Darlington; Stevens’ pretext for the journey is to discuss the latter with Miss Kenton, because he’s struggling to manage the Hall with the few staff he has left; but there are hints from the beginning (and growing throughout) that there may be a more personal dimension to their relationship than Stevens is willing to admit.
Something else that didn’t sit right with me in Nocturnes was a character who was effectively dismissed completely as a person by a supposed friend, and just accepted it – I simply couldn’t imagine someone in the present day being so yielding about that. Again, I find similar character traits in The Remains of the Day; and, again, they make more sense in this context. Stevens’ life and outlook are defined by service: his job, as he sees it, is to facilitate the work of the gentlemen he serves; the man Stevens might otherwise be himself is subsumed under that notion of duty. To his mind, the most fundamental quality of a great butler (not that he would be so bold as to consider himself ‘great’, you understand) is ‘dignity’ – the capacity to retain one’s composure whatever the situation; not to let one’s inner life become apparent to the outside world. There’s no doubt Stevens has this capacity: the most extreme example is probably when Stevens’ father (who at the time was working under him at Darlington Hall) has a stroke and dies below stairs whilst his son is attending to a conference of dignitaries; Stevens carries on performing his duties, keeps his emotions largely in check, and still feels a small sense of ‘triumph’ thirty years on at being able to maintain his dignity on that occasion.
Stevens’ relationship with Miss Kenton is similarly characterised by such ‘dignity’. Their conversations, as he recalls them, are stiff and rather cold; when she tries to inject some warmth into them, Stevens doesn’t respond to it, and Miss Kenton in her turn becomes barbed and distant in how she deals with Stevens’ professional requests – but, crucially, he can’t now recall whether some criticisms came from Miss Kenton or his old employer, Lord Darlington; this both underlines how Stevens’ work and ‘personal’ life are as one to him, and emphasises the mental filter through which we’re viewing events.
The theme of conflict between private and public life is reflected not just in the person of Stevens, but also in wider life at the Hall. Stevens remarks at one point that important political decisions may influenced at private gatherings in country houses – and it’s such a diplomatic conference that Lord Darlington organises in the 1930s in an attempt to avert war; one delegate warns another in secret that he may be the target of manipulation – and, in an illustration of the social forces at work, this is brought sharply into the public sphere.
But it’s Stevens who is ultimately the focus of Ishiguro’s novel, and we see a man who lacks vital self-awareness. He may be at pains to stress – may believe ardently – that he’s a servant; but his bearing makes it easy enough for some of those he meets on the road to mistake Stevens for a gentleman. He acts well enough like a lord in his own domain; is quite unaware of the effect that can have on others; and takes the view that ‘ordinary people [cannot] be expected to have “strong opinions” on all manner of things’ (p. 204). It’s only gradually that Stevens comes to realise some of his negative qualities, and something of what he may have missed out on in life – and, even then, it’s clear he’s only just beginning. At the start of the novel, Stevens is unsure how to feel about and respond to his new American employer’s banter; by the end, he’s coming to think that banter ‘is not such a foolish thing to indulge in – particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth’ (p. 258). It’s the first step on a new road for him.
After I’d read the prologue of The Remains of the Day, I was concerned that the novel might be too unsubtle in its depiction of Stevens. Now I see I was approaching the book in the wrong way: what Ishiguro does is take a character who might border on caricature and make a fully-fledged individual of him. So I’ve come to appreciate Ishiguro’s work that bit more with The Remains of the Day; it’ll be Never Let Me Go when I read him next, I think.