Tuesday, July 2, 2013

The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go is one of the best novels I have ever read. It lives up to the kind of hyperbole you might read in the blurbs: exquisite, profound, devastating.

Up to now I had not read his equally acclaimed earlier book, The Remains of the Day, although I had seen the fine Merchant Ivory screen adaptation some years ago. I have mixed feelings about the novel. There is no question about the craft: Ishiguro is a master. The story uses a clever construction: our protagonist and narrator Stevens recounts episodes from his life while driving through the English countryside on his way to meet his former colleague of many years ago, the housekeeper Miss Kenton. The plot's momentum builds as his memories, expectations, and physical journey converge on his destination, and his destiny.

The central theme is a mainstay of the English novel: self-delusion. Like a character from Austen or Eliot, Stevens appears not to be in touch with his true feelings, and the consequences are both comical and sad. I say "appears," because Stevens is an unreliable narrator. He occasionally admits that his memories of some key incidents may have been faulty, and then offers an alternative account. He does not lie directly, but sometimes allows the misapprehensions of others to persist. Can we trust him to be honest with us... or himself?

This ambiguity fuels the psychological mystery that lies at the heart of the book: Is Stevens a monster, incapable of deep human emotions and attachments; or has he so repressed his feelings that only rarely do they bubble up to the surface of his consciousness; or is he in fact a tortured soul, perpetually struggling to suppress any outward display of emotion in the name of his misguided butler's code of "dignity"? Ishiguro allows Stevens to let himself off the hook near the end:
I do not think I responded immediately, for it took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover, as you might appreciate, their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed--why should I not admit it?--at that moment, my heart was breaking.
Perhaps so. And I wish I could sympathize, but I can't. I never much liked this fellow, and I sense that Ishiguro didn't either. There's no reason that the reader should have to love a novel's main character.  But if the author does not, can the character, or the book, come to life?

1 comment:

  1. I liked "Never Let Me Go". Didn't much care for his "An Artist of the Floating World".