Sunday, June 07, 2009

Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day

I saw the film of course - I've probably seen it a few times actually. Based on the film I was expecting something a little more passionate and tense, but my impression of the novel is softer, more humorous, although obviously melancholic. There are parallells to Never Let Me Go; as in that book we find out gradually, as our narrator in analytical detail remembers the past, that there was a dark shade to it, something that wasn't as safe and reassuring as you might think. Here the German sympathies of Lord Darlington provide the unpleasant backdrop, as he, easily led, becomes more or less a Nazi puppet while his butler shakes off any personal responsability, certain that Lord Darlington knows what is best and that serving such a great man is a reward in itself.

You read almost the entire book without fully realising why Miss Kenton, the housekeeper, reacts so passionately towards some of the things Mr Stevens does, why she takes things so personally. After all you're reading Stevens point of view, his reminiscing and justification over and of the past. Then at the very very end, there is the bit where Miss Kenton, who is now Mrs Benn, says to Stevens that the reason for her feeling unhappy at times is because she can't help thinking about what a life she might have led.

"And you get to thinking about a different life, a better life you might have had. For instance, I get to thinking about a life I might have had with you, Mr Stevens. And I suppose that's when I get angry over some trivial little thing and leave."

And Stevens admits to himself and us that at that moment, his heart breaks. But he rallies and hides it, and says his cordial goodbyes. This is beautiful. It's wrenching in its simplicity and in its understated emotionality. The great thing about Ishiguro's novels is how you don't understand everything that's been going on until the end, and that unmasking of what it seems is quite important.

It's quite as lovely as Never Let Me Go. Now I wish I had another Ishiguro to read. I feel this wish to stay in that mood or spell that Ishiguro's writing conjures up. Unfortunately I didn't make it upstairs to the English section when I was at the library last, because I brought Minimus and the pram, so I settled for the paperback swivel shelf (with selected novels) they have at the foot of the stairs. I picked up quite a few books then, and the other one in my bag is a Zoë Heller, Notes on a Scandal. It's probably going to be good too, but it's a whole different mood. Hm.

Incidentally, flipping through the last pages of The Remains of the Day I was reading the blurbs about the other books that Faber & Faber Ltd have to offer - I was thinking about how those days must surely be over now, when people read a paperback and proceeded to order another one based on these summaries and reviews, using the order form on the very last page, and I wonder if anybody ever did that at all? Surely people have always gone to book shops? Maybe this was a service used by lonely readers on isolated islands or something? and I noticed how this book was printed in 1999 and the order page has an e-mail address and a web URL for reference, so this must be the dying gasp of an old paperback tradition - anyway, I was reading the suggestions and got quite interested in a much-endorsed novel by Peter Carey called Oscar and Lucinda, "also a major film starring Ralph Fiennes and Cate Blanchett", and I was a bit amused by the fact that Cate Blanchett's face adorns Notes on a Scandal, since she was in that film too. Such little coincidences form the fabric of life, eh?

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