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Salman Rushdie celebrates the resurgence of Kazuo Ishiguro’s legendary novel, The Remains of the Day. (Michael Falco For The Globe and Mail)
Salman Rushdie celebrates the resurgence of Kazuo Ishiguro’s legendary novel, The Remains of the Day. (Michael Falco For The Globe and Mail)

Salman Rushdie on Kazuo Ishiguro: His legendary novel The Remains of the Day resurges Add to ...

The real story here is that of a man destroyed by the ideas upon which he has built his life. Stevens is much preoccupied by “greatness,” which, for him, means something very like restraint. The greatness of the British landscape lies, he believes, in its lack of the “unseemly demonstrativeness” of African and American scenery. It was his father, also a butler, who epitomized this idea of greatness; yet it was just this notion which stood between father and son, breeding deep resentments and an inarticulacy of the emotions that destroyed their love.

In Stevens’s view, greatness in a butler “has to do crucially with the butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits.” This is linked to Englishness. Continentals and Celts do not make good butlers because of their tendency to “run about screaming” at the slightest provocation. Yet it is Stevens’s longing for this kind of “greatness” that has wrecked his one chance of finding romantic love. Hiding within his role, he long ago drove Miss Kenton away into the arms of another man. “Why, why, why do you always have to pretend?” she asks him in despair, revealing his greatness to be a mask, a cowardice, a lie.

Stevens’s greatest defeat is the consequence of his most profound conviction – that his master is working for the good of humanity, and that his own glory lies in serving him. But Lord Darlington is, and is finally disgraced as, a Nazi collaborator and dupe. Stevens, a cut-price St. Peter, denies him at least twice, but feels forever tainted by his master’s fall. Darlington, like Stevens, is destroyed by a personal code of ethics. His disapproval of the ungentlemanly harshness towards the Germans of the Treaty of Versailles is what propels him towards his collaborationist doom. Ideals, Ishiguro shows us, can corrupt as thoroughly as cynicism.

The film version of The Remains of the Day softens the book’s portrait of Lord Darlington. Sympathetically portrayed with a stiff-upper-lip aplomb that slowly disintegrates, he comes across as more of a fool than a villain, more to be pitied than censured. Ishiguro’s novel is less equivocal, its portrait of the British aristocracy’s flirtation with Nazism untinged by sentiment. In this matter Stevens is an unreliable narrator, making excuses for his lordship – “Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all” – but the reader is allowed to see more clearly than the butler, and can’t make any such excuse.

At least Lord Darlington chose his own path. “I cannot even claim that,” Stevens mourns. “You see, I trusted … I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really –one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?” His whole life has been a foolish mistake, and his only defence against the horror of this knowledge is the same capacity for self-deception which proved his undoing. It’s a cruel and beautiful conclusion to a story both beautiful and cruel.

With The Remains of the Day, Ishiguro turned away from the Japanese settings of his first two novels and revealed that his sensibility was not rooted in any one place, but capable of travel and metamorphosis. “By the time I started The Remains of the Day,” he told the Paris Review, “I realized that the essence of what I wanted to write was movable … For me, the essence doesn’t lie in the setting.” Where, then, might that essence lie? “Without psychoanalyzing myself, I can’t say why. You should never believe an author if he tells you why he has certain recurring themes.”

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