Buttling Dis-Service. A Review of The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

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Butler, c. 1922. Wikimedia commons

WTF Harold Pinter?, RIP. WTF Ann Beattie? WTF Salman Rushdie? This is not “beautifully composed” nor “a perfect novel” nor is it “brilliant” dear blurbers. Do big name authors provide endorsements to get their name on as many covers as possible, something about their own marketing campaign strategy, or do they sign contracts that demand they write a certain number of hyperbolically positive blurbs. The Remains of the Day (ROTD) never leaps beyond mediocrity yet based on the blurbs you’d think the next Tolstoy had clamored out of a manhole. In the interest of disclosure, this is the first Ishiguro book I’ve read, and if it’s considered one of his best, then again, WTF?

ROTD is basically a novel of mannered superficialities and surface. Characters are named but they are each polystyrene caricatures in the form of the butler type, the maid type, the rich estate owner type, the world leader type. Each fits the stereotypes one would write up on a character sheet when planning a novel. The butler speaks in butlerese, the maid is typified by her lack in controlling her emotions, the estate owners are somewhat aloof, the world leaders smoke cigars and discuss issues behind closed doors. Oh goody gumdrops more standard fodder for all those Doubt-whatever the F it was-Abbey’s gah gah fans and — I can only imagine how horrible it must have been to sit through the movie. As for character development or insight, readers are stranded. But that said, we’ll persevere.

Ishiguro appears to have stumbled upon a great idea, to redo Woodhouse’s Jeeves, but this time without the humor, snappiness, or Jeeves’ penetration, and, big whip dee doo, from the butler’s point of view. So we get Stevens, best described as an extremely dimwitted master of the house, and worse, which I’ll get to.

When I say Stevens is dimwitted I mean gormless and overly concerned with some vague notion dignity. When he attempts to define dignity, he ends up in a circular definition that goes something like this: dignity for a butler means working for a dignified principal, but if the principal is not dignified (Stevens can’t quite figure out what this means but it seems the richer and more discreet the better) then the butler can’t have dignity. Dignified people occupy themselves with the true center of things, which evidently is managing an estate with dignity and entertaining dignified guests. Thus, a butler’s dignity is not intrinsic. Stevens pines to be a top notch butler, in fact one of the most dignified. He dares not state this but we understand by his undue obsession with greatness in all forms. It all sort of makes sense that a polystyrene character who has no intrinsic nothing would want immortality for voluntarily replacing his liberty with servitude.

Stevens is the butler for Mr. Farraday the new owner of the old Darlington Hall who encourages Stevens to take a little holiday. Stevens is allowed to drive his principal’s Ford from the Oxford area down to Cornwall where he will meet Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, a former employee of Darlington, and then back to the estate. Along the way Stevens recollects events during the time of his service to Lord Darlington. His reflections generally concern three areas of interest:

a) his service and protocol as a butler,

b) his continual patronizing of and bickering with Miss Kenton,

c) performing duties at high level meetings Darlington had with world figures.

This structure in itself is not problematic but the way Ishiguro handles it leaves much to be desired. For example, Stevens arrives at Salisbury after 4:00 and takes a good long walk through the town. He visits the cathedral (that normally closes at 5:00. It may have had extended hours back at the time of the novel). There’s no mention of tea or dinner and afterward Stevens spends 21 pages rambling on about butlering and providing anecdotes that end with butlerish aphorisms such as, “I suppose we were talking a little out of turn there. It won’t happen again.” Tee hee and pish posh, I guess.

Stevens gets up early noting that breakfast at the b&b won’t occur for a while so he looks out the window. Guess what? There is more to think about. This time his reminiscences go on for about 90 pages. Seriously, 90. Think carefully about how long these reminiscences would have taken in real life and you get a clear sense of the problems with time in the novel. And then Stevens says, after the 90 page stultiloquence, “Having enjoyed a good morning’s motoring…” There wasn’t a good morning of motoring, it was a good morning of standing at the parted window curtains. I swear, the more I read the more I agree with Llosa in that novels are about time.

Later when driving Stevens lets his principal’s car run out of petrol (Ishiguro has him mention this something like four times which I see as simply sloppy editing. Although to be fair, if Ishiguro can say something with 10 words he’ll say it with 1,000, words. It is said Ishiguro wrote this book in a month and I believe it for the problems like this that might have been fixed with more time.)

Stevens says, “But I see I am becoming preoccupied with these memories and this is perhaps a little foolish.” True indeed but this hollow sort of self-deprecation doesn’t help him rise from his flat printed form. As for voice, Stevens wobbles, take this bit of thinking that seems lifted right out of an 18th century novel such as Clarissa or Evelina: “I now find myself much indebted to the batman, for quite aside from assisting with the Ford, he has allowed me to discover a most charming spot which it is most improbably I would ever have found otherwise.” Ma foi! and Oh! qui que vous soyez, excusez mon audace. (Burney and Voltaire). Only in 18th century novels and beginner drafts should one be allowed to “find myself” doing something.

I suppose Ishiguro wants Stevens to address each one of us readers as he says, “you will perhaps excuse my impropriety…” (my italics) rather than to present the scene as Woodhouse would do. Unfortunately this use of “you” stalls out the first person narrative Ishiguro tries to follow because it’s too pomo in style. You talking to me? You going suddenly all Italo C. on me? I feel like Stevens is telling me, ‘I’m holding you hostage with my long-windedness.’ Why not feel this way, he did it to Miss Kenton as I’ll demonstrate. All and all the novel comes off like the Britcom Are You Being Served but with just the manners and without the laughs. I must also mention the goofy name choices that should give a grin to any clodpate. Darlington is the darling for whom Stevens holds an undying devotion. Miss Kenton then Mrs. Been is the has-been as far as Stevens is concerned, and Mr. Farraday, for-a-day, is the newcomer, flash-in-the-pan new monied owner.

This is not a great book. This is not a significant book. However, I suspect many readers like the book because in a very dilettantish manner people and events are mentioned with nods to normative mindsets of class and politics. Nazi’s are the bad guys, Germany deserves getting ridiculed after its defeat, the French are despicable presumably for the stereotype of being cowards in the war, all Jewish people are good and continually maligned, Italians bring body guards presumably due to the mafia, old money is more dignified than new money, lower classes are uncouth, uncultured, and often crass, the nature of a society is that there are those who rule and those who serve. Stevens says, “For our generation, I believe it is accurate to say, viewed the world not as a ladder, but more as a wheel. Perhaps I might explains this further.” No, please don’t. Why, by the way, is “wheel” italicized? At any rate Stevens ends up his explanation with, “I am now speaking and broad generalizations…” Yes he is and does so routinely because his dilettantish mindset pervades. He seems in his dimwitted manner to think World War I was a romp in the park with a loser, Germany, and a winner, the UK. Justice might have been done with some research into Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory, or some of the work by Bernard-Henri Lévy, just to get a handle on the reality and mindset of the time. Even in wartime, there’s no greater goal than making guests feel comfortable, so of course when dignitaries come to Darlington Hall for a conference Stevens gives his staff a “military style pep talk.” The progress of world events pales when compared to the polish of the silver. The fact that this view is never challenged, since the author uses “you” allows someone, that someone either being Stevens or Ishiguro, to recognize the meta-narrative conversation. Thus, the easy acceptance of the superficial and stereotypical cannot be pinned solely on the character.

The biggest problems in the novel is not the thin veneer of subplot that concerns Darlington somehow aiding a Nazi communication with Britain, which Stevens eventually clues into, remember it takes him a while because he’s so dim but to be fair so little is said about it that the subplot is like dust in a sun ray. No, the big problems center on Stevens and his actions.

First his rambling without much point is a problem but then he’s nearly as dumb and as obsessed as McCarthy’s Lester Ballard. Miss Kenton calls Stevens a liar and a braggart, which he is. He lies about having worked for Darlington once. He rats out to Darlington two Jewish maids. When challenged, he justifies that it’s all in the line of duty. This was exactly Eichmann’s defense; he was only a cog in the machine, only doing his job, only following orders. Professor of political science Ian Shapiro has explored this in depth in his online course The Moral Foundations of Politics (highly recommended). The point is Stevens likewise shirks personal responsibility. Because of this we are to assume that either he lacks a moral conscience or he’s stupid. Following rules is not a respectable moral defense, as Hannah Arendt once pointed out.

Stevens is also downright condescending and harassing to Miss Kenton. Nearly every interaction with her is one of spite and squabble. At one point she says, “In fact, Mr. Stevens…I would ask you from now on not to speak to me directly at all.” He doesn’t respect he wishes and he continues to push his conversations upon her. When Miss Kenton is in tears over Stevens’ firing of the Jewish maids she threatens to quit too. When she does not, Stevens is all over it. He says, “I tended to tease her every now and again by reminding her of her threatened resignation.” However he notices that each interaction tended to “…make Miss Kenton go quiet — though by this stage, I fancy, this was due more to embarrassment than anger.” Now get this, even with all of this evidence, Stevens thinks the atmosphere between him and Miss Kenton is thawing. Uh, yeah, is this HR on the phone? I wish to file a complaint. Later in the book, Stevens cannot fathom that Miss Kenton does not wish to talk with him. He badgers, “Are you with me Miss Kenton?” No she wasn’t so he says, “I am sorry, Miss Kenton, but I see little point in our continuing. You simply do not seem to appreciate the importance of this discussion.” He’s been whipping a dead horse in his conversations, yet again, this time going on about attending to his lordship and all that blibbity blah. So of course she wasn’t. Neither were we. When Miss Kenton’s aunt dies, Stevens forgets, twice (sloppy editing?) to offer her his condolences. How bizarre it is then at the end of the book when Stevens’ seems to think Miss Kenton may have eyes for him. He presumes she wants her job at Darlington Hall back and he thinks maybe there is a future of love between them not really recognizing that she wants neither because she is happily married to Mr. Benn. So we learn the truth in that Stevens is a dim, obsessive, and deluded stalker.

Exploring dopey Stevens a bit more we find he has little conception of anything but service to the principal. In this he believes that a butler, to use his words, is not a performing monkey, yet he is unable to see he is a brainwashed indentured servant probably suffering from Stockholm Syndrome. Evidence: Stevens wants only the old days; going away even for less than a week is a cause of great anxiety. He is evidently also severely underpaid for his 24/7 service. When considering travelling, he fusses over a new costume, he admits he wears hand me down uniforms, he is happy his employer is allowing him to borrow his car and is paying for the gas.

In the April 17, 2017 issue of The Sun, an article ran about how the Royal Household in the UK was hiring a butler who would “deliver world class service,” who would be polite, friendly and approachable. Pay: “£18,850 per annum. An article in Business Insider stated that a Master of the Household can earn £122,000 per annum as they take care of domestic staff, kitchen staff, pages, and footmen. Well, since Stevens can hardly afford a suit of clothes, we must assume his employer pays him something way below average. On the website for the acclaimed British Butler Institute, the areas of study for up and coming butler’s include “Review of body language, facial expressions, verbal expressions, how to stand, how to move, how to present items, carry a gray, and door knocking protocol.” It looks very interesting and some courses take place in Venice, which would be doubly fun.

But I don’t know that Stevens would like it. He’s too full of himself. He obsesses over this vague dignity thing. I’d wonder then about his loyalty. If I were the principal I might wonder about his previous training. Is he accredited or does he think butlering is gained through osmosis alone? To play his game is to have concerns. Economic class differences and the associated issues are something I think that Ishiguro doesn’t want us to see and in my view he seems to accept it all as just fine. But the book was written in 1993 and we’re now in 2019 so I can’t help but read ROTD with an awareness of deconstructions and challenges to class, most recently the Panama Papers. The Guardian, in an article by Juliette Garside, Holly Watt, and David Pegg, April3, 2016, wrote that 6 members of the House of Lords, 3 former conservative MP’s and dozens of donors to British political parties had offshore assets. In an article on November 5, 2017, Hilary Osborne ran an article for The Guardian titled, Revealed: Queen’s private state invested millions of pounds offshore, which raised questions of investment oversight with respect to ethical investing practices. According to David Matthews in an article titled UK Monopoly Capitalism for the Monthly Review, July 1, 2016, since the second world war, “British Economy has been one one of initial expansion stimulated by postwar building, followed by a slow decline into stagnation that continues today.” In other words, the class system in the UK is what it has been for years, half-stagnant often cloaked. But Stevens can’t see any of this. He only fits in, a cog in the gentry machine. He chooses voluntary servitude in order to enable the ongoing ways of the elite and their self interests and he seems to think this is the end all. Adrian Pabst in his book The Demons of Liberal Democracy (2019) calls this “tyranny” “as a result of liberalism’s ‘end of history’ hubris and utopian state.” What concerns me is that this undertone of acceptance, as though one’s duty to the elite is an unchallenged utopia. Duty always trumps morality I guess because it’s unclear if Ishiguro really caught wind of view, as shallow and as sloppy as that theme is pursued in the novel.

Did Ishiguro catch the moral malfunctions that striate the novel. Did he get that Stevens comes off as a dimwitted, overbearing stalker? It’s the authors job to catch these things. Darlington’s actions may have been reproachable, but Stevens is thoroughly condemnable, both for his stalking and for his blind acceptance of oligarchical rule. Stevens, like fans and media today, can’t seem to do enough for the rich or for celebrities, as though the power elite was a natural human condition. Fortunately, because it’s the only thing he seems to know, Stevens has a job in which he is paid, albeit poorly, to keep the system going. All he has to do is to maintain decorum in all instances and to keep a stiff upper lip, which he does, basically carrying on his duties as his father dies upstairs. As for readers, anyone who reads this book and feels compassion for Stevens or wants to cry at the end of the novel might do well to join a support group for dysfunctional enablers.

Novelist, poet, a post-studio visual artist, and the founder of The Invisible Art Collective International. Recent novels include “Sundre” and “Garbage Head.”

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