Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Remains Of The Day - End Of Illusions

First up, I like the title of this novel much much more than the novel itself and it was the main reason that I bought  this book in the first place. As titles go, personally for me, this is one of the best titles ever. Whenever I think of the title, I get the image of an empty landscape or just by the river at dusk all alone, watching the sun set with complete silence all around. It gives me a curious mixture of feeling happy and a bit sad at the same time. Written by Kazuo Ishiguro and set in post world war 2 England, the novel concerns 'Stevens' a butler who has to come to turns with the old world that he has known for a long time coming to an end and also face some home truths about his professional and personal life, something he had consciously or sub consciously avoided so far.
As the novel begins, Stevens is all set to go on a small holiday to meet his old colleague Kenton who has written to him saying she wants to meet him. Stevens has been a butler for Lord Darlington his entire life. Darlington is now no more. His estate has been purchased by an American 'Farraday' and there is some bit of implied disconnect between Stevens and his new owner Farraday, though most of it seems to be in Stevens mind only. Basically it is a disconnect between the American and British cultures. As Stevens begins his trip, events from the past intersperse with the current events as he makes his journey. 
As the novel progresses, we get some insights into Stevens and how he functions. He is not your comical butler like Jeeves or the the type of butler in Agatha Christie novels who commits the crime. Rather, he is a person who has a very fixed set of ideas about the social hierarchy and adheres to hit fully (i.e) obedience and reverence to people above him in the hierarchy and expecting the same from people below him. For him the hierarchy is sacrosanct and cannot be disturbed in any way. In some ways he is a snob too, with a bit too much of own self esteem about his contribution to his employer. Miss Kenton who worked with him earlier, is hinted at having some feelings for him, but Stevens does not ever seem to reciprocate it, but neither does he explicitly put and end to it. He seems to be afraid of crossing the line between professional and personal relationship. In that sense he seems to be a somewhat insecure person too, though he tries to hide it within a rough exterior. This can be inferred from the fact that as the journey begins, Stevens muses as to why Kenton has called him though she is married and wonders if her marriage could be in trouble, there is almost a hint of expectation in Stevens here.
He meets Kenton and actually finds that what he had thought was true (i.e) there has been some problems in Kenton's marital life. But Stevens advises her to stay put with her husband and not disturb their life. Why does he say so? His inherent goodness or the notion bred into him that he has to do what is right irrespective of whether it is good for him or not? Kenton leaves after their meeting and Stevens muses about his relationship with Kenton and his true feelings for her. Does he really love her, after all these years. This is the first crack as it were in his solid interior.
This leads to him thinking about his previous employer Darlington. Stevens has always thought of him as being above any wrong doing. But as his carefully built mental defenses slip away, he remembers things about his employer that he had some how consciously or sub consciously kept out of his mind till now. Darlington had been accused of being friendly with the Nazis before the war and was subjected to trial by Media after that. That left him a broken man and he died. Stevens had always thought that it was unfair for Darlington to be labelled a Nazi, but now he recollects some incidents which indicate that it may have actually been the truth. Stevens even now thinks that his master may have been misguided but this is the final crack in his Armour. 
The novel's title comes into play at this point. Stevens now looks back on this entire life and his work as butler for Darlington and muses about what he has achieved by living a lifetime of complete servility to his employer, putting his professional life above everything, overlooking what his employer was doing and living in an illusory world of his own. He does not suddenly come to hate his old employer, but has started to view everything with a different light.  His own sense of importance too seems silly now. What remains now after all that has happened? His own life seems to be one of missed opportunities and living in a make believe world. This moment of epiphany is something that can, would occur to each one of us when we think back on our lives. As Marquez says 'Life is not what one lived, but what One remembers and how One remembers it in order to recount it". We generally try to remember only what we want and even if we do remember something that we do not want to, our mental perspective at that point (loyalty to someone, social constraints) may actually make us see the event in a different way. As time shifts and our perspective changes, our memory too changes in the sense that we look at things from a completely different point now, things that we thought were horrible and impossible to handle may actually seem funny with the distance of time, and things we thought important may actually seem silly now. All said and one, when anyone looks back at his life, most probably the opportunities missed and the wrongs done may always outweigh the positives. Life is but a steady stream of mistakes to be committed, which we come to know only in hindsight. The novel's title could also point to the remains of the old English world that was present before the war and which is now slowly coming to an end. In some way it is the end of an social era too.
Stevens recovers and decides to go on ahead, and starts the journey back looking forward to serve his new employer Farraday. There is marked shift in his mindset now, earlier he had thought Farraday was bit frivolous, but now he looks forward to working under him, even thinking of practicing how to whistle. The novel ends here with  Stevens hopefully moving on to a new life. But is that the case? I feel that Stevens has just swapped one form or servility to another form, but hope that I may be wrong here.
This is a beautifully written novel with silken prose. The description of the British landscape, the moors, the rural areas are superb (have not been to these places, so how far they are true is not known to me). Ishiguro captures the nuances of dialogue pitch perfect and the characters are 3 dimensional ones with their own faults and positives.  As is the case with good writing, Ishiguro tells more with his silences than what is said explicitly, leaving the reader to fill up the blanks. 
Note:If someone feels that the concept of butlers, lords etc is outdated now, remember that the novel is set in the mid 50's in the years after World war 2. The novel was made a movie starring Antony Hopkins. 

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