Monday, October 13, 2014


Surveying plot points in his critical introduction to the 25th Anniversary Edition of Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, Salmon Rushdie, seeming almost to deny the novel’s 1989 Man Booker Prize win, muses that “[n]othing much happens.” Indeed, the ostensible “high point” of Mr. Stevens’s solitary motor tour into the West Country of early Postwar Britain, suggests Rushdie, is his failed attempt to resolve a “professional matter” by persuading Darlington Hall’s former housekeeper, Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), to resume her prewar post: an overworked butler is unable to relieve a household staff shortage. In short, quips Rushdie, “tiny events.”

The narrative’s surface quietude, however, provides the perfect counterpoint to this story’s muddied depths, just as the cautious formality of Stevens’s travelling clothes serves to accentuate the unseemly disorder into which his servant’s affections have fallen; similarly, the recollection of his father’s pitiful death within a dingy garret must needs be confined behind the simultaneous farewell dinner of Lord Darlington’s “unofficial,” and, as history will soon show, misguided international conference in the softened brilliance of the banqueting hall below. Stevens thereby remembers his grief as little more than cause for employer displeasure. Quickly wiping away his tears, this consummate butler laughs, apologizes. “The strains of a hard day,” he explains. The juxtaposition is devastating.

As physical spaces embody the psychological, Stevens’s movement away from the great house and towards unknown, albeit picturesque country sites, signifies his faint attempt to apprehend something as yet half-imagined and uncertain within himself. Ishiguro’s novel is the portrait of a man who has placed his faith in a way of life that is losing what remains of its former dignity; the codes of reverential service and patronage that undergird the household domestic’s raison d’être have begun to destabilize in view of the traditional oligarchs’ demotion to “gentleman amateurs.” The lately voiceless butler begins to feel, at least subconsciously, the waste born of a choking subjugation. A few rare “off duty” hours’ study of a sentimental romance novel have taken the place of true affection and relationship; even Miss Kenton, Stevens’s closest acquaintance, is observed struggling to release the thin volume from his grasp.

“While it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points,’” affirms Stevens, “one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. … [T]here [is] surely nothing to indicate … that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.” To speculate otherwise, he posits, is folly. However, the act of retrospection itself necessitates a mining of the past for such veiled “turning points,” as if one were attempting to account for life’s trajectory; which “tiny events” were, well, not so very tiny after all? When was a look misinterpreted, or a cold word miscalculated? Who mattered most? And what truly remains of the day?

Though a bit of a heel, Abigail Slinger is learning that patience is a virtue, and that one catches more flies with honey.

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