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Archive for February 18th, 2021

Father (in his sepulchal voice) There was this English butler out in India — one day he goes into the dining room and what’s he see under the table: a tiger. Not turning a hair, he goes to the drawing room– ‘Excuse me, m’lord’ — (gives imitation of slight cough)– and whispering so as not to upset the ladies: ‘I’m very sorry, m’lord, there appears to be a tiger in the dining room. Perhaps his lordship will permit use of the twelve-bores?’ They go on drinking their tea and then there’s three gunshots. They don’t think nothing of it — this being India where they’re used to anything — and when the butler is back to refresh the teapots, he says, cool as a cucumber: ‘Dinner will be served at the usual time, m’lord, and I am pleased to say there will be no discernable traces left of the recent occurrence by that time’ (shooting script, third draft, scene 22).

Friends and readers,

This not very long novel, The Remains of the Day (1989), with its quiet main story, the happenings along a road Darlington Hall’s long-time butler, Mr Stevens (Anthony Hopkins), encounters as he drives in his master’s Daimler cross-country from southeast to southwest England — is as rich a masterpiece as any overlong super-respected 19th century novel, as richly interesting as the novel Ishiguro said he had in mind as its precursor, E. M. Forster’s Howards End (1910). The film adaptation by Ismail Merchant, James Ivory, and Ruth Prawer Jhabvala (whose script is a not-very-much altered version of one by Harold Pinter, is repeatedly said to be one of their masterpieces. I just finished teaching the book to a lively intelligent group of retired adults, and wish I could better convey the tone and comments on our conversations online (via Zoom), which show how metaphorically connected to our lives is the outlines of the story, now the characters, especially Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson) are versions of ourselves from whom we can learn. We talked warmly about things that are important to us, coming out of and returning to the book and its film.

There has been so much said about both books and sets of films (Howards End comes in two forms, the Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala 1993 version, with again, and not just a coincidence, Hopkins and Emma Thompson in the key roles; and the 2015 HBO version scripted by Kenneth Lonergan, directed by Hettie MacDonald, this time with, as alterego for Margaret Shlegel-Emma, Hayley Atwell, but a somewhat different type from Wilcox-Hopkins, Matthew MacFayden.) What can I add? Here goes.

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The Remains of the Day, the book, continually exists on at least two levels: Mr Stevens is both a realistic character and a symbolic one. On a psychological level, he is a super-sensitive man, afraid of life’s emotions and hard realities (like possibly even getting fired), status insecure, and hides under the habit of the archetypal butler. We gradually learn to feel for him, grieve for his unlived life (as he finally does at the end of novel and film); on a symbolic level, he stands for the person who opts out of responsibility, will facilitate the doing of the most horrible aims (Nazism, fascism, flourishing and extended out of Lord Darlington’s conferences), an instrument for evil to work with. In his interview online, Ishiguro says he chose an archetypal figure for his allegory, made a man who fears the arena of emotions, emotional engagement, who at the same time is us because we too are removed from real power, do a little job as best we can, without being able to control how our contribution will be used. In a democratic culture we don’t get to choose among the out of our control decisions that affect vast numbers of people. He is Us.


Here he is always under strain


Miss Kenton intruding on Mr Stevens’s refuge in sentimental romance (a self-reflexive scene, since what is this novel but a sentimental romance?)

Ishiguro wants Mr Stevens’s idea of dignity to be completely challenged by the end of the book. I saw saw Mr Stevens’s definition of preserving self-guarded control, an attempt at a veneer which would save him from mockery, ridicule, scorn (in the book when Lord Darlington’s rich powerful guests question Mr Stevens we see how easy it is to humiliate him nonetheless). The true servant is the man who gives good advice, trustworthily, tells the master what he or she (the mistress) needs to hear to do well — as Kent does in the first act of King Lear, for which the king, I admit, banishes him.

Miss Kenton is Everywoman in the guise of a type seen in traditional English novels: she is pro-active, strong, competent in housekeeping (no small task to run such a house), with perception, integrity, and prudent self-control. She will act according to her conscience, as when she is horrified that Mr Stevens goes along with Lord Darlington’s orders they fire two Jewish maids (thus threatening their lives, as without jobs, they might be returned to Germany), she wants to quit; but she stays because she needs this job to live, because she enjoys her status in this awesome house, is deeply pleased by its order, beauty, and diurnal routine peace. She is a sister to Elinor Dashwood, to Margaret Schegel; that’s why the same actress, Emma Thompson, is perfect for all three characters.


as Elinor Dashwood writing to her mother (1995 Miramax Sense and Sensibility, scripted by Thompson too)


as careful Margaret Shlegel (M-I, 1993)


Miss Kenton interviewed (presumably in book and film, spring 1922)

She defends herself against Mr Stevens’s frequent nervous hypercriticism (his father “incorrectly situated [the china] Chinamen”). She says of another maid when she choses to marry over staying on in such a celibate position, “she will be disappointed,” but it not long afterward he begins to date Mr Been (Timothy Piggot-Smith). She wants both: the career, the marriage and her sad ending choosing to stay with Mr Been, so she can be near a coming grandchild and live through it, is not atypical. The letter (over-voice) with which the film opens, is brought back at the end, to show us that she had longed to return to Darlington Hall and this butler for whom she had venerating respect. Her grief at loss of a dream of happiness (it does not seem that they could have been happy together) is unbearably moving as she waves goodbye as her bus pulls off. Their hands had touched, and she leaves him and us weeping too. How many of my woman readers recognize themselves in her life and this ending? He could not reach out to her, and ridiculed him in a petty revenge among her last scenes in the house together.

Looking to the large issues: the unsettling of the old order, with a new one struggling to be born (Gramsci) pathological symptoms emerge. This is an unobtrusive condition of England novel — there are auctions in the movies made from both novels. Young Mr Cardinal (Hugh Grant) belongs here: he knows what is happening, his father persuaded to work for Nazi fascists, and in his newspaper he will try to expose his uncle — to stop him. The scene where he (like Miss Kenton) prods Mr Stevens to let go, open up to the reality of what he is working so hard for and is rebuffed is one of the books’ several climaxes.


Grant pushing Mr Stevens to own (up) to what has been going on at Darlington Hall this 1936/37

And in a throwaway line, when Mr Stevens and Mrs Been discuss Lord Darlington’s estrangement from England after he was shamed by his own libel case (he did entertain Nazis), she says how perhaps his nephew prevented too profound a loneliness, only to be told oh he died in the war. The good man in potentia and actually thrown away.

I love that the book is a beautiful patterning of art in itself. The story (the woof) contains three time skeins, with indeterminate time in-between. We begin (this is the third letter of the book). 1922 when Miss Kenton is hired, 1923 their earliest struggles – over who will have more power demonstrably, over his father too old for the job, his father’s death (where his face is suffused with tears which he wants no one to notice), seems around that time to want to visit the town the school the new schoolmaster (me) he is. Then 1936/37 – the conferences and also when Miss Kenton begins to date, tries to approach Mr Stevens is rebuffed, –- when Darlington tells Mr Stevens to fill his nephew in on Facts of life (sexual facts or more sinister, real politick). 1956 – when the trip happens – 20 years later, the time it became apparent during the Suez Canal incident (why should Egypt allow Britain to use its natural resources) that England no longer the world power she thought she still was. Three theads)

The trip itself has wonderful incidents, and juxtapositions intermingled, juxtaposed to long skeins of Mr Stevens’s remembering the past (the warp of the tapestry), to wit:

There’s a prologue and six days. The prologue and first day contain Mr Stevens’ memories of being in groups of servants like himself in “the old days” (so pre-1922/23, a time when grat houses were flourishing and had extensive staff) discussing what makes a great butler, with Mr Stevens telling anecdotes of his father or Mr Graham, whom he so admired, enacting dignity – in the face of absurdities (a tiger under a table) and active derision in a car trip (something to do with a music hall routine I could not discover). In the present Mr Stevens’ invited to take this trip (“take my car, the gas on me”), and dressing himself in the suits of his Lordship, with a comical allusion to the old (delightful, filled with real photographs of the places and an imagined trip through them) county books (Vol III of Mrs Symons’s Wonders of England). This is the first trip Mr Stevens has ever let himself take, and from Mr Farraday’s banter in the book, drawn out by his longing to renew a relationship he has brooded on for twenty years with cherished memories of Miss Kenton.

By Day Two, “Morning Salisbury” (evoking the cathedral with its embodiments of time across centuries), as Mr Stevens truly gets going on his trip (woof), Mrs Been’s (poor Miss Kenton that was) letter yearning to return, for her youth, for finding some purpose in life; with over-voice of Emma Thompson (the first spoken material of the movie) set against the house, saved from being sold as cement. His memories (the warp) more or less start at the beginning of their relationship (1922, the interview) and climax at the end of Day Three, Moscombe, near Tavistock, Devon, when Miss Kenton roused by seeing her protegee leave to marry, herself begins to date, and, with Mr Stevens refusing to show any anxiety and even when she tries to say their evening talks are getting in her way, swiftly (spitefully as she can be) bringing an end to them, over her protests. Then her acceptance of a marriage proposal from Mr Been, juxtaposed to Mr Cardinal trying to persuade Mr Stevens to admit what’s going on. Neither can crack his facade.

In Devon too, the evening, we get a climactic dialogue of Mr Stevens with a Mr Smith in the Taylor’s house, which seem to serve as a tavern, with the neighbors all around, and Mr Smith who reflects morally on the another meaning of dignity for all of us (equality), with the corollary what they fought for in WW2 was liberty, not to be slaves of others, the right to exercise one’s will and make a view felt. Alas this time Mr Stevens hurries off because he has presented himself falsely as a Lord who knew powerful people (we cannot too much criticize him as Mr Smith’s desire to speak to him comes from this misapprehension) and hurries away because a physician he fears might expose him has entered “the fray.” It is against this scene that the upper class people at Darlington Hall humiliating use of Mr Stevens’s lack of an educated man’s knowledge in special areas is juxtaposed: it supposedly shows how he is not capable of making serious decisions about his or anyone else’s life. The “lower” people were so respectful and kind and asking him to identify with them. We get Lord Darlington’s half-apologies to Mr Stevens, and discover (to our dismay) the next morning not only did Dr Carlisle guess Mr Stevens to be a servant, but despises, dismisses the conversation of Mr Smith.

In the movie the final scene between Mrs (now) Been and Mr Stevens in the hotel restaurant is in present time; in the book, there is again evasion and we are privy to the scene only through Mr Stevens remembering it afterwards. All thrown into the immediate past, including their last scene standing in the rain waiting for her bus. And then, at last present time), his sitting on the bench breaking into talk with another older retired man –- tears streaming down his face. The man feeling for him urges him to look forwards, the evening or our lives are the best, and as ever polite and self-erasing Mr Stevens agrees, and vows to himself to do better once again, perhaps try to learn what this bantering is all about.

There are many juxtapositions that are “merely” suggestive: in Day two, Morning Salisbury, Mr Stevens swerves not to flatten a hen who just happens to be in the middle of the road and a farm girl comes out to thank him. It shows Mr Stevens’ good nature (perhaps in Ishiguro’s mind the cat that Charles Wilcox so carelessly “flattens”), and she tells him of a beautiful view nearby I worried she was thief, thinking Mr Stevens (like Lord Darlington) a naif, an amateur at life (as Mr Lewis says in the memories that come on the next day).

There are a number of reviews which do justice to the book, Laurence Graver of the New York Times; Peter Beech of The Guardian will have to do. Neither of them, though, dwell at the length they should on the characters of Miss Kenton and the young Mr Cardinal or Lord Darlington.

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Miss Kenton, unable to break through Mr Stevens’s carapace, tries to see what he reads privately — a sentimental romance (surely a self-reflexive joke)

The Merchant-Ivory-Jhabvala movie, whose script is close to Harold Pinter’s screenplay is rightly regarded as one of the team’s supreme achievements. For my part I attribute this to the brilliance of the book caught up through its most intensely aware (on the part of the implied author) scenes realized by a brilliant group of actors and director. In the book Miss Kenton is seen through the memories of Mr Stevens and so not viscerally there in the way she is in every scene of the movie. To my mind, very few of the reviews come near the rave one I would write were I a professional reviewer. Vincent Canby of the New York Times comes closest; Rita Kempley of The Washington Post; and some of the thematic kinds of publications: in Spirituality and Practice, ignore what Frederick and Mary Brussat say the film is about. I know I burst into tears the first time I saw the concluding scene of our thwarted lovers holding our their hands and not quite touching as her bus takes Mrs Been away from Mr Stevens forever. I took it as about the agony of self-reproach we feel as we look back at our unlived lives, our failures at not wasting our existence.

It is fair and accurate to remark that one of the people in the class remarked that Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton would have been very unhappy with one another had they married, and that often the scenes skirt a demented kind of comedy


Timothy Piggot-Smith as Mr Been kissing Miss Kenton after a couple of dates


They wait for Mrs Been’s bus together

In her review of Ishiguro’s first three books, Hermione Lee speaks of “the deep sadness, the boundless melancholy that opens out, like the ‘deserts of vast eternity’ his characters are reluctantly contemplating, under the immaculate [I’d call it intensely tremblingly controlled) surface of the book. They’ve caught this in the movie as well as the stretches of absurd comedy, open anguish and daily ordinary life. James Ivory writes more than adequately and in detail about the scenes that matter so effectively in James Ivory in Conversation with Robert Emmet Long (pp 226-238).Ivory says he kept in mind a Satyajit Ray movie where an unfaithful husband and wife hesitantly reach out to one another and fail to make contact, also that it’s insufficiently appreciated how all the scenes upstairs are seen from the point of view of a servant passingly there and hardly take any of the screen time. I’d say as in the M-I movies set in southeastern England, do not underestimate the effect of the soul-gratifying orderly green landscapes (see the intelligent picture book, John Pym’s Merchant Ivory’s English Landscape: Rooms, Views and Anglo-Saxon Attitudes).

I’ll leave my reader to watch the film again and listen to Ishiguro talking of what he meant to do in his book and how he felt the movie related to it and should be approached.

Ellen

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