Sunday, July 13, 2008
The novel's narrator, Stevens, is a perfect English butler who tries to give his narrow existence form and meaning through the self-effacing, almost mystical practice of his profession. In a career that spans the second World War, Stevens is oblivious of the real life that goes on around him -- oblivious, for instance, of the fact that his aristocrat employer is a Nazi sympathizer. Still, there are even larger matters at stake in this heartbreaking, pitch-perfect novel -- namely, Stevens' own ability to allow some bit of life-affirming love into his tightly repressed existence.
I agree this is a perfect novel. Short and perfectly executed. The writing was direct and flowing, just as Stevens, the butler, rarely ever said the wrong thing, so is it with Ishiguro's writing - nothing superfluous, nothing wordy, it was all just right. I marveled at how well this book flowed and I devoured it in one day.
Many years ago I saw this movie when it first came out, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. I liked the movie then, but it has been so long ago I didn't remember all of it, except the gist of the story. In reading this book, it all came back to me, and I realized just how perfect the casting in that movie was. The movie was completely faithful to this little gem of a story. I must say I loved this short novel even more than the movie.
This is the story of Stevens, the butler. He has served Lord Darlington of Darlington Hall for over 30 years, but now finds himself in 1956 with a new employer, Mr. Farraday, an American gentleman who has bought Darlington Hall after the death of Lord Darlington three years previously. Stevens is at a crossroads in his career, possibly leading up to his retirement. Can he learn the simple art of banter and clever witticisms for his new master? Would it be dignified to converse with him in this way? This is just one of the many things that is on Stevens mind as he sets out on a sojourn to the West Country to visit the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall, who he hopes he might be able to convince to come back and work for them. On his motor trip, Stevens reflects on his past days as a butler, and what it means to be a great butler - he concludes that one of the essential characteristics of a great butler is "dignity."
The rest of book is beautifully written to show examples of what this dignity and courage under fire mean to a butler. He gives an account of Stevens father, once (as his son believes) a great butler himself. He tells of an instance in which another butler had to remove a tiger from under a dining room table in India before his employer's guests will come in to eat dinner. An amusing tale that sums it all up to the reader of how a butler should conduct himself, no matter how much stress he may be under. In an extremely poignant part of the story, Stevens must face his own test, a turning point in his career, when he must show that same aplomb and "unruffled" poise while overseeing a great and important dinner at Darlington Hall while knowing that his father is most likely dying upstairs in his attic rooms. It was very touching to me and brought tears to my eyes. Stevens might come across as cold on the outside, but the fact his own father had been a great butler, Stevens realizes his father would have wanted him to carry on and not fall apart - to have things well in hand - no matter what else was happening to him personally.
Another aspect of the story is Stevens relationship with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton. We realize that after working together for over 10 years, they develop a professional relationship, that, at one point (on her part) took a new direction - she must have felt she was in love with him. He doesn't realize this until much, much later after he reflects on things and she has been long gone and married. So often, what might seem so obvious to the reader completely went over his head when it came to Miss Kenton. Often, he was so concerned with the running of Darlington Hall, he was oblivious to human emotions - or refused to acknowledge them - when he had more pressing matters to contend with in attending to his post for the master of the house.
There's an instance in the book in which Darlington's political friends ask Stevens a lot of complicated questions about the world economy, questions he would obviously not know the answer to. Stevens has no idea of the answers and says something like, "I'm sorry I cannot help you in that matter, sir." This continues while they smirk and chuckle, and finally they explain to him why they were asking him these questions that sounded like they were deliberately trying to make him look stupid. They were using him as an analogy, stating that they felt the average person has no right in deciding and creating policies in the world in which they know nothing about, it should be left to the experts. They were wrong, of course. It was cruel the way they used Stevens this way to get their point across, but they weren't just doing it to be mean, they were doing it to try and prove a point. Later Darlington apologized to Stevens, for he realized it was wrong. But, that was part of Darlington's problem, he should have stopped it before it even happened. Stevens was too good a butler to say anything, he looked at it as another test for himself to remain dignified no matter how perplexing or humiliating the situation. He didn't take it personally.
Stevens loyalty to Darlington is unswerving before and after his death, even when it is obvious to anyone with eyes that Darlington was naively helping the Nazis. Although, Stevens does have a hard time in telling people he worked for Darlington after Darlington's death, due to all the publicity and bad press his former employer underwent after the war - libeled as a Nazi sympathizer. He did not want to have any disagreable conversations with people about his former employer and hear him castigated. Darlington had believed he was being honourable, helping to preserve peace in Europe (this is in the 1930's) when really he was just an amateurish pawn, (as an obnoxious American senator called him) used by the Nazis to create sympathy for Germany in England. Stevens view is if his master was doing everything for honour and what he believed was to save Europe and keep peace, then who was he to judge. There was dignity in what his master was doing - no matter how clueless he was in regard to Germany's ulterior motives. But, is that enough? Is honour a good enough reason to excuse less than honourable behavior? Stevens reflects upon this in his own position as well.
No doubt about it, the servant classes were mistreated by many back in the good old days of England, but not by all, and I would not say that this book was depressing, focusing only on the mistreatment of servants. It was more of one man's reflections and self enlightenment - his realization that there is more to the world than just being a great butler. He learns that he needs to lighten up. He realizes upon reflection that he doesn't have to act like a robot - that it's okay to banter, as his new boss is trying to get him to do. He realized he probably missed quite a bit in his life with Miss Kenton and his father dying trying to live up to that dignified ideal of what makes a great butler.
This was a short novel, less than 250 pages, but it is so worth reading. It doesn't have to be long to be good. It's a wonderful book that was a pleasure to read. Now, I must rent the movie and re-watch it again after all these years!