The Endless Quest for the Perfect Novel
by James M. Wall
James M. Wall is Senior Contributing Editor of The Christian Century. The following essay appeared in Hidden Treasures: Searching for God in Modern Culture, by James M. Wall (The Christian Century Press, Chicago: 1997), pp. 31-33. Used by permission.
Summertime, and the living may not be easy, but it is a good time to embark once again on the quest to find the perfect novel. Granted, perfection is unattainable, but like the holy grail it must be sought, if for no other reason than that the quest itself is a goad, pushing the earnest reader to the library or the bookstore.
One summer a few years back the quest was sparked by a brief mention in Variety that the flimmaking team of Ismail Merchant and James Ivory had selected their next project. I had just seen their Howards End, based on the novel by E. M. Forster, a writer whose work Merchant and Ivory had earlier mined successfully with A Room with a View and, less successfully, Maurice. The team is at its best with late 19th- and early 20th-century British tales of manners and repressed sexuality, elegantly presented with scenes of green English countryside and properly managed houses. Their latest venture follows that pattern by taking up the work of contemporary author Kazuo Ishiguro.
Anthony Hopkins, who plays Henry Wilcox in Howards End, had been signed, Variety reported, for a film based on Ishiguro’s 1989 novel The Remains of the Day. Not every proposed film makes it to the screen, but just the possibility of Hopkins being reunited with Merchant-Ivory sent me to the library to read Ishiguro. What I found was as close as I expect to get to the experience of reading the perfect novel, a state enhanced considerably by the thought of Hopkins in the role of Stevens, the aging, dignified butler in one of England’s grand but fading houses.
Ishiguro, who after three novels has already been hailed as "one of the leading figures in the new generation of British novelists," might seem an unlikely successor to Forster in the Merchant-Ivory corpus. He was born in Nagasaki, Japan, in 1954 and moved as a child to England. Ishiguro’s parents initially assumed their move to England would be temporary (his father worked in oil exploration in the North Sea) but they remained, and gave their son what he describes as a "very typical . . . southern English upbringing," although only Japanese was spoken at home.
Majid Tehranian, director of a peace institute in Honolulu, who was born in Iran but is now an American citizen, spoke to a church communications conference recently in New York and made a point that is pertinent to the quest for the perfect novel. All of us live with three kinds of lies, Tehranian said: the lies we tell others, the lies we tell ourselves, and the lies we don’t even know we are telling, or more accurately, living.
We know the lies we tell to others; the lies we tell to ourselves are a bit harder to discern; but the only way really to grasp the lies we don’t even know we are living is to get outside our own cultural setting. Tehranian cites the old line of the baby fish to the mother fish: "When am I going to see this water you talk about so much?"
A bicultural, bilingual author, Ishiguro displays in The Remains of the Day strong powers of observation, coupled with a remarkable grasp of the language that would be spoken or written by his narrator, Stevens, a butler for more than 35 years at Darlington Hall.
Ishiguro takes the reader with Stevens on a six-day ride in July 1956 through the south of England, describing the early morning mists, the pleasant, green countryside, and the modest inns and homes in which he stays. During this period Stevens recalls his career in the service of Lord Darlington.
The opening lines of Stevens’s narration immediately draw the reader into the story Ishiguro intends to tell, introducing the voice of a very proper, disciplined butler who knows his place and who lives only to perform his duties. "It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days. An expedition, I should say, which I will undertake alone, in the comfort of Mr. Farraday’s Ford; an expedition which, as I foresee it, will take me through much of the finest countryside of England to the West Country, and may keep me away from Darlington Hall for as much as five or six days."
Stevens is motivated to take this journey in part because his new master, an American named Farraday, proposes that he take some time off, and partly because he has just received a letter from Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper who departed the house more than 20 years ago. It is possible, Stevens, surmises, that Miss Kenton might be interested in returning to work at Darlington Hall, since her letter suggests that her marriage has ended. With this hope of adding a veteran housekeeper to the staff—nothing of a more personal nature, of course—Stevens sets off "through the pleasant countryside," with a visit with Miss Kenton as the culmination of his journey.
It is easy to imagine Hopkins in this role, especially after his performance as Henry Wilcox, the rigid symbol of England’s upper class, "living comfortably on a lie," as one reviewer puts it. For The Remains of the Day is the diary of a man totally unaware of his inner life. Stevens faithfully records his exchanges with Miss Kenton, Lord Darlington, and others who come to the house. We know of his grief over the death of his father only because he recalls someone commenting that he is crying as he continues to perform his duties. Stevens has reached the end of his active life, and he now faces retirement—what a man he meets describes as "the remains of the day." Stevens faces this prospect with no sense that he can relate to people other than as a working butler.
What makes this novel approach perfection—and two comments on the book jacket actually employ the word—is the way Ishiguro leads the reader into Stevens’s life through his own words, enabling us to feel his pride in being a "great" butler and at the same time experience the pain of personal loss which he is utterly unable to acknowledge. Ishiguro has said, "What I’m interested in is not the actual fact that my characters have done things they later regret. I’m interested in how they come to terms with it."
Stevens’s relationship with Miss Kenton, which she understands far better than he ever could, is the centerpiece of the book. Not that he ever acknowledges any regret over the pattern the relationship took, but that he needs to "come to terms with it." Stevens’s role as a participant in British history—Germany’s ambassador to Great Britain was a guest at Darlington Hall for some critical prewar meetings—was, like his relationship with Miss Kenton, something to observe, not to feel.
At the end of his narrative Stevens has to confront the reality of his own "remains of the day." As he looks back, he considers his life through the mists of his self-deception, of which he seems hardly aware. Speaking of Lord Darlington, he says that his employer "wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his Own mistakes . . . He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted that I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really—one has to ask oneself—what dignity is there in that?"
What dignity, indeed, in not choosing one’s own life, but living always outside of it, fixed only on duty and performance. The journey with Stevens is more than a ride through the pleasant countryside of southern England; it is a journey toward one’s own "remains of the day."
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