I set myself a mission in 2010 to read, amongst other things, five books by three contemporary authors. One of them was Kazuo Ishiguro. Like my other reading resolutions in 2010, this didn’t happen. So making up for lost time here.
I just re-read that paragraph, & talking about things I’d meant to do, & making up for lost time, while discussing The Remains of the Day… an irony bomb just detonated somewhere in my head.
OK so, speaking of bombs, & keeping with my policy of no spoilers past page whatever, here’s what you need to know about The Remains of the Day.
The year is 1956. Stevens, a war veteran with a chequered past, has used phony credentials to bluff his way into the role of manservant for Darlington, a scientist engaged in research for what will later come to be known as the Neutron Bomb. Long nights spent working in the lab, a tawdry affair with the housekeeper, & nightmares about his war crimes are causing Stevens to slip downwards from alcoholism into morphine addiction. And if that wasn’t bad enough, someone (his dead wife???) is blackmailing him into stealing plans for the Bomb – that’s assuming the photographs of mutilated girls which keep appearing aren’t hallucinations…
Here’s what you actually need to know about The Remains of the Day.
The year is 1956. Stevens, former manservant to Lord Darlington, now works for Darlington Hall’s new owner, an American. His boss has suggested Stevens might use his automobile to “take some time off”. A consummate professional, this holiday is possibly the first he has ever taken, & it gives Stevens a chance to reflect on a lifetime of service.
I was unsure about reading this one. It won the Booker Prize – never a good sign. At first glance the subject matter didn’t really appeal. Etc. But after reading Never Let Me Go I was keen to read more Ishiguro, & people say this is his masterpiece. & it paid off, because this book is very, very good. It’s engrossing, it’s sad, it’s fucking scary, it’s even (occasionally) very funny.
Last year I’d read parts of another Booker winner, James Kelman’s How Late It Was, How Late, and as an aspiring novelist I’d caught myself thinking “this is a good book, maybe even a great book – but it doesn’t feel like it’s out of my grasp – hell maybe I could write a book on this level one day”. The thing is, about The Remains of the Day, is that I could never write anything like this in a thousand years. The setting and the characterisation are meticulous. The book tells a strange & entertaining story, predominantly through the scattered recollections of its narrator, but never loses sight of the bigger picture it’s painting. We see only what Stevens chooses to show us of his life story, but as readers we can see right through him to the truth beneath it all – Ishiguro makes this very, very easy without compromising Stevens as a character, & once he knows we’re reading the “real story”, Ishiguro then elaborates and expands on this inferred narrative to create a tragic allegory for the history of the English people, between and after the two World Wars.
It’s easy to lampoon the English, particularly the Edwardians, for being emotionally repressed. The brilliant (& terrifying) thing about this book is that it shows the rationale behind the repression, the ideal it represents, the purposes it seeks to achieve, the actions & decisions it precipitates, the horrible consequences & after-effects, & the eventual difficulty but pressing need for atonement, or reconciliation.
I’m always claiming that such-&-such a book or film is actually horror (The Office, Last Exit to Brooklyn, etc) – this is one of those books. It plays out with the sickening, hypnotic logic of a bad dream. There’s a major set-piece halfway through, which spins through all sorts of tonal shifts, from political intrigue to high farce a la Faulty Towers, to romance, to tragedy… the sequence runs for about forty pages, effortlessly shuttling between its various elements, then comes to a quiet and brutal halt, a point which effectively forms the centrepiece of the novel. & here the narrator turns to us, smiles proudly & says, effectively: “this is the moment I destroyed myself as a human being. It was the happiest moment of my life”.
Kazuo Ishiguro is a mammoth dickhead, for claiming in an interview that “all artists begin losing their ability at age 35” (thanks a lot arsehole, I’m 34 and unpublished), but I think he’s turning into one of my favourite authors. Has anyone else here read Never Let Me Go? It’s a similar blend of sadness, joy, philosophy and scary badness.
I’m really keen to read The Unconsoled now, which is his reality bending “bad trip novel”. Well so what else is new, I’ve read the first 200 pages of that book on three separate occasions.
GOOD? Hell yes. This is the best book I’ve read in ages. This is the bar that books will have to rise above to gain the coveted title of Best Book Chris Reads in 2011. I will keep you posted about whether anything comes close.
FILE UNDER… modern literature, historical, character study, no seriously it’s actually horror.
WOULD GO WELL WITH… Never Let Me Go, as I say they’re very similar stories. Would also go well as a “shadow-counterpart” to something like Room With A View.
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