What are the principles that should guide our lives? Does one principle take precedence over the others? Is its place imperturbable through life, or does it flow?
The Remains of the Day invited me to ponder these questions through the recollections and reflections of Stevens, the buttoned-up butler that tended to an English aristocrat in the years leading up to the Second World War.
Stevens latches onto the idea of dignity as the true north of a life well lived. He tries to exemplify it, to define it, to explain it to himself. Dignity is, as Stevens puts it:
‘It’s rather a hard thing to explain in a few words, sir,’ I said. ‘But I suspect it comes down to not removing one’s clothing in public.’
But lofty ideals can smother our humanity: love, emotion, even curiosity. As the twilight comes and turns into night, he wonders that perhaps he’s been wrong all along. In the remains of his days, as he travels in his master’s Ford through the countryside in search of Miss Kenton, Stevens struggles to find the justification of his life’s choices. “Dignity” it is. And dignity kept him captive in a claustrophobic existence. Dignity dismissed the pursuit of romance. Dignity meant uncompromising loyalty to a pro-Nazi patron.
Dignity, I think, is for Stevens the justification, but it is a justification a posteriori. I believe it was Lawrence Durrell who wrote that each man prone to reflection will find a philosophy and moral code that coincides with his temperament.
Innocence, ingenuity, limitations
This is the second Ishiguro novel I’ve read. The other one was Never Let Me Go (high on the re-reading project list). In both novels, the main character is somehow a prisoner of their own innocence or limitations. And the reader is their cell mate. We are both blind to the significance of what’s happening to them. However, we can feel the vibrations of tragic and harrowing undercurrents.
Until we all fully understand and confront reality.
On a higher plane, both The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are allegories of the unassailability of life’s meaning. Our end is inevitable and is the same for all. We all try hard to assign meaning to what we do, to the people and animals we love, we look for loopholes on the contract… and at the end, we either embrace or reject resignation.
I read Remains over a weekend… Ishiguro wrote it in four weeks. The novel is approximately 250 pages long. I didn’t feel much immediately after finishing it. Then, gradually, the absorption process continued and the story’s awesomeness was decoded… or revealed.