Kazuo Ishiguro has been widely praised for his ‘Japanese’ virtues as a writer: delicacy, subtlety, quiet irony, watercolour tones, etc. The fact that he was born in Japan and set his first two novels there makes such ethno-critical diagnosis easier. On the other hand, the listed qualities could just as easily be seen as typical of a line of English writing. Ishiguro, after all, writes in English; he left Japan for England at the age of six, and has yet to revisit his native land.
So the coarse opening question when we discover that his third novel is set in England is this: how ‘Japanese’ is he after all? And can we finally draw some bead on the fellow now that he’s taken to writing about something we locals are familiar with? Well, no. Gratifyingly, Ishiguro slips such haymaker leads and skips out of reach: a good writer isn’t pinned down that easily. What emerges strongly from The Remains of the Day (a title the novelist could perhaps sublease to our leading TV interrogator, who’s apparently stuck over what to call his memoirs) is that his individual impress as a writer is much more potent than his setting. The thing his third novel reminds us of most is his second novel, which is as it should be.
The narrative is conducted by an elderly butler called Stevens, who is on a motoring tour of the West Country. It is July 1956, and Darlington Hall, where the butler has served most of his life, has recently been bought by an American. (Note to younger readers: 1956 was when the Suez crisis began; in November the Americans pulled the financial plug on Britain, and our imperial pretensions took a tumble). Stevens is no Jeeves, but a dull, dutiful, respectful fellow, and he begins by boring us – about his bantering new employer, his dignified previous one, his ability to make a good staff play; he reflects on the qualities required of a Great Butler, and recounts some archly humorous pantry tales of servants behaving magnificently despite provocation from tigers and employers. It is a pianissimo opening which requires a deal of authorial nerve.
Stevens bores, but the novel doesn’t. At first you are held by the tone of voice: Ishiguro has endowed his butler with an impeccably controlled suburban-mandarin, a mixture of high style and low thought (only in the novel’s final sentence, which includes both a ‘hopefully’ and a split infinitive, does he seem to over-egg it). And then the narrative begins to draw you in, delicately, subtly (here we go again…), hinting more and more that Stevens’s bland version of events might not be the full pound note. The unreliable narrator has, of course, become a knee-jerk modern convention, often used self-indulgently to make very obvious points about the complex nature of reality; but in Ishiguro’s hands such a narrator is much more fruitful. Stevens is reliably unreliable: that’s to say, there are rules which we, as readers, slowly pick up. We learn to estimate the size of the interstices between statements, judge the extent of euphemism, allow for the degree of prejudice; and by the time the butler ‘refutes’ (as he puts it) allegations against his previous employer, we know pretty well to distrust him and credit the accusations. In An Artist of the Floating World the ageing painter Masuji Ono came on at first as respected and content; slowly and unwittingly he gave himself away until he stood revealed as a figure of artistic and political anathema, the cause of shame to his family. Similar onion-peeling is at the centre of The Remains of the Day.
Again, it is a double onion, private and public. The ostensible purpose of Stevens’s journey is to make contact with a housekeeper who left Darlington Hall to get married before the war, and who he hopes might return (he thinks of her still by her maiden name: natural, yet significant). But as he travels he also reflects upon his lifetime of buttling, especially his years with Lord Darlington. This exemplary aristocrat, who fought the Great War and honoured the defeated enemy, found the terms of the Versailles treaty so punitive that he went in for a bit of amateur diplomacy in the Twenties and Thirties. The problem, we understand, was never really the Germans but the obdurate French; informal contact between the upper echelons of British and German society could be productive, and if Ambassador Ribbentrop was to be a guest at the Hall, then naturally those two Jewish maids would have to go (see about it, Stevens)… and so on and on into the darker regions of compromise. This is a blunt condensation; on the page, the narrative is teased from among the butler’s memories and pretendings, his loyalties and obliquities. And just as the interwar career of Lord Darlington slinks beneath the clear narrative surface like a murky carp, so the butler’s private life (attenuated though it supposedly is by a life of selfish devotion) swims gradually into view. The motives for his present journey across England, we begin to suspect, may be less than purely professional.
These two strands of narrative and memory come together at a point in the late Thirties which Stevens still fondly remembers as his night of triumph, when he organised one of Lord Darlington’s key Anglo-German encounters despite serious local distraction, not least from the housekeeper. That night he proved himself a Great Butler – and/or (since we have learned to read between the lines) that night he suffocated his emotions and displayed a professional quietism bordering on treason. This climax is achieved with remarkable clarity, given that it is happening at two time-removes’ distance, and is mediated through a pompous mouth and a distorted memory: in other novelists’ hands such layers of time and voice might well act like dirty net curtains.
GB = Great Butler and also Great Britain. The less convincing moments in this excellent novel are the state-of-England bits represented by Stevens’s journey. The rustics he encounters sound more Thomas Hardy than 1956 (which may be part of the narrative strategy – they are heard only through the butler’s voice and he could have a bad ear as well as a bad memory – but if so, this makes them too caricatured to be viable); and there’s an awkward little episode when Stevens finds a ‘lost village’ which you fear might be standing as some emblem of traditional England. But such complaint is trifling: the bulk of the novel rests firmly on the narrative sophistication and flawless control of tone -Japanese, English, locate them where you will – of a most impressive novelist.