25 April 2008
Part of the way through Day 2…
…and about a third of the way through the novel. Stephens is on his trip to the West Country, and everything about it is spot-on: the pompous cadences of Stephens’ style; the thinness of his experiences on the road; the light he shines, in passing, on the life he’s spent in service. Best of all for me is the way the artificiality of the novel’s premise – that an uncommunicative man would write a journal, covering dozens of pages daily – matches the artificiality of his life. There’s something of the jeweller about the care that Ishiguro takes to place everything just so. Everything about it is determined, as controlled as Stephens liked to consider himself at the height of his power and influence. Which wasn’t power or influence really, of course: he was a butler, for God’s sake. (I’m just reading about the careful planning Stephens had to do to manage the big conference his boss staged at the house nearly 30 years before. Stephens compares himself to a general.)
Into the tidy chronology of the journey Ishiguro fits a kind of memoir. Stephens thinks that all he’s doing is describing the golden age of the butler’s ‘vocation’, as he insists on calling it, the period between the wars. According to him, the ‘profession’ then reached a kind of apotheosis: it was possible to achieve greatness as a butler. There’s pathos in the fact that he knows such days will never return (it’s the 50s now), and also in his inability to see that his own little mistakes are just like those that marked the drawn-out end of his father’s own career.
One of the most carefully controlled elements is the distance between the author and the narrator. Ishiguro wants Stephens to hang himself, and he has given him exactly the right pieces of rope to do it. Stephens is a snob, obviously. He has no sense of humour – we wince at his attempts to deal with the ‘bantering tone’ of his new master. He doesn’t know how to talk to anybody: his boss, Miss Kenton the housekeeper – even his own father, working under him in his last years, who he talks to in the third person…. Scenes in which he brutally rebuffs Miss Kenton’s first attempts to make friends, and later breaks the news to his father that he won’t be permitted to serve at table any more, are set pieces: as Stephens describes the control and dignity of the true professional, we see the grossness of the terminally insensitive. The satire is perfect.
And what’s to happen with Miss Kenton? Stephens is going west to see her again after 20 years – he says – for professional reasons: he seems to believe from a letter she wrote that she wants her old job back, and she really would be useful to him. This is obviously nonsense: nothing else he says has shown the least insight into anybody or anything. True, she did write to him after her marriage recently ran into real difficulties, but only the obtuse Stephens would see that as a covert job application. Despite the bad start to their professional relationship all those years ago – and Stephens frankly describes her acidic complaints about his manner – something else must have happened. Obviously. Don’t know what yet, though.
And finally: his hero-worship of his old boss. This goes with Stephens’ ideal of the perfect butler who should, basically, be able to disappear. He describes dinner for two in the big banqueting hall: ok, his feet sound on the hardwood floor… but he is able to retire so far into the shadows he becomes invisible. He does this with the less tangible bits of himself as well: he has no opinions, accepts his lordship’s value system as the immutable truth, becomes an archetype of a particular English attitude. When his boss starts to make friends with Germans, when Stephens refers to the ‘nonsense’ that was later written about him… we know where it’s going. His lordship is only interested in truth and justice – of course, of course – and Stephens buys this. Of course, of course: whatever the upper classes do, some in the aspiring lower middle classes look on with mute admiration. Or, in Stephens’ case, not so mute: he can cover pages with this stuff.
Hmm. That isn’t quite the last thing, of course. On his journey Stephens meets two people: he’s suspicious of an old working man who speaks to him; and he refuses the straightforward offer of tea from an unprosperous-looking woman trying to scratch a living. Stephens thinks he knows Britain because, as he tells us, the cream of society has passed before his eyes over the decades. But he hasn’t a clue how to deal with ordinary people, and these encounters are the first sight we have of his ineptitude. (The scenes with Miss Kenton and his father come later.) But the old man recommends the view from a hill, and Stephens, overdressed in his new ‘motoring costume’, struggles up to look at it. It’s perfect, and leads to his first panegyric on the subject of Britain. The view from the hill is understated, not sensational or self-aggrandising like foreign views he’s seen in pictures. For Stephens it’s a metaphor of the greatness of Great Britain: we’re the best because we don’t have to show off about it. It’s also a metaphor of another ideal: self-effacement to the point of disappearance. Scratch the surface of this man and you’ll find nothing underneath.
To the end of Day 2…
…just over half-way through. It’s more of the same – except Ishiguro increases the stakes. The big conference is a triumph: not only are the delegates in fine mood at the end, a result (Stephens implies) of his own management; but we have the pinnacle of what he describes as the Dignity of the Profession (ok, they’re my capitals). His father dies during it, and Stephens reacts with as much aplomb as the mythical butler he’s told us about, the one who treats the presence of a tiger under the dining table as though it’s no more than an annoying speck of dust. He’s sure it’s what his father would have wanted – Stephens says as much – and there’s real pride in his telling of the story.
But, of course, we read other meanings into it. For a start, as the doctor established, his father was still working hard at 72. And all we’ve had from his wonderful lordship is concern about the potential embarrassment the old man’s failing powers might lead to at the all-important conference: the infirmities of age seen as a kind of creeping faux pas. Meanwhile, Stephens continues his eulogy of the Great Butler – a category which, increasingly, he implies he belongs to. And during Day 2 it starts to become clear what he’s doing. This journal, or whatever it is (and there’s no hint of who the ‘you’ might be that he occasionally addresses), is a justification of his life. And you don’t offer that if you don’t feel there’s anything to justify. Twice he tells us of how he has denied having worked for the problematic lord: once on the road, and once to a recent guest in the big house. Stephens is no fool: he knows this looks shabby, and even tells us how it led to embarrassment for his new boss. So he has to justify it: he didn’t want to offer the opportunity for the nonsense about his old boss to be aired yet again – with, of course, himself at the centre of the conversation. But we can see that he’s really covering his own embarrassment.
This wouldn’t matter, but it does, to Stephens. He’s spending time, during the same day on which he’s denying knowledge of his old employer, asserting that the butler to a great man, in allowing the great man’s life to run on its course in an orderly and well-regulated way, himself contributes to the world’s greater happiness. What he has spent 35 years doing matters. Yes. So, when he denies involvement – what then? Where’s the meaning now?
And increasingly Stephens doesn’t seem like a hollow man. He just seems sad…. Is it an impending tragedy that he has no way, despite his painstaking unpacking of years of service and his own thoughts about them, of understanding how it’s left him with nothing? We fear that his Dignified response to his father’s death – when he flatly denied to anyone worried by the pain they could read on his face that anything was the matter – is only the start of what he’s going to have to go through yet. There’s a long way to go before Cornwall.
To the end of Day 3…
…and well over three quarters of the way through the book. It’s a big section, and Stephens covers a lot of ground. We find out more about him and Miss Kenton – that there’s nothing much to know, except what Stephens has never understood. It’s clear that as she reached her thirties – after she’d been in the same big house as Stephens for ten or more years – she was ready for something else. She’s occasionally seeing a bloke she used to work with – and practically spells it out to Stephens that the ex-colleague isn’t a patch on Stephens himself. No use, of course, just as the offer of flowers early on was no use. We also know that she gets married not long after, because we can work it out from the dates. Not that Stephens has reached that part of the story yet: although Ishiguro feeds in details about her in an apparently ad hoc way, in between Stephens’ musings on his trip and his memories of working for his problematic boss, in fact he keeps assiduously to a strict chronology. This is definitely not stream of consciousness.
I’ve wondered occasionally whether the artifice is overdone. Stephens clearly isn’t writing this, and yet everything about the way he tells it is as though he is. The sentences are stately and well-rounded, the arguments fully considered, the descriptions of events carefully constructed. It’s fantasy: the writing is far beyond what the extremely limited Stephens would ever be able to manage, and yet we don’t protest. All I can think is that Ishiguro wants the prose to represent the man – controlled, fiercely unspontaneous – and that, because he’s worked so hard on achieving a viable tone of voice, we ignore the artificiality of the premise. And there’s another reason why we buy into what’s going on: we’re pleased to be able to read between the lines of what Stephens tells us, and see the truths he’s too obtuse to recognise.
I’ve mentioned how we get this in the non-romance strand of Stephens’ journal/ memoir. Right from the start we’re screaming at him to raise his head from his bleedin’ staff plan and see what Miss Kenton is waving under his nose. We get it in another, almost impossibly obtuse bit of crassness in this section: Miss Kenton’s beloved aunt dies, and Stephens is so embarrassed about his inability to express his condolences he tells her off about the way her new maids are cutting corners. Urk.
He’s at his most obtuse in the unfolding account of his former boss. Stephens is up to the mid-Thirties in his story, and his lordship bemoans the inherent weakness in democracy, that the people are thick oiks – although he doesn’t quite use those words – and that they’re only getting it right in places like Italy. No surprises here, of course: it’s been signalled clearly enough since near the beginning that Stephens used to work for some kind of fascist. But it’s Stephens’ self-justification that gives the reader the chance to feel smug: it’s all down to Loyalty. Stephens’ argument is beautifully circular: if you know your boss is honourable and right-thinking, it’s proper to be loyal; but you have to let him do the thinking because he’s got the capability to do so, while you haven’t. So get on with your job and don’t think so much. (It’s just struck me how he’s described the fascist mentality in miniature: all a butler needs is a Great Man.)
Also in this section is the nearest we’ve come to a bit of drama on Stephens’ drive west: he runs out of petrol and ends up talking to a whole bunch of people. The interesting thing is how he deals with their assumption – because of his car, clothes and accent – that he’s a gent. He doesn’t deal with it at all: he lets them carry on thinking what they like, and even shows off about all the great men he’s had the pleasure of being acquainted with. He justifies it to himself – and there’s some truth in his account of how difficult it would have been to disappoint (and embarrass) the locals once they’d set him up as a toff – but we know, we know. The man’s not only a terrible snob; he’s a coward as well, and he’s never seemed so hollow.
One last word (for now) on the style. It’s disguised as a cross between a journal and a memoir, but its style is unashamedly novelistic. The unvaryingly chronological approach – so that Stephens drops no hints about the end of a story at the beginning of it – gives the reader those little narrative surprises that authors like to drop on us. For instance, the incident after the death of the aunt; ditto the death of his father described on Day 2. It’s ostensibly Stephens who knows how it turns out – we’re to believe he’s just telling it as he remembers it – but we know better. There’s a highly skilled author at work here, and he’s the one who knows it all… and I have to say that sometimes it feels just a bit too carefully finely-tuned. But still, I’m wondering what tomorrow’s going to bring: he’s due to meet Miss K at last, and there aren’t many pages left.
Day 4, lunchtime
Stephens tells us about the morning after his embarrassing evening – the well-off doctor has guessed, but it’s ok – and that he’s now waiting in a hotel dining room. What he’s waiting for is 3.00: he wouldn’t want to startle Miss K by arriving early. Which gives him, or Ishiguro, the time to tie up a few threads in the story of his lordship. While he does that, more light is thrown on Stephens himself….
It’s done through the device of the convenient new character. His lordship has a godson who also happens to be a journalist, and he wants to spy on a secret meeting at the big house. So he just turns up – but is banished to the library. The only person he can talk to, of course, is Stephens. And it turns out that a pushy American who had caused a lot of embarrassment at the big meeting in the 20s – by calling the assembled gents a bunch of interfering amateurs – had been right. The secret meeting is between the PM, no less, and von Ribentropp… and it’s one of a series in which the German ambassador has been playing the Brits for a bunch of suckers. We know he’s right – but Ishiguro also manages to make it clear that his lordship always acts honourably, and for the best. This is all Stephens can see, and when the godson becomes exasperated by his unwillingness to acknowledge his boss’s limitations we realise the extent of Stephens’ self-effacement. It isn’t for him to – what? – to think, basically. This is what had made him seem almost fascist earlier on, and why he seems, at different times, invisible, hollow or totally absent. In a way he’s moulded himself to his boss; he has no opinions, no perceptions, no viable existence of his own. Hence the difficult evening of the previous day: to outsiders he’s indistinguishable from the class he serves.
Meanwhile, Ishiguro is doing a clever thing with the Miss Kenton story. He has her making a momentous decision on the same night as the secret meeting. So far so convenient… but we forgive the coincidence because it begins to tie up another thread at the same time. She’s taking the evening off, and she tells Stephens why: that bloke has asked her to marry him and she’s going to give him an answer. We know, of course, that she doesn’t really want to say yes – which is why she gives Stephens the chance to say something to make her decide not to. He says nothing, of course, except polite phrases from his stock. He hopes she will have a pleasant evening, and so on, and if we didn’t know any better we’d think he was ok about it. How can we be sure we know otherwise? Because he bangs and crashes about the place so much, ostensibly getting ready for the secret meeting, that she thinks he’s making a point about her taking the evening off at such an inconvenient time. (And it’s just struck me that in her way she’s as obtuse as he is.) And all through the evening people ask him if he’s all right. His butlerish, Dignified replies – that he is perfectly well, sir – are identical (I think) to the ones he made when his father had just died.
At last it’s clear. Stephens has rendered himself so incapable of independent thought that he doesn’t realise what has just happened. He’s just lost his only chance of happiness and he is devastated; he says everything’s fine because he doesn’t understand that he’s feeling crushed by it. When Miss K arrives back and tells him she’s said yes, he congratulates her politely. But, 20 years later, he still remembers the moment when he briefly stood outside her door and knew that she was crying. It’s the saddest moment in the novel so far (and there’s still the crucial meeting to come): he’s so out of tune with his own thoughts that when he first introduces the memory of standing outside the room he can’t remember the context. Was it when she…? Or…? He knows, somewhere inside – he’s known for 20 years – but only when he’s within a couple of hours of seeing her again, with her having left her husband, will he allow himself to remember it fully. He’s not hollow at all; he’s full of something terribly bleak, and he covers it up with a shell so impenetrable even he doesn’t know it’s there. Of course, it doesn’t bode well for the meeting with Miss K that she doesn’t know either.
To the end
Day 6 – over 48 hours since his meeting with Miss Kenton – and this really is the end. Stephens is thinking about the future – there’s a first time for everything – and it looks like a pretty desolate place.
The meeting is at the hotel: Miss K arrives there to save Stephens a journey. Almost straight away she tells him that her marriage isn’t over after all; she’s left home before, twice, but now it’s time she faced the fact that what’s done is done and, she tells Stephens, she loves her husband. Ok, she didn’t at first, but now she does, and she’s gone back to him. Stephen responds in his usual way. He’s glad for her, of course, and makes no mention of the plans he’d been making for her return to the big house. And him. They spend a pleasant two hours remembering the good times, until it’s time for her to go.… And we begin to wonder whether that’s it. Are we going to have to imagine Stephens’ anguish? Will there be any anguish to speak of, or will he just go home and live his invisible life?
But then… he gives her a lift to the bus stop. And, in the bus shelter, it’s torture. He asks her why, if everything’s so fine and dandy, she sounds so unhappy in her letters. Does her husband mistreat her? And she begins to explain, sort of. What she doesn’t say, because she doesn’t have to, is how thin her life is with the man she didn’t want to choose. Finally, instead, she says something worse. What makes her unhappy is thinking about the life she might have had with somebody else… with Stephens. All the time, he’s looking elsewhere – at the paintwork of the bus shelter, or the empty fields in the rain – because he’s doing what he always does. He’s covering up. In the retelling two days later he’s frank, for the first time in the novel: his heart breaks. But, by the time he looks at her, she doesn’t guess. Her eyes are wet, but his aren’t. They vow to face the future like brave soldiers and, just before the bus comes, they admit that they’ll never meet again. Aargh.
But that’s not all, folks. Stephens is in Weymouth in the evening. The pier lights come on and everybody cheers…. He can’t help thinking back to a conversation he’s just had with a stranger, a retired butler. (Ishiguro’s playing some literary games here. Just listen.) Stephens, who doesn’t tell us anything about the two days he’s spent since seeing Miss Kenton, has obviously been doing some thinking. And during the conversation with the retired butler he starts to tell it as it really is. Or was: his old boss wasn’t the great man he always imagined, he’s spent the best years of his life on – what? – nothing much, really, and he’s too old even to do that properly any more. He weeps quietly, and the other man tries to cheer him up: don’t worry mate, the evening’s the best time of the day. So when the lights go on and the people cheer, Stephens decides it’s a sign: the evening is the best. And, again, he does what he does: he puts on a dignified face and looks to (so to speak) the remains of the day. He sees the holidaymakers greeting each other, having a laugh, and, yes, he really will make a go of this bantering business. Definitely.
It’s masterful. I don’t know how he does it, but Ishiguro gets us inside the skin of this man who, somehow, seems unable to get inside his own. It doesn’t matter if I, for one, can’t imagine what Miss Kenton ever saw in him; in the last quarter of the book we believe it. And the road not taken has never looked so alluring, or so beyond reach. It’s enough to make a grown man cry.