The Swirling Fires of Prometheus | Daily News

The Swirling Fires of Prometheus

 Darlington Hall
Darlington Hall

It is tempting to begin the year writing about writing – the art of it, the craft of it. Writers of serious literature (according to many writers of serious literature) do not simply type enthralling words onto blank computer screens; instead, ‘they stare into an abyss and reach into their souls and find, if they are fortunate, the swirling fires of Prometheus’.

True enough, writing could be exciting, but it is for the most part simply work. It’s often lonely. It’s rarely romantic. Like how writer Megan Garber puts it, “Writing is a craft in the way that carpentry is a craft: There’s art to it, sure, and a certain inspiration required of it, definitely, but for the most part you’re just sawing and sanding and getting dust in your eyes.”

One wonders how many hours of sawing and sanding went into the process and how many particles of dust had to be removed from his eyes when Kazuo Ishiguro wrote his masterpiece, so well executed, so moving and so perceptively called, “The Remains of the Day.” The question is poignant, (though we may never know the answers) because unlike most of us who write what our heart dictates to us, Ishiguro deliberately, mechanically, searched for a topic that would please readers all over the world before he got down to his craft.

“I was very consciously trying to write for an international audience,” he says in his Paris Review interview. “One of the ways I thought I could do this was to take a myth of England that was known internationally – in this case, the English butler.” What is fascinating, however, is that Ishiguro’s butler is based solely on his imagination, for other than P.G Wodehouse English writers never focused their craft on a character from the lower classes who worked in the houses of the rich and turned that character into the protagonist of a novel.

“I was surprised to find,” says Ishiguro, “how little there was about servants written by servants, given that a sizable proportion of people in this country were employed in service right up until the Second World War. It was amazing that so few of them had thought their lives worth recording. So most of the stuff in The Remains of the Day … was made up.”

Thus we meet Stevens, a butler well past his prime, on a motoring holiday in the West Country. He drives around, taking in the sights and meeting a series of salt-of-the earth country folk who remind us of the villagers in a Martin Wickremasinge novel where the lower orders doff their hats and behave with respect towards a gentleman, with properly creased trousers and flattened vowels. The year is, in fact, July 1956.

And that’s almost all that happens in the story, unless we treat his visit to Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper at Darlington Hall, as a great adventure. Darlington Hall is the house to which Stevens is still attached as “part of the package”, even though ownership has passed from Lord Darlington to a jovial American named Farraday who has a disconcerting tendency to banter. Stevens hopes to persuade Miss Kenton to return to the Hall.

Sadly, his hopes come to nothing and he is back on the road returning to Darlington. But before that we see him weeping before a complete stranger on the pier at Weymouth. The stranger tells him to put his feet up and enjoy the evening of his life, but Stevens finds it hard to accept this simple piece of advice. The reader is left wondering what has blighted the remains of Stevens’ day?

Critic Peter Beech has the answer. “The Remains of the Day” is a book about a thwarted life. It’s about how class conditioning can turn you into your own worst enemy, making you complicit in your own subservience. It’s probably quite an English book – I can’t imagine readers in more gregarious nations will have much patience with a protagonist who takes four decades to fail to declare his feelings.

“Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way,” as Pink Floyd sang. It’s a book for anyone who feels they’ve ever held themselves back when something that truly mattered was within their grasp.”

One can then sum up the novel as a story about a man destroyed by the ideas upon which he has built his life. To his detriment, Stevens is preoccupied by “greatness”, which, for him, means something very like restraint. “The greatness of the British landscape lies, he believes, in its lack of the “unseemly demonstrativeness” of African and American scenery. It was his father, also a butler, who epitomized this idea of greatness; yet it was just this notion which stood between father and son, breeding deep resentments and the ability to articulate emotions that destroyed their love.”

In Stevens’ view, greatness in a butler “has to do crucially with the butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits”. This is linked to Englishness. Continentals and Celts do not make good butlers because of their tendency to “run about screaming” at the slightest provocation. Yet it is Stevens’ longing for this kind of “greatness” that has wrecked his one chance of finding romantic love. Hiding within his role, he long ago drove Miss Kenton away into the arms of another man. “Why, why, why do you always have to pretend?” she asks him in despair, revealing his greatness to be a mask, a cowardice, a lie.

Salman Rushdie, writing about Ishiguro’s book questions, “What is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such a moment turned out differently? One could presumably drive oneself to distraction in this way. In any case, while it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points’, one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.”

Stevens’ greatest defeat, however, is the consequence of his most profound conviction - that his master is working for the good of humanity, and that his own glory lies in serving him. But Lord Darlington is, and is finally disgraced as, a Nazi collaborator and dupe. Stevens, a cut-price St Peter, denies him at least twice, but feels forever tainted by his master’s fall. Darlington, like Stevens, is destroyed by a personal code of ethics. His disapproval of the ungentlemanly harshness towards the Germans of the Treaty of Versailles is what propels him towards his collaborationist doom. Ideals, Ishiguro shows us, can corrupt as thoroughly as cynicism.”

They say, to make the reader cry, a writer should try to keep the characters dry-eyed. And Ishiguro succeeds. Only those who have hearts like stone would not shed a tear for poor Stevens and what is left of his life. He is determined to put the past behind him, but we all know this is easier said than done.

“For a great many people, the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day. Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day. After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?”And, at the beginning of this year, “The Remains of the Day” imparts a lesson we should all learn and never forget. Whatever we do, let’s not keep our feelings to ourselves, let’s release the swirling fires within us, out into the wide, wild world, and pray the consequences will not be drastic.Having learned a lesson from Stevens, I believe it is best to tell you now than later, dear reader, you hold a very precious place in my heart.

May you have a safe, healthy 2021!

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