On Reading The Remains of the Day

I read this book during my short-lived obsession with Downton Abbey (abandoned due to lack of time, make no mistake, it is an excellent series). The only book by Ishiguro I’d read before this was The Unconsoled, which was a confusing read that I didn’t finish, so I was a little apprehensive at the start.

This is the story of a butler, Stevens, and his experiences working at Darlington Hall for his old employer Lord Darlington and his new American employer Mr Farraday. Stevens goes on a road trip, of sorts, across England to meet an old colleague, the ex-housekeeper of Darlington Hall, Miss Kenton.

The subtlety of Ishiguro’s writing was very appealing. A friend and I were especially enamoured with how he described the English landscape:

The English landscape at its finest – such as I saw this morning – possesses a quality that the landscapes of other nations, however more superficially dramatic, inevitably fail to possess. It is, I believe, a quality that will mark out the English landscape to any objective observer as the most deeply satisfying in the world, and this quality is probably best summed up by the term ‘greatness.’

I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.

One could say the very same thing about Ishiguro’s prose. The narrative is carried out with a sense of restraint, a politeness and a sort of blandness; or what we would expect from a good butler like Stevens.

The book is also centred on the lofty ideals of “dignity” and “greatness”. Stevens mulls over what makes a truly “great butler”, and one of his criteria is the need for “dignity”. But what is “dignity”? He also goes on about how a good butler stays in form and only truly slips out of form when he is completely alone.

Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. . . . He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted that I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?

The importance of helping great men with their work is also central to Steven’s philosophy. He reflects on his years serving Lord Darlington, one of these “great men” and can’t help but question the “greatness” of his master. He doesn’t bring it up but the biggest questions underlying all of his reflections: Have I wasted my life as a butler, if I did not serve a great man? Have I wasted my life on this ideal of “greatness”? Was it all self-delusion? And: What could have been? (or what we now know as the midlife crisis)

Indeed — why should I not admit it? — in that moment, my heart was breaking.

The story was heartwrenching in its own way. I’ve spent a lot of time reading historicals and one never thinks about the butler. The grand lords and beautiful ladies are the main attraction, while the butler is this stodgy, dignified servant keeping their lives in order. But the butler does think, he does have a life apart from serving his master. At what point does his duty end and his own conscience and yes, dignity come to the fore? Should he serve and obey or question and follow his own morals and beliefs?

The book also touches on a far larger issue, whether the common man can be trusted to make decisions for himself and for the world, or if it should be left to men better informed,  i.e. the nobles. Ishiguro explores class differences and human dignity, with a great deal of subtlety.

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? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services. What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.

TROD made me examine my pre-conceived notions of duty, dignity and the noble ideals man creates. Perhaps we might look to Mr Ishiguro himself for some insight. From the excellent New York Times review by Lawrence Graver:

In his first two novels, Mr. Ishiguro evoked a Japan struggling to rebuild and come to terms with a tarnished past. In ”The Remains of the Day,” he turns his eye on another myth-shrouded society, that of Britain in the last days of empire. Although each of his novels is set at an important historical moment, Mr. Ishiguro says he is more interested in examining the way people, and by extension societies, come to face truths about themselves.

Mr. Ishiguro said in a telephone interview from his home outside London that he tended to focus on elderly characters out of his own concern about how members of his generation would account for themselves in the years to come.

”I’m still a relatively young writer,” said Mr. Ishiguro, who was born in 1954, ”and I tend to write out of a projected fear of what would happen. To combat complacency, I suppose I’m always trying to remind myself in my writing that while we may be very pleased with ourselves, we may look back with a different perspective, and see we may have acted out of cowardice and failure of vision.

”What I’m interested in is not the actual fact that my characters have done things they later regret,” Mr. Ishiguro said. ”I’m interested in how they come to terms with it. On the one hand there is a need for honesty, on the other hand a need to deceive themselves – to preserve a sense of dignity, some sort of self-respect. What I want to suggest is that some sort of dignity and self-respect does come from that sort of honesty.”

Side note: Recently I have started making my way through The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and I thought what a perfect juxtaposition it made to TROD.

[This is a repost of an earlier review from my tumblr.]

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Vincent Brady: Of Fireflies and Planetary Waltzes

Vincent Brady is in love with the night sky and fireflies; and so are we all. There is a particular phrase that comes to mind, Stanley Kubrick in his interview with Playboy magazine who uttered this truth:

However vast the darkness, we must supply our own light.

And Brady has done it. If our age is one of disillusionment, terrorism and the degradation of morality, then Brady’s work must be one of the millions of flickering lights out there, to provide respite from the darkness. He captures the stately waltz of planets, stars, galaxies, dark matter in his series ‘Planetary Panoramas’. From the heavens to the earth, where the dazzling displays of fireflies are suspended in time, forever, in his timelapse series on fireflies in the wild. And the message is clear: there is still beauty left in the world. We are part of something extraordinary, all six billion of us. There is something worth treasuring. We have to look no further than the skies above us.

If I may be permitted to share some of his wonderful fine art photography:

Vincent Brady: Fireflies &emdash;

Vincent Brady: Fireflies &emdash; Fireflies of Fitzgerald

Vincent Brady: Fireflies &emdash; Fireflies and Lake of the Ozarks

And from his Planetary Panoramas: 

Vincent Brady: Planetary Panorama Project &emdash; Milky Way Rising at Delicate Arch

Vincent Brady: Planetary Panorama Project &emdash; Landscape Arch and the Milky Way

Give his magical time lapse videos a watch:

Visit his website here.

The Edge of the Earth

untitled by Nicola Abraham on Flickr.

And I liked the idea of telling my kid, “When you were inside me, we went to see the edge of the earth.”

But the truth is, the ten or twenty minutes I was somebody’s mother were black magic. There is no adventure I would trade them for; there is no place I would rather have seen. Sometimes, when I think about it, I still feel a dark hurt from some primal part of myself, and if I’m alone in my apartment when this happens I will hear myself making sounds that I never made before I went to Mongolia. I realize that I have turned back into a wounded witch, wailing in the forest, undone.

Most of the time it seems sort of O.K., though, natural. Nature. Mother Nature. She is free to do whatever she chooses.

Today I read this beautiful piece of travel writing, “Thanksgiving in Mongolia” by Ariel Levy. Here are some of my favourite parts. Do me a favour and go read it here.

On Reading American Psycho

This book was an experience. Bret Easton Ellis, for all his twitter mishaps, is a master at satire. It was bloody, hilarious, dark, helpless, disquieting. The copious amounts of blood spatter and gore and body parts aren’t easy to stomach. And yet I cannot imagine the book without it. The rampant materialism, the detachedness, the superficiality of the 80s yuppies culture is made fun of so much in this book. I alternated between giggling and shocked horror in reading this violent, mad work.

Patrick Bateman is both a likeable and horrifying character, he undergoes an existential crisis (Is evil something you are? Or is it what you do?), he is awkward at times, painfully sharp at others, cutting through the absolute bullshit some of the other characters spout. He is both human and inhuman. I don’t know if he really killed all those people, or whether they were wild imaginings of his very sick mind. He is without doubt, a psychopath, but a fully functioning one. One that is able to navigate Wall Street, give fashion advice, who goes for facial treatments and shiatsu massages. It is both chilling and comedic, wrapped up in the psychedelic descriptions of the 80s clubbing scene, of snorting cocaine and moo shu custard.

The first part of the book was dazzling but Patrick’s true nature is still obscured to us. The second half becomes progressively weirder, bloodier, as we see Patrick lose his grasp of reality, as he loses the last strands of control over his inhuman desires and motivations. Even he knows and starts to panic, quietly. The rest is a haze of drugged violence, decimating his final vestiges of morality. Inside what the world knows as Pat Bateman, is nothing.

…there is an idea of a Patrick Bateman, some kind of abstraction, but there is no real me, only an entity, something illusory, and though I can hide my cold gaze and you can shake my hand and feel my flesh gripping yours and maybe you can even sense our lifestyles are probably comparable,  I simply am not there.

It is hard for me to make sense on any given level. Myself is fabricated, an aberration. I am a noncontingent human being. My personality is sketchy and unformed, my heartlessness goes deep and is persistent. My conscience, my pity, my hopes disappeared a long time ago (probably at Harvard) if they ever did exist. There are no more barriers to cross. All I have in common with the uncontrollable and the insane, the vicious and the evil, all the mayhem I have caused and my utter indifference towards it, I have now surpassed. I still, though, hold on to one single bleak truth: no one is safe, nothing is redeemed.

Yet I am blameless. Each model of human behaviour must be assumed to have some validity. Is evil something you are? Or is it something you do? My pain is constant and sharp and I do not hope for a better world for anyone. In fact I want my pain to be inflicted on others. I want no one to escape. But even after admitting this- and I have, countless times, in just about every act I’ve committed- and coming face-to-face with these truths, there is no catharsis. I gain no deeper knowledge about myself, no new understanding that can be extracted from my telling. There has been no reason for me to tell you any of this. This confession has meant nothing

But I am not convinced. Deep down, there is a shrivelled up, weak and bleeding part of Patrick that can feel something apart from self-professed greed and an urge to kill. The fact that he can assert that he feels nothing, this self-awareness, indicates that he does feel. There are moments of sparkling clarity in the book that serve to show the humanity in Patrick. His insecurity about his hair, his nervousness when meeting up with Bethany, his jealousy, his imitation of the trends of the 80s, his spouting of meaningless music reviews, these are all reflections of any of us. Trapped in the nightmarish, superficial world as he is, Patrick wants people to see him. Remember his conversation with Bethany, perhaps the only girl who ever saw and heard Patrick, the real Patrick, not the facade he puts up. He even confesses to her: “I…want…to…fit…in.”, admitting the “pleasures of conformity”.

I mean, does anyone really see anyone? Does anyone really see anyone else? Did you ever see meSee? What does that mean?

And when the people around him don’t see him, he pushes the boundaries. How far can he go until people see the “real” him? That deep dark nothing inside of him. He can’t believe it himself how easy it is to get away, as shown clearly in his killing of the child at the zoo. He experiments with cannibalism, all in an attempt to see how far he can push the boundaries of morality and still keep up the facade of being a human.

Jean and Bethany are possibly the only ones to get close to getting him feel something. And they are not part of the world he lives in everyday either. Jean and Bethany (and to me, the whole host of beggars he meets, the prostitutes he kills) are the genuine characters, and he simultaneously craves and is afraid of their ability to see him. The entire conversation he has with Jean at the end provokes some of his clearest and most intriguing thoughts. Jean, who is in love with him, is probably the only genuine girl in his life, and is the only one he considers being happy with:

I imagine running around Central Park on a cool spring afternoon with Jean, laughing, holding hands. We buy balloons, we let them go.

There are more things I can talk about. Patrick’s reaction to Luis Carruthers, how disarming it is to be the object of homosexual love. Patrick’s insecurity about his hair. He talks about this “nameless terror”, worrying about the Fisher account, his obsession with fashion and securing reservations. His blatant confessions (real or imaginary?) of insanity to the bland characters around him, and the pervasive subculture of self-absorbedness, superficiality, materialism and suppressed violence. The mindless world he cannot escape, and we ask ourselves, in a world such as that, how could one not go insane? The only thing more terrifying that Patrick is the world and culture that made him.

Surface, surface, surface, was all that anyone found meaning in…this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged…

This book is a must-read. I have to go return some videotapes now, so I end with the words from the beginning and the end of the book:

ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.

THIS IS NOT AN EXIT.

P.S. More gems from the book:

I stare into a thin, web-like crack above the urinal’s handle and think to myself that if I were to disappear into that crack, say somehow miniaturize and slip into it, the odds are good that no one would notice I was gone. No… one… would… care. In fact some, if they noticed my absence, might feel an odd, indefinable sense of relief. This is true: the world is better off with some people gone. Our lives are not all interconnected. That theory is crock. Some people truly do not need to be here.

Where there was nature and earth, life and water, I saw a desert landscape that was unending, resembling some sort of crater, so devoid of reason and light and spirit that the mind could not grasp it on any sort of conscious level and if you came close the mind would reel backward, unable to take it in. It was a vision so clear and real and vital to me that in its purity it was almost abstract. This was what I could understand, this was how I lived my life, what I constructed my movement around, how I dealt with the tangible. This was the geography around which my reality revolved: it did not occur to me, ever, that people were good or that a man was capable of change or that the world could be a better place through one’s own taking pleasure in a feeling or a look or a gesture, of receiving another person’s love or kindness. Nothing was affirmative, the term “generosity of spirit” applied to nothing, was a cliche, was some kind of bad joke. Sex is mathematics. Individuality no longer an issue. What does intelligence signify? Define reason. Desire- meaningless. Intellect is not a cure. Justice is dead. Fear, recrimination, innocence, sympathy, guilt, waste, failure, grief, were things, emotions, that no one really felt anymore. Reflection is useless, the world is senseless. Evil is its only permanence. God is not alive. Love cannot be trusted. Surface, surface, surface, was all that anyone found meaning in…this was civilization as I saw it, colossal and jagged…

Everything failed to subdue me. Soon everything seemed dull: another sunrise, the lives of heroes, falling in love, war, the discoveries people made about each other. The only thing that didn’t bore me, obviously enough, was how much money Tim Price made, and yet in its obviousness it did. There wasn’t a clear, identifiable emotion within me, except for greed and, possibly, total disgust. I had all the characteristics of a human being – flesh, blood, skin, hair – but my depersonalization was so intense, had gone so deep, that the normal ability to feel compassion had been eradicated, the victim of a slow, purposeful erasure. I was simply imitating reality, a rough resemblance of a human being, with only a dim corner of my mind functioning. Something horrible was happening and yet I couldn’t figure out why – I couldn’t put my finger on it.

I laugh maniacally, then take a deep breath and touch my chest- expecting a heart to be thumping quickly, impatiently, but there’s nothing there, not even a beat.

P.P.S Here are some brilliant reviews that helped me understand this book further: here, here, herehere. Also, a vlog.

I am aware of DFW’s criticisms of it as expounded in the second last link: “In dark times, the definition of good art would seem to be art that locates and applies CPR to those elements of what’s human and magical that still live and glow despite the times’ darkness. Really good fiction could have as dark a worldview as it wished, but it’d find a way both to depict this world and to illuminate the possibilities for being alive and human in it. You can defend Psycho as being a sort of performative digest of late-eighties social problems, but it’s no more than that.”

I can’t help but question DFW’s definition of “good art”, though he is, after all, entitled to his own opinion. Does good art have to be a beacon in the dark for us? Is there no value to nihilistic art? What is “good” art? This is intensely subjective. Isn’t Bret pointing out the flaws of society, reminding us that materialism, superficiality, the surface can lead to nowhere good, isn’t that a valuable lesson to learn?

Gregory Crewdson and Edward Hopper

As a segue from my post on Psycho where I mentioned Edward Hopper, who is, to me, one of the best American Realist artists to date, I’d like to talk about Gregory Crewdson, a photographer who is strongly influenced by Hopper, as many others were.

I first encountered Crewdson’s photographs at an exhibition in the Public Art Gallery in Dunedin, which is a very fine establishment (with free entry! and choral performances too! ). It was his Brief Encounters exhibition. You can clearly see Hopper’s influence in the scenes staged in Crewdson’s works. Again, small town America is the subject, with surreal shots of American suburbs, the pavements lit by lonely streetlights, creepy family dinners, the silence that looms over it all. And these photographs, like Hopper, make you wonder, they incite imaginations of the stories behind these unnamed characters. The technique that Crewdson uses makes the photographs seem like paintings, but not quite, which adds to the surrealism of the scenes. There is a disquieting element to his works, again, much like Hopper, detailing the dark side of the “American Dream” and the imperfections of idyllic suburban life. Silent despair, anxiety, insecurity, isolation are undercurrents running through both Hopper’s and Crewdson’s works. We can only thank them for peeling away the facade and showing us the dark heart beneath normalcy. The following are absolutely masterful, sweeping, dramatically lighted, painstakingly crafted works from some of Crewdson’s sets. It’s no wonder he’s attracted big names to play his characters, such as Tilda Swinton, Julianne Moore and Gwyneth Paltrow to name a few.

Why is this girl barefooted, what is she holding, and is she has she just exited the cab behind her, or is she running away. From what? If she is returning, what is she returning to?

Is this a happy scene? A mother observes her newborn. But what runs through her mind?

Man. Close encounters of the third kind?

If you are interested in learning more, this blog does a better commentary that I could ever aspire to. And here is the trailer for Crewdson’s Brief Encounters documentary, providing fascinating insight into his work.

Gregory Crewdson: Brief Encounters Trailer from Benjamin Shapiro on Vimeo.