Monday, 11 February 2013

Ishiguro on Life's Turning Points

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which was first published in 1989, was recently reissued as an Everyman’s Library Contemporary Classic, which prompted me to read it. I had never done so before, just watched, several times I believe, the film with Anthony Hopkins as Mr Stevens, the butler who wastes his life away in an at first unthinking and then increasingly desperate attempt to uphold an idea of dignity that even he himself cannot help realising is ultimately a mere excuse for not engaging with other people and with what is going on in the world. It is a kind of professional autism, and the considerable pride that Stevens seems to take in it, barely conceals the emptiness of a life that is spent entirely in the service of another, in complete identification with a particular role, which is constantly worn like a mask or camouflage. Emma Thompson played the housekeeper Miss Kent and the woman who might have loved him if he had only managed to open up a bit, to show some human feeling. But he never does, and then it’s too late, she leaves and never comes back. He had his chance, his one chance of redemption, of becoming an active player in the world instead of merely watching it from the sidelines, and he missed it. It’s a thoroughly depressing story of a failed life.   

The story is being told by Stevens himself. As a narrator he is clearly unreliable, his memory distorted not only by the passage of time, but also by his need to think good of himself, to see his past actions as justified and his life as meaningful. However, he is not entirely blind to the fact that some of his choices (though as a reader one never quite feels that he ever does have a real choice) eventually led to consequences that, if he had been aware of them, he would have rather wished to avoid. But the trouble is, and that is a problem not only for Stevens, but for all of us, that we don’t always know which of all the many things that we do will turn our lives in a direction that we might later find impossible to reverse. Only in retrospect do we realise that an action or event that at the time seemed rather insignificant, just a little thing really, actually had huge repercussions and markedly shaped our fate. In the novel, Stevens comes to the conclusion that one of the major turning points in his life came when he, yet again, rebuked the housekeeper Miss Kent for a minor oversight. He doesn’t really understand what exactly happened that day and why it should have had the consequence it did have, but he is acutely aware that it was the point when she slipped out of his reach for good. He wonders briefly what would have happened if he had acted differently, but then quickly shies away from dwelling too much on the matter:

“But 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 may well be right that we often overlook the significance of events and actions, but we may still draw a lesson from his failure to secure happiness for himself, or at least the chance to find happiness. Things done cannot be undone, but it is equally true that things undone often cannot be done at a later time. Especially in human relationships small things have a tendency to add up until eventually a breaking point is reached. You fail to make a phone call to acknowledge a friend’s birthday, and that, without being obvious at the time, effectively brings an end to that friendship. Or you have one argument too many with your spouse, or you say something, in the heat of the moment, that you don’t really mean, and the other never forgets it, and never forgives, and everything is suddenly very different from what it used to be. So what is there to be learned? I guess it is something very simple, very banal really, a truism: we should try to figure out what is really important to us and then work hard to make sure that we get it, and, once we have got it, not to lose it. Don’t take things, and especially relationships, for granted. Not ever. They are fragile and need to be cultivated. What’s undone cannot be redone. What is lost can never be retrieved. So let’s try not to lose, or make it impossible for ourselves to reach, what gives, or would give, meaning and light to our lives.


  1. This story is classified as fiction. But it is not science fiction like H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. But it does go back in time.

    Even though The Remains Of The Day and The Time Machine are both fiction the former is based more on a reality. Nevertheless science fiction too is based on a reality. I mean, there is nothing that can be written without some basis in reality.

    Why I am writing this I am not quite sure. I guess I am curious about the proximity of the two subject matters. Is there a connecting philosophy or moral behind the two? I guess the connection again has something to do with the human condition. Is it about anxiety, death or taxes (sorry)? Or perhaps it is like Freud once famously said, Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar!

    1. Sure there is a connection, as there is a connection between all good novels. They all pose, in one way or another, the question what it means to be human, what makes a life good, and how we can cope with the passing of time and the death in which it culminates.