Wednesday 8 November 2017

The Remains of the Day

(October 2017)

Reread this for a thing. I wasn’t going to write too much about it here, as this isn’t the thing (yet), but I find that I have thoughts that are not so directly connected to the thing and so here we are.

I say reread because my first encounter with this book was as an A-Level set text, coming up on two decades ago now. This time around was, in ways both predictable and not, a very different experience, so much so that I’m tempted to revisit all six (seven?) of the texts we studied back then. I’ve no real desire to repeat the slow atomization of the book which passed for analysis and criticism all those years ago, but a number of thoughts do occur.

Most glaringly, that Stevens is an essentially comic character. Freighted with more than his fair share of pathos and tragedy, of course, but I didn’t remember this book being so funny. I don’t remember it being funny at all, to be honest. I’ve previously mentioned that the way we studied back then wasn’t exactly conducive to eking out a work’s inherent humour, but I’m not sure my missing of the jokes was solely down to this. Put simply, this is a comedy of manners, and if you don’t know what those manners are, through dint of sheer lack of life experience, then it’s not going to work for you. Probably not aided by the fact I was never the most socially aware kid even at the best of times.

Missing the humour in Remains of the Day is doubly odd, however, because as a teen I was a huge fan of Red Dwarf (the first six series; I’ve fortunately not been able to see any of the more recent efforts), and while there are clear connections between Stevens and other socially awkward functionaries with unduly inflated senses of their own importance such as David Brent, the character I’m most reminded of is Arnold Rimmer. Specifically the facets of his character explored in the episode ‘Justice’, in which the crew visit a mothballed penal colony. The controlling AI of Justice World scans their minds on entry looking for evidence of wrongdoing, and Rimmer is sentenced to ten thousand years of incarceration for the murder of the Red Dwarf’s entire crew.* He is defended by Kryten, who successfully proves that Rimmer was such an insignificant cog in the machine that there was no way he would ever have been allowed to do a task upon which people’s lives genuinely depended; it was just his deluded sense of over-importance which triggered the AI’s guilt sensors.

Which brings us back to Stevens, who at every turn protests that he was but a small part of the bigger picture while nonetheless continuing to centre himself in every story he relates. The gentleman doth protest too much, hoist by his own petard, etc. There are some fairly obvious parallels here with An Artist of the Floating World, not least in how the (unreliable) narrator is an essentially decent but cowardly man who finds themselves on the wrong side of history, and simultaneously seeks to exaggerate their importance while minimizing their responsibility.

A couple of other things about reading this with an adult with a (hopefully) more extensive knowledge of world history and human relationships than my teenage self: Firstly, the almost blithe appearance of Ribbentrop about halfway through was very jarring; if the reader was in any doubt as to the directions of Darlinton’s sympathies up to that point then just seeing that name in print should dispel all of them. Don’t remember that having anywhere near the same effect, probably as I didn’t know who Ribbentrop was.

Additionally, I was (and in all probability still am) shit at reading people’s romantic intentions—the fact that I’ve managed to obtain, let alone maintain, more than one long-term relationship in my life still shocks me when I think about it—so the tension between Stevens and Miss Kenton went right over my head, even when it was pointed out explicitly. Far more poignant this time, not least because I’ve more understanding of the narrative tropes that demand that of course there’d be some unrequited passion there.

*You’ll recall that they were wiped out by an engine malfunction three million years in the past, which only Lister survived due to being in suspended animation at the time. Rimmer is a hologram, which means he faces actually serving the entirety of his sentence. 

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