Flores's notes on Adam Parkes's book on Ishiguro, followed by copy of interview with Parkes.

Parkes, Adam. Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (Continuum, 2001)

Ishiguro one of leaders among new generation of British writers, such as Martin Amis, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan, Ben Okri, Graham Swift, Jeannette Winterson, and esp. linked by non-British ancestry with Timothy Mo (Chinese-British) and Salman Rushdie (Indian-born). Ishiguro has suggested that Rushdie’s winning the Booker Prize for Midnights’s Children (1981) paved the way for his own success. “What unites this generation of writers, Ishiguro claimed in an interview in 1991, ‘is the consciousness that Britain is not the center of the universe’” (14).

In contrast, however, to Rushdie’s explosive, exploratory use of language, Ishiguro’s prose style is deliberately restrained and elegantly understated, “the sort that actually suppresses meaning and tries to hide away meaning” (Ishiguro). Ishiguro cites Chekhov and Dostoevsky as the “two god-like figures in my reading experience” (interview with Graham Swift, 1989): “I try to put in as little plot as possible” (1990). The messy chaos of Dostoevsky’s characters is largely unexplored in I’s early-mid novels, but The Unconsoled’s surrealism seems to leave behind the order of the earlier novels (Parkes 16) and owe debts to Kafka. Ishiguro also admires Hemingway, Carver, and Richard Ford—expressive potential of silence and concern with everyday life. Ishiguro not much interested in emulating metafictional preoccupations of Pynchon, Gass, or Barth. Parkes suggests that Ishiguro has affinities with Henry James and Ford Madox Ford: “Like both of these precursors, Ishiguro is preoccupied, even obsessed, with the nature of consciousness. . . . to reveal the depths of self-deception we are prepared to plumb as we evade the truth about ourselves” (18).

Cf. James’s story “The Beast in the Jungle” (1903) whose narrator, John Marcher, finds that in waiting for the great event that will change his life he misses out on life itself. And Ford’s The Good Soldier (1915), for problems of narrative reliability and memory. In Ishiguro’s novels, “what we see is the imaginative work that we silently perform—registered in the ellipses, obscurities, repetitions of our own speech—as we talk ourselves into believing the stories that we want to believe” (19). Debt to modernist emphasis on psychological depth over minute realist factual detail (though an author such as George Eliot was also intensely interested in and aware of what gets ‘mirrored’ in the writer’s mind).

Another affiliated cultural and literary influence too readily overstated is Ishiguro’s Japanese inheritance, with debts to Ibuse, Kawabata, Soseki, and Tanizaki (22), especially drawn to emphases on character and atmosphere over typically Western interest in plot or action, and also Japanese film genre shomin-geki—ordinary people in everyday life; Ishiguro want to see below the surface of daily life. Also resists stereotypical Japanese suicide.

Major themes: ordinary experience of loss, time passing, shifts in moral perspective so that what once seemed dignified may now appear anachronistic or even criminal, treachery, history/myth; sub-themes: exile, homelessness, nostaligia, nationalism.

The Remains of the Day
Time frame for present day narration: six days in July 1956. Darlington Hall, near Oxford. Parkes recounts plot/situations of Stevens’s journey to see Miss Kenton and also story of misguided devotion to Lord Darlington. Title of novel: “While we might take the ‘remains’ of Stevens’s day to signify what persists or endures of his past life, we might view them also as its ruins or corpse. Stevens’s entire narrative might be characterized as a stumbling endeavor to salvage something valuable, or at least defensible, from a life that he suspects has been wasted” (29).

Gradual exposure of Stevens’s own duplicity (including suppression of love for Miss Kenton) even as he remains deceived (30). Also larger story of the relationship between personal identity and national consciousness, and the representation of history. Ishiguro’s novel carries a critique of literary and historical tradition that has been a major vehicle of a national identity in need of reform (30).

Style, form, and irony
Stevens’s careful discourse, with simple, precise, overly formal language that suggests that something else is being said ‘beneath its carefully polished surface, or at least that the narrator is straining to limit the range of his discourse, to frame it in such a way that things he doesn’t want the reader to see are kept out of sight’(31). For example, S sidesteps Mr. Farraday’s teasing about Miss Kenton (RD 14-16) by explaining his difficulty with bantering. Parkes, however, sees little, if any, progress on Stevens’s part, and assumes that he is still rationalizing “away the human factor” at novel’s end reference to bantering. Yet he acknowledges that “at some level Stevens himself isn’t fooled” by his own excuses and rationalizations (33). S’s willful blindness to truth about himself paradoxically disclosed by tendency to impart information that belies his stiff upper lip (such as tears on his face when he serves port on night of his father’s death (RD 105). Ishiguro explained to Graham Swift: “He ends up saying the sorts of things he does because somewhere deep down he knows which things he has to avoid. He is intelligent enough, in the true sense of the word, to perceive the danger areas, and this controls how his narrative goes” (qtd. Parkes 34-35).

Parkes compares Steven’s style to ‘translationese’ of Ishiguro’s Japanese narrators in previous novels: “Appearing always to stand at an ironic distance from its real meaning, Stevens’s language indirectly reveals a fracture in his psyche and in his soul. As the narrative proceeds and the ironic gap between meaning and intention widens, we are likely to wonder less at Stevens’s stupidity than at the severity of the wound. And as our bafflement increases, we may find ourselves contemplating the mounting cost of Stevens’s persistence in speaking the ‘language of self-deception and self-protection,’ as Ishiguro put it in an interview with Gregory mason (1989). It is only late in the day that Stevens recognizes, fleetingly, what the reader has already guessed: this is also the language of broken hearts” (34).

Ishiguro comments on diary form of his novels: “Technically, the advantage of the diary narrative is that each entry can be written from a different emotional position.” Parkes comments: “The cumulative effect of several different entries is that they relativize each other; each one has the potential to cast the others in an ironic light. Two main examples that highlight such dramatic irony. S’s treatment of Miss Kenton (RD 175 ‘turning point’) following letter about death of her aunt—fails to offer condolences immediately, then surmises she is crying (176), then goes on his way (177). Undercuts himself by relating that later that day he vents his dissatisfaction with two new maidservants under her supervision; also contradiction in his narrative between the ‘composed’ (176) manner in which she received the news and his suspicion that she is grief-stricken. The answer comes pages later, as he waits for Miss Kenton (Mrs. Benn) in dining room of the hotel in Little Compton, Cornwall—fragment of memory (212) that he now sees he has attached to the wrong episode. He had stood outside her door on a different occasion, following his clumsy rejection of her timorous but unmistakable offer of love; Mrs. Benn also recalls that she too has looked back to wonder what would have happened if they had acted differently at that crucial moment—this is when Stevens realizes that his heart is breaking (239).

This night when S rejected Miss K’s advances is linked to memory of one of Lord Darlington’s most important conferences, with British PM, Foreign Secretary, Ribbentrop (Hitler’s Foreign Minister, 1936-38 and Ambassador to Britain). S brushed off Miss K because of “events of global significance” (218). Miss K’s rejoinder makes a clear point: “Stevens’s commitment to professional duties repeatedly serves as an excuse for evading the deeper emotional issues of his life.

Second major reevaluation of S has to do with LD, whom S refuses to doubt even after young Cardinal states that LD has become the ‘pawn’ of the Nazis (222, 225). By the closing scene on Weymouth pier, this trust and idealized image of Lord Darlington has evaporated, along with his own self-respect (243). S forced to acknowledge in partial self-recognition that the concept of ‘dignity’ has been hollow.

Not primarily an issue of unreliable narration (see Wayne Booth’s Rhetoric of Fiction, 1961, rev. 1983) and David Lodge’s The Art of Fiction (1992). Ishiguro seems more interested in questioning the concept of unreliable narration than in demonstrating it (39). For instance, Stevens acknowledges his unreliability (RD 60), and he is generous with information that “enables us to reach a clearer understanding of his life than he himself ever attains. But this is not simply a question of differences of interpretation; Ishiguro renders uncertain the fictional reality that is the subject of intepretation”—instills skepticism in reader, such as episode of housemaid Lisa whom Miss K hires only to see her run away with footman, as S claims he predicted. We wonder how much he has changed by the end of the novel, due in part to a certain chilly distance he maintains.

Parkes compares this aspect/use of diary form to the end of Joyce’s A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), where Stephen Dedalus’s account indicates that he may develop into a true artist, or he may decline. Stevens’s narrative, argues Parkes, produces and serves different functions, showing us Stevens as he sees himself or wants us to see him, and also a different Stevens who is the subject of Ishiguro’s novel—tale both of enlightenment and its failure: “For in the end, Stevens remains in the dark . . . . Having shown us everything we need to imagine a different portrait from the one he wants us to see, why does he persist in pointing to the latter version of himself as the true one?” (41).

Character: Dignity and Repression
Indirect style and understatement directly related to mystery of Stevens’s character (42). In a 1995 interview, Ishiguro speculates that S’s obsessive desire to control his life, his fear of losing control, and the consequent stifling of emotion, may well be fictional versions of Ishiguro’s preoccupations as a writer. Yet Stevens’s Prufrockian rationalizations, self-deceptions, repetition and ironic reversals, are shared by Ishiguro’s other narrators, and may be termed a suffering condition of ‘ordinary’ everyday(man) lives.

Stevens particularly obsessed with “dignity” as key to his “professional values” (RD 35) and thus his whole life aspiration to be a “great butler” (RD 31). The fictitious Hayes Society (33) begs question of what is dignity, and Mr. Graham’s definition by comparison to a woman’s beauty , “something one possessed or did not by a fluke of nature” (33) does not satisfy S, who contends that dignity may be acquired “over many years of self-training and the careful absorbing of experience” (33). S then turns to example of his father’s tale of the British butler in India who dispatched the tiger without leaving a trace (36).

Stevens asserts that great butlers “wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit” (42-43)—never discarded in public gaze, only when alone. As Brian Shaffer explains, the clothing metaphors that Stevens uses to describe his professional duty (as in when his father dies or when Miss Kenton tells him she has accepted Mr. Benn’s marriage proposal) serves only to cloak his emotional and sexual repression, while at the same time drawing attention to this mechanism of repression.

A bit contrary to Ishiguro’s explanation that Stevens is trying to erase the emotions that could hurt him professionally, Parkes explains that S’s preoccupation with professional dignity serves to repress personal feeling, as with Miss Kenton, with his similar inability to expression tenderness towards his father, and in his self-effacing politics.

Take the incident, for instance, when Miss Kenton insists on seeing what S is reading (RD 167) and takes his book, which he takes as almost a sexual violation of his sanctuary, yet dismisses this sentimental love story as a book meant to improve his “command of the English language,” and he defines her intrusion as an affront to his dignity (169). As S tells Dr. Carlisle, dignity “comes down to not removing one’s clothing in public” (RD 210).

Parkes states that the “emotional repression that manifests itself in Stevens’s relationship with his father is inextricable from his political repression, and it is moreover intertwined with his ongoing attempt to define dignity. Yet S also cites father’s lack of expected attributes mistaken as essential when they are really no more than icing on the cake (RD 34), though he relies on excuse of improving his own command of English as important (Parkes 47). This may reveal S ambition to surpass his father’s standards (to whom he typically refers in the third person, except during exchange when father reaches out to be only to be evaded by son, p. 97).

If S is emotionally deprived, note also that he never mentions his mother, which itself may be compared to his “inability to admit his emotional dependence on Miss Kenton” (Parkes 49). One wonders if Stevens’s elder brother Leonard, killed in the Boer War (1899-1902), also suffered such emotional subordination to father’s injunctions toward professionalism; note comparison to be made between’s brother’s futile, un-British attack on Boer civilians and S’s own futile devotion to Nazi sympathizer Lord D (RD 40).

Both brothers victims of a lingering feudalism, which grants hereditary authority to likes of Lord Darlington (naïve to treacherous). S accepts such authority, as did his father at Loughborough Hall, when serving ex-general responsible for Leonard’s death in display of emotional masochism and political quietism (Parkes 49, RD 42, cf Stevens’s emulation, 106, “to let him down” refers either to father or to LD). LD as surrogate father, or rather, S’s consent to feudal master-servant bond over interpersonal/filial attachments, and S likewise lords it over subordinate servants. His over-identification with his master also is evident when villagers mistake him for Lord Darlington, and when he accepts LD’s word on political matters, despite young Cardinal’s charge that his employer is a mere dupe of the Nazis. Moreover, S himself acquiesces to dismissal of Jewish maids, with only defense that he was simply obeying orders (a chilling echo, says Parkes, of the Nuremberg trials). S himself confesses ignorance of politics, when humiliated by his master’s guests. Like character Farrington in Joyce’s story “Counterparts,” S is a servile mechanism. Like Joyce’s Dubliners, under condition of moral paralysis/crisis, most evident in exchange with Harry Smith over whether “dignity” is exclusive attribute of upper-classes (RD 186-89).


Questions Submitted by Our Participants
& Answered by

Dr. Adam Parkes, author of Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day

My question to Dr Parkes would have to do with the use of 'unreliable narrator' as a narrative technique. This is my first encounter with it. And Ishiguro. Both very exciting. RD just has to be a little masterpiece. And Ishiguro, it would seem, is an acknowledged master of the technique. I'm not sure I have a sufficiently good grasp of the concept to know if my question(s) is properly framed, or if it even falls within its technical parameters. For example, is the author using the technique to deconstruct Stevens, the butler; or is Stevens himself, as the narrator, employing it to deconstruct his memory, or his existential being? Is the unreliability Stevens' problem; or is it mine? Should I, as reader, look at his narration as something in the nature of a cover-up, or cop-out? I feel he's letting it all hang out. How long has the concept of the Unreliable Narrator been used, and who originated it?

Last question first: unreliable narration has been around as long as narration itself, almost; it's an integral part of Chaucer's _Canterbury Tales_, for instance, insofar as we must always be on our guard against passive acceptance of the views of individual narrators; and the same goes for Homer.

As long as narrators have been around, unreliable narration has been a narrative technique--if only because narrators, like any other character, tend to lie from time to time.

Modern authors, however, have developed increasingly sophisticated ways of employing this technique, with various sorts of results. One kind of unreliable narration, e.g. Faulkner's in _As I Lay Dying_ (which assembles numerous fragments of narrative told from different points of view), seems to imply that while we can never entirely trust one individual narrator, we're able to piece enough information together from the separate narratives to be able to create a reasonably reliable picture (though not necessarily a complete one) of the reality to which those narratives refer. This kind of text is like a jigsaw puzzle composed of various pieces that we can put together. There may be holes in our picture, but at least we know where the holes are; we know that we're dealing with a certain kind of reality.

A different kind of unreliable narration may leave us wondering, though, whether there is a stable reality underlying the tale unfolding before our eyes. A good example of this sort of thing is Salman Rushdie's _Midnight's Children_, in which one character dies only to reappear (if I remember correctly) from a trap-door later in the work.

In this sort of text, we seem to be dealing with multiple levels of reality which don't obey the same rules--different kinds of puzzle, if you like; and the only thing that holds them together is that they inhabit the same novel. For numerous and dizzying delights of this sort, see the short fictions of Jorge Luis Borges....

What's the point, or the advantage, of unreliable narration? Most simply, it allows authors to tell at least two stories at once through the same narrator. In Stevens's case, Ishiguro is able to give us Stevens's story as he'd like it to be told and Stevens's story as he can't help telling it. The second story sometimes emerges from cracks in Stevens's tale, such as his confusion about the order of events on the night of the conference (a confusion that he points out himself; see pp. 36-37); more generally, it emerges from the numerous ironies, small- as well as large-scale, that we find in his narration.

Of course, not all of this has to do with Stevens's lying--perhaps none of it does; as the questioner indicates, it often has to do with the vagaries of Stevens's memory. Where this gets really interesting, though, is the point where we may start wondering if the real reality isn't the remembered one rather than the one that actually happened; or whether "reality," as we call it, can be apprehended independently of human memory and imagination.

Ishiguro's interviews suggest quite strongly that he's interested in the way memory works--and works quite often by failing--rather than in trying to suggest "what really happened." In which case Ishiguro's unreliable narration slides away from Faulknerian (or modernist) territory into the postmodern world of Rushdie, Borges, Robert Coover, John Barth, et al..
In your book on page 31 you say “His sentences are carefully and solidly constructed (his slips are few, and when they come they are always revealing).” Would you mind identifying some of those slips and what they reveal?
Without the text in front of me (alas, it's not right now), I'd hesitate to leap in too quickly here, but I discuss one such slip on p. 58 [in his book] in reference to Stevens's theorizing on the Englishness of butlerdom. Here, I think, Stevens's unusual lapse from sound syntactical practice invites us to ask whether his theory is as watertight as he'd like to believe. Indeed, one might wonder if he even believes it himself entirely.
In his book Dr. Parkes points out another really subtle irony in a speech of Stevens, and that’s on my page 28, in which Stevens claims
the land “possesses a quality that the landscapes of other nations, hoverer more superficially dramatic, inevitably fail to possess,” a quality “best summed up by the term, ‘greatness,’ which justifies the name Great Britain.”….

It is as though the land knows of its own beauty of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it. IN comparison, the sorts of sights offer in in such places as Africa and America, though undoubtedly very exciting, would, I am sure, strike the objective viewer as inferior on account of their unseemly demonstrativeness.”(page 29).
This from a man whose travels have only consisted of a one day trip to Salisbury, a very nice irony tucked away that I personally had missed.
You mention several times ploys and “red herrings,” as in (page 30) Stevens’s suppression of his love for Miss Kenton is a ploy to divert the reader’s attention to the action that takes place in the narrator’s consciousness.”. and “by ending in renewed pursuit of the old red herring of bantering.” ([pages 39-40). Is it possible that bantering, which begins and ends the book, has a more substantive role in the book than as a red herring? Is it possible that it also might serve as an indicator of the “Journey of the Mind” as you’ve put it, that Stevens is making and even come to be Steven’s new goal? (Not sure here but I think something happened with bantering, am not sure what it was? I think it changed its form and function as it went on, and actually may replace, in Steve's mind, attributes he once thought important: a new goal to shoot for, not just an adjunct goal? He seems to consider it the key to human warmth? Or is he fooling himself again?
Yes, I think that it's plausible to ask if Stevens is right in his view of bantering as the key to human warmth. But of course he's not a banterer himself, is he, and never will be--so he can never know for himself. He can only speculate, then, whether the ability to banter, which comes naturally to some, is what distinguishes those with some sort of affective capacity from those without one--or what distinguishes those who can express human feeling (like Farraday, or Miss Kenton) from those who are too repressed or conflicted.
Does Stevens use the word "one" instead of "I" when facing a painful truth?
Is there a love story in "Remains" and if so is it between Stevens and Kenton or Stevens and someone/something else? Does anyone love anyone? Does Stevens find total romance in his novels or are the novels a substitution for what he wants but feels he cannot have?
Very much a love story, or at least a love story that fails to happen because Stevens refuses to play his part (see pp. 46-47). Miss Kenton clearly loves him (though Lord knows why, one might add), but he doesn't--cannot--reciprocate. The ending implies that he has loved her all along, perhaps--only he's been unable to admit it to himself; and, having admitted it, he can't put it into words and admit it to her. Stevens loves Lord Darlington, too, of course, and he's less reluctant to admit this as there's nothing sexual at stake in it (or not on the face of it). Not much filial affection for Stevens Sr., though, huh?
Dr. Parkes: -- Would you agree that Ishiguro's writing in The Remains of the Day is existential in the way Chekhov's is in The Lady with the Dog and An Anonymous Story?
One of the things that makes both of these texts so powerful, in my view, is that they clarify a human dilemma and give us the terms in which to apprehend it, without pretending to solve it. This throws the reader back on his or her own resources--and thus into the existentialist's position of having to choose, perhaps, how to act on the story by interpreting it.

Both writers describe a godless world, too, don't they. Or, if it's not a godless world, it looks like one--which means that the only source and motivation of action, moral choice, interpretative agency, would be oneself--one's own existential will.
Two questions to Dr. Parkes....could he comment on Virginia Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway with its similar theme to Remains of the Day. Also, does he understand the origin of Ishiguro's fascination with the themes of "loneliness and indignity of human existence"?
First question: Woolf's and Ishiguro's fictional worlds don't strike me as all that similar, really, as Woolf's is much more fraught with psychological tension--the threat of madness; an actual surrender to madness--than Ishiguro's is (Stevens is never going to commit suicide). There is, of course, a shared interest in loneliness--or, even more specifically, in the pros of solitude on one hand and the cons of isolation on the other--but I think that VW & KI explore this terrain in quite different ways, and with very different results. Formally, too, they're quite different: Ishiguro's text is quite synthetic, Woolf's more flagrantly experimental and fragmented (another sign of the psychosis that afflicts all of her characters in some way or other). Ishiguro is much closer in spirit to Ford and James than to Woolf, I feel. But I would be interested to hear more on this topic; my mind is not completely made up.

Second question: I can only speculate, but I suppose that it comes from a mixture of reading and personal experience. If you're a Chekhov fan, this is bound to be your world, in some sense.
I would like to ask Dr. Parkes first about the "diary", as it has been called. Is this a diary ? It certainly does not meet the customary form of a diary, or journal, where - for one thing - the entries are, if not diurnal, in chronological order.

What I found striking and incongruous is that Stevens is addressing someone directly, personally, e.g.

"You will not dispute, I presume, that Mr Marshall of Charleville House and Mr Lane of Bridewood have been the two great butlers of recent times. Perhaps you might be persuaded that Mr Henderson of Branbury Castle also falls into this rare category. But you may think me merely biased if I say that my own father could in many ways rank with such men ---" pg. 34; or

"I hope you will agree ---" pg 42;

or "Of course, you may retort ---" pg 43;

and other instances, which would be rather unusual in a diary. Early on I had thought that perhaps these exculpatory "confessions" might be directed at Miss Kenton, but I abandoned that thought.

So may I ask who is being addressed here ? For what purpose ?
These are really good questions, and I suppose the logical answer to the last two is that Stevens is probably addressing someone rather like himself--another butler, or perhaps an aspiring one, i.e. someone who would understand his point of view, his commitment to professionalism, etc. Why? Well, perhaps to garner the kind of sympathy that Stevens hasn't found in life, or that he hasn't been willing to allow into his life. It strikes me as a device rather similar to Ford's in _The Good Soldier_, whose narrator, John Dowell, his narrative as directed toward a silent listener--a sympathetic companionable soul sitting by the fireside at night. Narrative thus becomes compensation for the absence or loss of love or friendship; it becomes a kind of talking cure for the narrator (patient), who makes himself feel better by saying his say to a silent auditor (analyst). This does mean, to be sure, certain variations on the techniques of diary fiction, but it's not at odds with those techniques, I don't think (why not write your journal as if it were addressed to an imaginary friend?).

I look at it like this: Stevens writes his journal, day by day, during his West Country travels; and rather than limiting himself to each day's immediate events, his mind wanders, his memory intrudes, as it must (he can't help it), taking us back in time to earlier days at D. Hall, so that the journal turns into another kind of text--or becomes two texts at once: journal and novel. Thus the allusions to a sympathetic reader invoke two kinds of reader or reading at one stroke: the reader whom Stevens imagines for his journal (which he knows he's writing) and the reader of the novel (which Stevens, unlike Ishiguro, does not know he's writing). Three readers then: reader of journal; reader of Stevens's novel; reader of Ishiguro's novel. This is starting to sound metafictional; it's sounding like the world of Borges, Rushdie, et al.