It could mean anything, but it sounded like a requiem, whatever is left after everything else has gone away. Life imparts that feeling, always going away but leaving time to do what you wanted to do; the remainder will give you that much, at least. I wanted to find out what remained. By now I have watched the movie twenty times if I have watched it once. It is safe to say I like it.
Two instances had led me from movie to book, which I had been vaguely aware of, having assumed the movie’s legendary producers, Merchant and Ivory, mined the most value out of a minor story. I was wrong: the book had done nearly all of the work.
The first signpost on the road to the novel popped up during a conversation consisting largely of myself haranguing on what made the movie better than many others, when a friend mentioned he had heard the book was excellent too, but different from the movie.
That turned out to be partially right. The book is better than excellent, but the movie is a near-exact copy. Almost nothing changed. The book gives you more, but not a lot more. It must be one of the best adaptations ever made and a semi-rare case where an author is happy with what changes were hacked onto his art.
The second occurrence, which saw me the rest of the way home, was when its author, Kazuo Ishiguro, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Several months after that event transpired I had walked into a bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Ishiguro’s books were laid out on a table in front of the shop. I bought a copy. Why not, am I too good to try the man who won a Nobel Prize? I read it in two sittings and sat down to write this . . . . . review . . . . . this salute . . . . . this homage. I do not know what this is, but I am driven to write it.
The bare bones of the story consists of learning what a professional butler serving in the manor house of an English Lord Darlington heard and saw over the course of his thirty years loyal service. Odd, yes, and maybe on its face a boring subject, but it covers the period following World War I and the rise of the Nazis in Germany, finishing about ten years after the conclusion of World War II. Much of this happens right under the nose of the butler, Stevens, with him a wallflower to astonishing, century-shaping machinations.
The butler is an odd character. One of the oddest I have ever encountered. He has lived by a simple credo stating that a truly great butler must at all times: “Be possessed of a dignity in keeping with his position.”
This foggy maxim, under Steven’s interpretation, becomes an effective call both to an almost complete amorality, and the comprehensive suppression of any normal emotional interaction with life. As he states to the housekeeper Miss Kenton: a man can call his life well lived only after he is certain he has effectively annihilated himself in the service of his employer.
“My vocation will not be fulfilled until I have done all I can to see his lordship through the great tasks he has set himself. The day his lordship’s work is complete, the day he is able to rest on his laurels, content in the knowledge that he has done all anyone could ever reasonably ask of him, only on that day, Miss Kenton, will I be able to call myself, as you put it, a well-contented man,” Stevens explains to a fairly stunned Miss Kenton.
Miss Kenton, by the way, is a fine woman, and she is in love with Stevens. And Stevens, if he had access to his own emotions, would have realized he was in love with her, too. But he never could get there. It is one of the devastating narrative threads in the book.
Having as his only passion in life the belief in his credo, Stevens leads the most unscratchably blank-slate-of-an-existence imaginable, learning nothing about human nature and truly getting to know no-one: not Miss Kenton, not his father, not Lord Darlington. It is the English emotional reserve, which Stevens is conscious of as a high virtue, taken to an almost absurd but completely believable extreme.
The more Stevens cares about someone, the further his emotions run from him and, even more, the less he is able to discern what is happening or evaluate what he is seeing and hearing. He becomes an almost imbecile. Silent. Inarticulate. His belief becomes for him a perfect training in how to lose the forest for the trees, how to actively cultivate against the ability to think for oneself. I told you he was an odd sort of chap.
Steven’s Lord and Master, Darlington, a World War I veteran and an honorable man who lives his life by the old-school English notions of honor and fair play, is slowly duped over the course of the 1920s and 1930s by hungry, aggressive Germans working to convince him that their severe punishment following World War I had been too harsh.
Whether or not this is true does not matter to this story, but what is important is that Darlington is slow-cooked into a fully finished Nazi Collaborator, believing all along he had merely been helping the German people get their economy back on its feet. He never thought it would lead to war. But both he and his family’s good, old name are disgraced, and Steven’s should have seen it coming.
“Tell me, Stevens, don’t you care at all?” Mr. Cardinal asks the Butler one night.
Cardinal is an intelligent young man, a warm friend to Stevens, and happens to be Lord Darlington’s God Son, the child of a now-deceased Army veteran Darlington had served with in the Great War.
“Good God, man, something very crucial is going on in this house. Aren’t you at all curious?” Cardinal asks the butler while unsuccessfully trying to get him to set down his tray, sit down, and take a glass of bourbon with him as he tries to explain the very decisive situation that Stevens has been staring at but not seeing.
Cardinal was working as a newspaperman and columnist in the 1930s as his godfather Darlington sped toward the abyss. He had been to Germany and knew what was happening, he sees the war coming and is horrified by Darlington’s role in aiding the Nazis. Cardinal cannot fathom how Stevens, an awfully intelligent man who has witnessed everything his employer has been doing, cannot see it too.
Cardinal, being a patriotic Englishman, would serve his country’s military when World War II inevitably broke out and, as we find out later from an emotionally taciturn Stevens, was killed by the German army in Belgium. Does Stevens feel what should have been this deep personal bereavement? Cardinal was his friend, and a good lad. Maybe Stevens does, but he is not capable of showing it, not like the rest of us would be.
“You care about his lordship. You care deeply, you just told me that,” Cardinal implores Stevens. “If you care about his lordship, shouldn’t you be concerned? At least a little curious? The British Prime Minister and the German Ambassador are brought together by your employer for secret talks in the night, and you’re not even curious?”
Stevens was not curious, at least not enough to betray his iron-clad credo for the life well lived.
The book’s final blow comes when Stevens reunites for a single afternoon with the former Miss Kenton, known now as Mrs. Benn for some twenty years or more. She had left Darlington Hall and married after exhausting herself trying to make Stevens see it had been he that she wanted all along. Their interactions were often excruciatingly painful as Miss Kenton exhausted herself trying to get Stevens to act like something beyond professional butlering and housekeeping existed in the world as a basis for relationships.
At one point, after Miss Kenton’s aunt had died, an aunt who had raised her up like a mother, Stevens consciously decides to offer her some emotional support. Miss Kenton, after all, had closed Steven’s father’s eyes after the man had died upstairs in Darlington Hall. Steven’s had not been able to go up to say farewell because the good lord was throwing a critically important gathering at the hall and Steven’s was in service. Miss Kenton had performed that deeply personal act of respect for the dead, and cried on his behalf. Stevens, for his part, never stopped working.
But in trying to show Miss Kenton he cared, he ended up quibbling over small details he had noticed were neglected by her housekeeping staff at Darlington Hall, and criticizing her oversight. It was an epic, bewildering failure. Miss Kenton knew he had meant to console her, she could feel it, but even she was astonished at how completely he had destroyed his ability to interact as a normal human being.
The exchange ended this way, according to Stevens, who never could quite figure out what went wrong:
“Miss Kenton looked away from me, and again an expression crossed her face as though she were trying to puzzle out something that had quite confused her. She did not look upset so much as very weary. Then she closed the sideboard, and said: ‘Please excuse me, Mr. Stevens,’ and left the room.”
Their last meeting happened on a rainy day near the sea at Weymouth where Stevens had gone to see if Mrs. Been wanted to return to Darlington Hall. In all her letters to him the most he had managed to extract was that perhaps she wanted to work together again, not that she loved him, or wanted to be near him as a human being, never that.
During this conversation Mrs. Benn explains she had three times actually walked out on her husband—a boring but decent man who she had never really loved—dreaming of a better life.
“For instance, I got to thinking about a life I may have had with you, Mr. Stevens. And I suppose that’s when I would get angry over some trivial little thing and leave. But each time I do so, I realize before long—my rightful place is with my husband. After all, there’s no turning back the clock now. One can’t be forever dwelling on what might have been.”
Stevens admits that her bald-faced confession momentarily struck him dumb. He sat for a few moments trying to take it all in. But in the end his credo, his training, the gray ashes that served him for emotions, saved him. They always did. But for a passing moment he even admitted feeling something deeply.
“As you might appreciate, their implications [her words] were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed—why should I not admit it?—at that moment my heart was breaking.”
Of course, instead of following up on that realization, he bid her a dignified farewell and put her on the bus home. He did it like a gentleman, of course, oh most like a gentleman.
But the book does in the end decide to haunt you with the strong possibility that a reckoning of some kind is coming to Stevens after all these years. He has let on over the course of the story that he might know more than he is willing to say about mistakes that were made. He had not been as blind as he had made out.
“The fact is, of course, I gave my best to Lord Darlington. I gave him the very best I had to give, and now–well—I find I do not have a great deal more left to give.”
Then, while sitting on a bench in front of the sea with a total stranger who had also been a butler, though only a minor one, he bursts into tears. It comes as a real shock, both because the conversation had been casual and because Stevens had never so much as smiled from a pure feeling, let alone wept.
Stevens let it pour out:
“Lord Darlington 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. His lordship was a courageous man. 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 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?”
That is a fatalistic admission of almost-Greek proportion. All his life he had cultivated “a dignity in keeping with his position,” only to find, in the end, he had had no real personal dignity at all. He had been a blind follower and the man he picked to follow had been a well-intentioned fool.
The elegiac tone of the story, the end-of-something feeling, is deeply poignant. The era itself, the century for that matter, was one where faith in a certain decency, the belief in a semi-benevolent and even Divine concern for human affairs, was butchered for keeps.
Many of the simple insights the book offers are valuable: in the prosaic way Nazi Germany was allowed to grow and come to fruition; how good men who did not think it through were exploited by bad men who did.
The story of this butler, so odd and eccentric, so unexpectedly moving. What a strange idea Ishiguro had to write it at all. The book has that magical power of great literature that forces you to ask: Where did it come from? Why is it here? Why was it dreamed up at all?
Well, why not read the book for yourself, maybe you will penetrate the mystery.