There’s an Auden sonnet, written in 1938 as part of the ‘In Time of War’ sequence, in which the setting seems to be a country house where great matters are being discussed:
Across the lawns and cultured flowers drifted
The conversation of the highly trained.
The gardeners watched them pass and priced
A chauffeur waited, reading in the drive,
For them to finish their exchange of views;
It seemed a picture of the private life.
And then the sestet chillingly spells out what the results of all this are likely to be, as
The armies waited for a verbal error
With all the instruments for causing pain.
Stevens, the elderly butler in Kazuo Ishiguro’s third novel, The Remains of the Day, would never be so vulgar as to price anyone’s shoes, but much of his earlier life was discreetly spent in the presence of substantial men exchanging views, at a time of momentous events between the two great wars. In the service of the late Lord Darlington, at Darlington Hall, Stevens was Miltonically aware that they also serve who only stand and wait.
Service, indeed, has been Stevens’s guiding principle through a long professional career. He has thought much about ‘dignity’, as a quality to be striven for by men whose lives are devoted to their employers. Now, in the summer of 1956, generously released for a time to go on holiday while his current employer is away in America, Stevens looks back to his pre-war experience at Darlington Hall. Lord Darlington felt that ‘fair play had not been done at Versailles and that it was immoral to go on punishing a nation for a war that was now over’; and, from 1924 on, he set himself the task of organising an ‘unofficial’ international conference at the hall. Stevens recalls with pride his own preparations for this great event. Summoning the house staff for a preliminary pep-talk, he tells them: ‘History could well be made under this roof.’
But gradually it emerges, through the impassive formality of Stevens’s reminiscences, that the course of his employer’s life was a troubled one. Idealism led to appeasement, to sympathy with the Nazis, even to a period of active anti-semitism. Lord Darlington was in disgrace, during and after the war; his reputation became notorious. Yet Stevens still sees him as ‘a gentleman of great moral stature’.
Ishiguro communicates all this with extraordinarily delicate skill, steering Stevens through his solemnities, orotundities, deceptions and self-deceptions, treading with frozen dignity through the corridors of power. The earlier novels, A Pale View of Hills and An Artist of the Floating World, were wholly or almost wholly set in Japan. This is the first Ishiguro novel to be set wholly in England. But the change is not as marked as one might suppose. In an interview a few years ago, Ishiguro said that he begins by writing his scenes, mainly in dialogue, and then looks for a landscape in which to place them. He has also insisted that he doesn’t really write about Japan (which he left for England when he was six years old) but about a country he has invented which merely bears a resemblance to his birthplace. This second point is a little disingenuous, I think, a ploy by which Ishiguro detaches himself from Western Japanophiles who would like to relate him to such 20th-century Japanese novelists as Soseki, Tanizaki and Kawabata: there are distinct Japanese characteristics (such as indirectness) in Ishiguro’s work, however much he may disclaim them. But the choice of a loyal elderly senior servant as his English narrator has meant that Ishiguro can use indirectness, obliquity, and indeed the troubling pressures of obligation and indebtedness, in a way that is clearly congenial to him, and in an English context. In a sense, Stevens becomes an English version of that classic Japanese figure, the ronin, the master-less retainer who is still tied by firm bands to the master:
Nothing could be less accurate than to suggest that I regret my association with such a gentleman. Indeed, you will appreciate that to have served his lordship at Darlington Hall during those years was to come as close to the hub of this world’s wheel as one such as I could ever have dreamt. I gave thirty-five years’ service to Lord Darlington; one would surely not be unjustified in claiming that during those years, one was, in the truest terms, ‘attached to a distinguished household’. In looking back over my career thus far, my chief satisfaction derives from what I achieved during those years, and I am today nothing but proud and grateful to have been given such a privilege.
The stiff formality of Stevens’s style, tortuous with circumlocutory negatives and grave protestations, obsessive with obsequiousness and quick to register any slur against whatever may have ‘dignity’ or be ‘distinguished’, is an elaborate contrivance. It is a dense hedge against the realisation that he has devoted much of his life to something unworthy, something false, something which had evil consequences.
It is another version of Ono, the artist of An Artist of the Floating World, who misjudged his loyalties in pre-war Japan, and who finds that history will not forgive him. Ono, without really knowing it, allowed himself to be made use of; Stevens, seduced into reverence for Lord Darlington, allowed himself to be blind to the direction in which history was going. There follows from this the desire to change things, to rewrite history: so Stevens spends his holiday, long after these events, driving westward towards Miss Kenton, the housekeeper with whom he shared (but also did not share) these experiences, in the hope that she may come back into his life. In his stiff, inhibited fashion, Stevens believes she may redeem the past. But, when at last they meet again, her words ‘provoke a certain degree of sorrow’ in him: ‘After all, there’s no turning back the clock now. One can’t be forever dwelling on what might have been.’
It’s a strange, sad, endearing book, touched with comedy as well as pathos. At times I was reminded of Compton-Burnett, and often of William Trevor. But the lines that kept on coming into my head were from another brooder on things that might have been, on wrong choices, on ruffled dignity:
no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous –
Almost, at times, the Fool.
Ishiguro’s Prufrock is a memorable portrait of futility.
Bohumil Hrabal’s little Prague waiter is a much more lightweight servant in every sense. I served the King of England is a freewheeling journey through Bohemia and Magical Realism, and also – in the most flippant and irreverent way – through Czech history, from pre-Munich to post-Communist-takeover times. The narrator begins as a busboy selling frankfurters at the railway station, and graduates (through cheek, charm, trickery and sexual prowess) to become rich, marry a beautiful German Nazi blonde, lose everything, and chirpily survive into a pastoral existence where he has nothing except his supercilious brazen bounciness.
Hrabal’s style (or at least how it comes through Paul Wilson’s translation) is similarly freewheeling, exuberant, torrential, full of food and drink and wild scenes in cafés and athletic sexual encounters. Much of it strikes me as being more like what the Germans think of as uproariously funny than we do, and indeed the advance publicity includes two encomiastic quotations from German papers.
I’m not convinced of the wisdom of launching writers in batches. Cape present a quartet of first novels by young writers as a phenomenon: not only ‘when you read them you will no longer doubt that a new generation of British writers is here, now’ but ‘from very different perspectives, these four novels explore the underlying unease of life as it is lived in Britain in the Eighties.’ ‘Underlying unease’ is putting it mildly: at a first reading, I found these novelists (born 1958, 1958, 1959, 1961) almost unrelievedly depressing, stuck in bleak unmediated attitudes of despair. Later, I came to make distinctions.
Deborah Levy’s Beautiful Mutants is recognisably a prose poem, inhabited by characters who sound as if they have survived from some old Third Programme verse play circa 1950 – The Poet, The Prostitute, The Banker, The Golden Slut etc. It is also the most self-consciously shocking of the four Cape debuts, though the tone is often like that of a small child stamping its foot and putting on a turn to horrify the grown-ups: ‘In my prestige apartment I am Madam de Sade. My phone never stops ringing; it is my Beethoven, speaking into it is oral sex, my shining black cock. I press buttons, phone up New York every evening, find out how the markets close, and sometimes, when Eduardo goes down on me, I wrap the cord around his neck until he begs me for mercy.’
Kate Pullinger is altogether more low-key and sequential, and solemn to a degree. Her disaffected young exchange views on the state of London, England and the world in lugubrious tones. There are passages, whole pages, of a flatness so incredible (‘They continued chatting about London until the pizza arrived’) I could only suppose the author had some subtle ploy tucked away which she would fetch out later on. But no, not really. There are a few well-chosen touches: the Australians Karl and Irene eating Christmas dinner in Notting Hill Gate wearing their matching black bikinis: ‘This reminded them of home.’ But these touches are few. The political thinking is on the lines of ‘she felt she had been terribly naive as the country’s secret fangs were revealed in all their ugliness, and the gaping maw of political suppression threatened to crush even her,’ or ‘the government’s refusal to take what Finn felt was the proper moral stance on a multitude of global and foreign issues, as well as internal affairs, was turning him away from the city he had once breathed in in great gulps, filling his lungs to capacity.’ The blowing up of Batter-sea Power Station forms the book’s climax, but by that time I was too jaded to be stirred.
The inhabitants of When the monster dies live in Vauxhall. Geoff Dyer’s people in The Colour of Memory live in Brixton. Their sense of the awfulness of everything is almost indistinguishable. Here are three consecutive and not exceptional paragraphs:
We walked to Stockwell tube, moaning about what a piss-bin country this was, and how fucking crazy we were to still live in it. We picked up some drink from a store by the underground station where the video security camera was backed up by a uniformed guard and an alsatian dog with bad teeth. Most of the customers had dogs too.
There was a long wait for the tube. We watched two men and two women about our age, dressed up to go dancing, not drunk but already having a good time. We took the tube north, yelling at each other above the clatter of the train. Sitting opposite us was a bap-faced guy who stank of mayonnaise.
Suddenly a middle-aged man a couple of seats down erupted in a fountain of sick. Then he just sat there while the tube hurtled on through the tunnel. Two stops later we got out. He continued sitting there stoically, drenched and stinking.
Occasional witty remarks punctuate this sort of thing. There is one character who drops remarks about, or quotations from, Baudrillard, Calvino, Rilke, Malcolm Lowry. There is also some quite explicit referring-back to Jimmy Porter and those ‘good brave causes’ which are apparently even more grievous in their absence now than they were in the Fifties. But on the whole this ‘album of snaps’ is an artless and glum display.
Rose Boyt’s Sexual Intercourse is both a chillier and a more original performance. She evidently read Julian Gloag’s Our Mother’s House in her childhood, and I suspect she has become an admirer of Ian McEwan since then. In the brochure which Cape has published to accompany the four books, she comments: ‘I am aware that Sexual Intercourse is an uncomfortable book. It’s not meant to be a cosy read. It’s a book about family life, a subject I find uncomfortable’. Isobel, waiting to go to university, lives with her horrible bearded father (he ‘translated articles and pamphlets and wrote pieces for small magazines’). Their neighbours are the sinister mother and son, Sylvia and Norman: both of them sound as if they are just off-stage in a Joe Orton play. There follow activities of the sort named in Rose Boyt’s title, and a cycle of birth, marriage and death documented with a curiously impressive and distasteful laconic relish. Possibly Rose Boyt is about to become the George Gissing of our day.
Rebecca Brown, looking at family life, is more inclined towards a kind of allegory. The Children’s Crusade presents childhood and families as battlegrounds, campaigns, cold wars, in which love and loyalty are tested to breaking-point. A mother speaks to a daughter of her ‘tainted gene pool’. Everywhere there are boundaries, frontiers, to be kept within or strayed over at risk. The separate sections of the book are themselves boundaries marking out the limits of perception, from early childhood to adolescence and beyond.
The first section, ‘The Cold War’, is a meticulously detailed yet dreamy child’s-eye-view and apprehension of snow, clothes, food, a duck-shooting expedition with father, a distant figure but close too. ‘The Lost Boy’, ‘The Civil War’ and ‘The Reign of Terror’ inhabit different territories, in which father and mother are opposed monarchs, between whom children pass as messengers, spies, hostages. In the final title-section, ‘The Children’s Crusade’ itself, it is as if the child-speaker in ‘The Cold War’ has now grown up, and sees the whole internecine conflict beginning again, an endless process of struggle and flight. Rebecca Brown writes with a nice vividness and sharpness; but it seems to me she hasn’t quite found a proper balance between accurately observed real conflict and loss on the one hand and allegorical manoeuvrings on the other. The causes and actions of this war (‘Who fired the first shot?’, ‘What were the casualties?’) are made obscure by a persistent portentousness, which makes the book more abstract and detached than I’m sure it’s intended to be.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.