I must confess that I have a bit of an allergy to lists of the greatest or most influential novels, paintings, music etc. This is not an outright dismissal of the idea of ‘canons’, but rather an awareness that they always reflect geographical, historical or ideological biases.
Earlier this month, the BBC included Sir Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day (which won the Man Booker Prize in 1989) in a list of the hundred most inspiring novels in the English language.
Is its reputation justified? I think so, and for many interesting reasons. Most notably, The Remains of the Day captures in a very measured and poignant way the almost unlimited appetite that many English people have for self-delusion, self-doubt and subservience. (I realise this will come as a surprise to some!) In short, this is a novel about desperation, about hanging on in the face of contrary and conflicting evidence, about not taking chances, about cowardice, about existential shut-down. It inhabits the same world as wryly captured by Roger Waters in Pink Floyd’s The Dark Side of the Moon:
“...Hanging on in quiet desperation is the English way The time is gone, the song is over, Thought I'd something more to say.”
Although Ishiguro’s education took place exclusively in England (he moved from Nagasaki to Guildford at the age of five), there is a real sense that his Japanese roots allowed him to observe the English class system with a precision which goes beyond mere denunciation or disgust.
In 1993, Ishiguro’s novel was adapted for film with James Ivory as its director and Ismail Merchant, Mike Nichols and John Calley as its co-producers. Harold Pinter provided the original script for the production. The film starred Anthony Hopkins as the butler James Stevens and Emma Thompson as the housekeeper Sarah “Sally” Kenton, both of whom, along with Edward Fox as Lord Darlington, give exceptionally moving performances.
Watch the film, but please (as should always be the case) read the novel first. Yes, this is a fictional work about the aristocracy, but we’re light years away from the world of Julian Fellowes’s Gosford Park or Downton Abbey. In capturing James Stevens’s gradual realisation of the personal impact of Lord Darlington’s Nazi sympathies during the 1930s and the fascistic proclivities of his house guests, Ishiguro not only shines a torch into that bleak period of English history, but also adventitiously brings us face-to-face with the contemporary re-emergence of right-wing extremism. This is a world where privilege and self-entitlement (whether gained through ancient plunder or present-day data accumulation) go hand-in-hand with the masochistic compliance of the disenchanted many to be hoodwinked and abused.