Butler as Metaphor

The responses to the Nobel selection of Kazuo Ishiguro for the 2017 literature prize drew mixed, underwhelmed  responses. Someone wrote that he wasn’t awarded the prize for any recent books. The Paris Review, though, posted an old interview to celebrate.

As readers of Ishiguro’s novels would expect, the author comes off as gentle, self-deprecating, thoughtful. When the interviewer asks about the origins of his best-known novel, The Remains of the Day, the author answers:

“It started with a joke that my wife made. There was a journalist coming to interview me for my first novel. And my wife said, Wouldn’t it be funny if this person came in to ask you these serious, solemn questions about your novel and you pretended that you were my butler? We thought this was a very amusing idea.”

He “became obsessed with the butler as a metaphor,” of two things: “Two things. One is a certain kind of emotional frostiness. The English butler has to be terribly reserved and not have any personal reaction to anything that happens around him. It seemed to be a good way of getting into not just Englishness but the universal part of us that is afraid of getting involved emotionally. The other is the butler as an emblem of someone who leaves the big political decisions to somebody else. He says, I’m just going to do my best to serve this person, and by proxy I’ll be contributing to society, but I myself will not make the big decisions. Many of us are in that position, whether we live in democracies or not. Most of us aren’t where the big decisions are made. We do our jobs, and we take pride in them, and we hope that our little contribution is going to be used well.”

This is a bit coy. In the novel, the butler, Mr. Stevens, doesn’t just fail to make big decisions. He facilitates the making of very bad decisions, serving as he does in the house of the appeasement advocate, Lord Darlington.

When the interview suggests that Mr. Stevens, like many of Ishiguro’s characters, misses his “chance at love by second,” Ishiguro demurs: “I don’t know if they miss it by seconds. In a way they’ve missed it by miles. They might look back and think, There was this moment when it could have all been different. It’s tempting for them to think, Oh, it was just a little twist of fate. But in fact, there are colossal things that make them miss not just love but something essential in life.”

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