Very excitingly I will be hosting a book club at the Southbank Centre on Thursday night, where we will be discussing The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.
I was talking to a friend yesterday, who I shall call, somewhat cryptically, ‘S’, when the book came to my mind as being particularly apt. S was saying how extraordinary it is that men share a common bond of football. Her new husband, for instance, can talk to her father for ages about it. It’s true, I reflected, football is a remarkable common ground, which means that whenever men come across each other – in a shop, in a bar, in a taxi, at work – they have something light and bantering to say to each other.
We women don’t have an equivalent bantering common ground. At best, we can exchange a comment or two about clothes (I really love your jacket / thanks, your dress is very pretty / thanks, where’s your handbag from? …), which is somewhat limited and involves a weird sucky-uppy personal dynamic which is altogether absent from football banter. I wish that we women could find more common ground for the sisterhood! It’s a real absence. Perhaps books? We do, after all, read far more novels than men.
It seems, however, that this masculine aptitude for banter did not always come so easily. In The Remains of the Day, Mr Stevens – the butler and narrator – is forever lamenting his uselessness with banter. While he hadn’t needed to exchange bantering remarks in the glory days of Darlington Hall before the Second World War, now, in 1956, his new employer – Mr Farraday, who is, needless to say an American – indulges his bantering habit rather often. Stevens is thrown by this, doubly anxious because he can’t do it and because he thinks it might be one of his new professional duties:
It is quite possible, then, that my employer fully expects me to respond to his bantering in a like manner, and considers my failure to do so a form of negligence. This is, as I say, a matter which has given me much concern. But I must say this business of bantering is not a duty I feel I can ever discharge with enthusiasm. It is all very well, in these changing times, to adapt one’s work to take in duties not traditionally within one’s realm but bantering is of another dimension altogether. For one thing, how would one know for sure that at any given moment a response of the bantering sort is truly what is expected? One need hardly dwell on the catastrophic possibility of uttering a bantering remark only to discover it wholly inappropriate.
As you can see, poor Stevens is utterly at sea in this new post-War world of bantering.
Before the War, it was ‘dignity’ that Stevens strove for, emulating his father with his unwavering loyalty to his employer and conscientious hard work. There was no need to say much at all, aiming to be a near-invisible presence existing only to aid the smooth running of the house. Stevens’s desire to be as dignified as possible is put to great comic effect when Lord Darlington asks him to explain the facts of life to his twenty-three-year-old godson. Stevens tries to broach this rather undignified subject, ‘ladies and gentlemen differ in several key respects,’ and of course the godson fails to understand his euphemism, which is his attempt to dispatch the task with dignity. Oh if only they had some banter to fall back on!
Back to 1956, when a certain Mr Harry Smith tries to discuss politics with Stevens in a village, where Stevens is marooned for the night after his car breaks down. Smith gives a markedly different definition of ‘dignity’:
…it’s one of the privileges of being born English that no matter who you are, no matter if you’re rich or poor, you’re born free and you’re born so that you can express your opinion freely, and vote in your Member of Parliament or vote him out. That’s what dignity’s really about…
Stevens disagrees with this opinion, seeing dignity as tied to knowing one’s place, respecting one’s betters and being utterly loyal to one’s employer. That Lord Darlington ended up acting in such a thoroughly undignified way (I don’t want to spoil the plot for you so I won’t go into details) gives a sad irony to Stevens’s unflinching loyalty towards him.
‘Dignity’ has changed but Stevens hasn’t. The world has changed, and yet Stevens clings to the past. He is an anachronism. Yet, even Stevens can see the remarkable power of this new phenomenon of ‘banter’, observing at the novel’s end that: ‘in bantering lies the key to human warmth’.
Today, Stevens’s idea of dignity is almost entirely lost, sacrificed, perhaps, to this great masculine art of banter.
Here is my very beautiful Folio Society edition of The Remains of the Day (now sadly out-of-print). Need I remind you that Daphne is a highly intelligent and very dignified tortoise, even if she offers little by way of banter.