Notes from underground

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The Moon of Gomrath

Moon of GomrathMoon of Gomrath by Alan Garner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Having just read it for the 5th (or is it the 6th?) time, I think I notice some flaws I did not spot in earlier readings, but would still give it 5 stars for the tension, the excitement, the facing of strange dangers. Though the blurb describes it as “Celtic”, the Einheriar of the Hearlathing sound pretty Anglo-Saxon to me, and the “old straight track” is anything but old, and was concocted by a 20th century businessman, but it still makes for a good exciting story, not of other worlds far away, but other worlds impinging on this one.

The flaw I noticed this time, however, was the heavy commuter traffic between Alderley Edge and Shining Tor. They rush the 9 miles to Shining Tor, on horseback or sometimes on foot, only to discover that they have to rush back again to consult the wizard Cadellin Silverbrow about something. This shuttling back and forth makes it seem that something is happening, but it isn’t really. It gives it the feel of one of those comedy films or stage shows where people are rushing from room to room in a house looking for someone who is looking for them, each one looking in the rooms that the other has just vacated.

I still like it, though. I think Alan Garner’s first three books are among the best and most exciting fantasy books I have ever read. I like his style, I like the excitement and the tension, I like their link to real places.

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On reading books you hate

Have you ever read a book you hate, right through, from beginning to end?

A waste of time, you may think. Toss it, before you waste any more time.

But this article explains why it is important to read books that you hate.

Why You Should Read Books You Hate – The New York Times:

Defensiveness makes you a better reader, a closer, more skeptical reader: a critic. Arguing with the author in your head forces you to gather opposing evidence. You may find yourself turning to other texts with determination, stowing away facts, fighting against the book at hand. You may find yourself developing a point of view.

But how do you know you’re going to hate a book before you’ve read it?

The first book I read that I was pretty sure I was going to hate was Atlas shrugged, by Ayn Rand. I had seen the book in a bookshop when I was a student in Pietermaritzburg, in about 1964. I picked it up and looked at the blurb — something about a man who had said he would stop the motor of the world, and did. I put it back on the shelf. Then, after a political meeting or demonstration of some sort, I was chatting to a fellow student who despised such things. I think it was a protest against the Bantu Laws Amendment Act, which would make life harder for black South Africans than it already was. He was doing a BSc in Zoology, and was into survival of the fittest and extended it to social Darwinism. He spoke about the philosophy of Ayn Rand, which sounded pretty unattractive to me.

A few years later, about 1970,  a work colleague was reading Atlas shrugged, and kept saying what a good book it was. So when he had finished it, I borrowed it, and after reading a couple of hundred pages told him that I didn’t like it. I didn’t like the characters, I didn’t like their lifestyle, I didn’t like their values, I didn’t like the style. He said, Ah, but it’s not about the quality of the writing, the thing that’s so good is the philosophy. I didn’t like the philosophy either, but I kept on reading, right to the end. That was partly because I knew that if I criticised it without having read it, he would dismiss my criticisms as mere ignorance.

The bloke who lent it to me was the third Ayn Rand fan I had met, and I thought that if this philosophy can get such a grip on people’s minds, I’d better find out more about it, so I went out and bought a book of essays by Ayn Rand and her associates, called Capitalism: the unknown ideal, in which she tried to do for capitalism what Marx and Engels had tried to do for socialism — turn it into a religion. And, far more than Marxian socialism, Ayn Rand’s capitalism was diametrically opposed to everything in the Christian faith. And the Neoliberalism that has dominated the world since about 1980 is largely a diluted form of Ayn Rand’s philosophy.

Being a sucker for punishment, I even read another novel by Ayn Rand, The Fountainhead, and a biography of her written by one of her disciples. The author of the article on reading books you hate apparently began with The Fountainhead, and his comments on that are worth reading too. Why You Should Read Books You Hate – The New York Times:

My taste for hate reading began with “The Fountainhead,” which I opened in a state of complete ignorance as bonus material for a college class on 20th-century architecture. I knew nothing of Ayn Rand or of objectivism. I thought it was a book about building things. I even showed it off to a French friend, an architect and a die-hard socialist, thinking he’d be impressed.

“How could you bring that into our house?” he asked in disgust. “But it’s about architecture,” I replied weakly. Or was it? Within pages, I found myself suffering at the hands of its tyrannical egomaniac of a protagonist, Howard Roark, forever plunging a fist into soil and holding forth. The lead female character, Dominique, who naturally took second place to the godlike Roark, kept striding across rooms in long, column-like gowns.

Still, I persisted. A hundred pages later, I was more of a French socialist than I’d ever been before or since. I finished every wretched page of “The Fountainhead” in alternating states of fury and despair, and when it was finally over, I tried to leave the vague echo of Dominique, stomping around in her evening gowns, behind. What stuck was the abiding knowledge that I was not, nor would I ever be, a libertarian.

Another book that I read, and also hated, was Interview with the Vampire by Ann Rice. At the time lots of people were discussing it online, and I thought I’d better read it just so I could know what they were talking about. I hated it even more than Ayn Rand’s books, and had to force myself to keep reading to the end. Yet another was The Da Vinci Code, though in that case I had already read the book on which the plot was based.

So yes, I think it is good sometimes to read books that you hate. It’s not a waste of time, and can give you a better idea of why you like the books you do.

Postcards

PostcardsPostcards by Annie Proulx
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Loyal Blood is a farmer’s son who leaves home after his girlfriend dies. How she dies is never revealed, though he feels somehow responsible, and after that has an allergic reaction if he touches a woman. He wanders around doing various odd jobs. and occasionally sends postcards back to his family, but they can never reply because he leaves no address.

The book covers about 40 years, from 1944 to about 1984, and in some ways was an evocation of my childhood, remembering things like turning the handle of the milk separator to get the cream, and turning the handle of the wooden butter churn to make butter. Remembering what it was like to have no mains electricity, and waiting four years for the post office to install a telephone line. That was life back in the 1950s. I recall going to the Rand Easter Show, and looking at agricultural machinery, shiny in red and green paint, with springy metal seats for the operator, and then seeing such machinery, abandoned and rusted and useless, behind a ramshackle shed.

I wanted, at times to be a farmer in those days, and used to read Popular Mechanics and the Farmers’ Weekly. I never read the articles, just the small ads of farms for sale, or farm equipment. There was a course advertised in Popular Mechanics on “How to break and train horses”, which cost $50.00. That would have been about R40.00 in those days, but about R6000 in today’s money.

And this book brought it all back, with its descriptions of rural life, the life behind the Popular Mechanics ads. And the reason I never took it up is that farming is hard work with no let-up. Those cows have to be milked every day, rain or shine, winter or summer. The milking shed has to be cleaned or they get foot-rot. There are no weekends off, no holidays. And the book brings this out.

And I wonder if the urbanised people who talk about land redistribution are aware of this. Your grandfather may have been unjustly dispossessed back then, but are you prepared to go back and recreate his life, and take up where he left off? Back in the 1950s there were no big supermarket chains whose bulk buying could squeeze prices they paid for agricultural produce.

In Postcards Loyal Blood is sometimes a farm hand, sometimes trying farming on his own account, sometimes a fur trapper, sometimes a miner, sometimes a uranium prospector. And most of these rep[resent a way of life that has vanished. I remember those ads in Popular Mechanics for geiger counters and books on how to get rich quick as a uranium prospector in the 1940s and early 1950s. And somehow Annie Proulx manages to capture all of that.

So what genre is the book? A family saga? A snapshot of a period? Or a series of snapshots. It’s quite well done, in a way, and yet strangely unsatisfying. What happened to the girlfriend? Did he kill her? Did her family look for her? Did anyone wonder about her?

For the last 40 years we have been researching our family history, and in a way real family history is very like this book. There are snatches of recollections and old photos of cousins who disappeared and no one ever heard from them again. But they must have had lives, and perhaps some of them ended up like Loyal Blood in this book.

I recall Joan Rogers, who at one time lived in a caravan in our driveway. She had a horse called Royal and an old pointer dog. She worked in the lab at the South African Institute for Medical Research beyond Silvamonte, and at one time showed us the dessicated button spiders that they ground up and injected into the necks of horses to make the antivenin for the spider bites. She was something like Loyal Blood in the book, a wanderer, whose path intersected with mine for a couple of years but where she came from and where she ended up is unknown, at least to me.

And it was things like this that the book was evocative of. For other people it will be evocative of something else, other scenes, other people, other experiences.

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Do something. Kill someone.

Over the last few days I have seen floods of emotional demands on social media that somebody should do something about reported gas attacks in Syria. These appeals are sometimes accompanied by gruesome pictures of unknown provenance.

I haven’t seen any actual media reports of these gas attacks. Perhaps that it because the South African media have been so preoccupied with reactions to Jacob Zuma’s recent cabinet changes that demands for regime change in South Africa have taken precedence over demands for regime change in Syria and the United States.

The demands on social media that someone should “do something” do, however, appear to be media driven, and there seems to be an Alice in Wonderland quality of unreality about them. As the Queen of Hearts proclaimed, it seems to be sentence first, then the verdict, then the evidence.

I think this article is worth reading Disharmony: The religious response to Syria’s travails is prolix and confused | The Economist:

Generally, the local Catholic and Orthodox churches remain reluctant to condemn Bashar al-Assad, whom they regard as their protector against the furies of Islamism. That in turn influences the hierarchs and adherents of those churches in other places. Meanwhile, some luminaries of America’s religious right (though not of the isolationist far-right) saw their country’s missile attack as a noble act by Donald Trump: a sign of his virtuousness compared with the wicked sloppiness of his predecessor.

I see media reports of a “US-led coalition”, but I seem to have missed the formation of this coalition, and its purpose. I know there was a “coalition of the willing” to bring about regime change in Iraq in 2003, and plenty of scorn from people in the US for the “cheese-eating surrender monkeys” (the French) who didn’t join it. Someone pointed out that there seems to have been a coalition against ISIS, but the main aim of the current coalition seems to be to put ISIS, or some group very like them, in power in Syria.

The only constant and consistent factor in US intervention in the Middle East has been to establish more anti-Christian regimes, and has led to Christians being killed or driven from their homes in increasing numbers in a form of “religious cleansing” that parallels the ethnic cleansing seen elsewhere. It should therefore not be surprising that Christians in Syria generally take the attitude of “Better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.” Which of the groups seeking to overthrow Assad will treat them better?

But the “Do something” response shows that people outside Syria, including Christians, would behave no better than the people in Syria if they had the chance. It was people who felt they had to “Do something” who attacked the World Trade Center in New York on 9 September 2001. It was people who felt they had to “Do something” that bombed a Metro train in Moscow last week. It was people who felt they had to “Do something” who attacked the offices of a publication in Paris a couple of years ago.

In most of the social media calls to “Do something” about gas attacks in Syria the “something” was unspecified, but I’m pretty sure that in most of them the “something” that the posters had in mind was something violent.

We sometimes read about psychologists and profilers trying to understand the minds of terrorists. But they really don’t have to look far. We are all terrorists at heart, especially when we call on someone to “do something” when that something is violent.

Until we tame that “do something” in ourselves, there is little hope of it being tamed in anyone else.

Lent is over, but we still need to pray, Grant that I may see my own transgressions and not to judge my brother.

 

Elidor: children’s fantasy

ElidorElidor by Alan Garner
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I’ve just finished reading Elidor for the seventh time (or is it the eighth?), and was quite surprised to see that it was nearly 25 years since the last time I read it.

What prompted this reading was that someone wrote a rather nice review of my children’s book Of wheels and witches, and I began to wonder if it was worth trying to write a sequel, and I began to re-read Elidor to get me in to mood to think about it.

That’s because Elidor is, in my view at least, a kind of paradigm case of what a children’s fantasy novel should be.

It’s a bit like a combination of C.S. Lewis and Charles Williams. Though Lewis wrote stories for children, Charles Williams never did, but I imagine that if he had he would have written something like Elidor. The first 50 pages are like Lewis — some children are snatched away into another world, the devastated dying world of Elidor. But the rest of the book is like Williams — the other world irrupts into this world.

The protagonist of Elidor is Roland Watson, the youngest of four middle-class siblings who live in Greater Manchester. In various parts of the story Alan Garner satirises bourgeois tastes and values and contrasts their tameness with the wildness of Elidor, which only Roland really appreciates until, in the end, the wildness of Elidor overwhelms them all.

We are not told how old the children are, though, because of the time that elapses in the story, a little over a year, they would be a year older at the end than the beginning. The one clue is that at the end the eldest, Nicholas, buys bus tickets for the four of them and asks for “one and three halves”. If Manchester was anything like Johannesburg, then children started paying full fares after they turned 12. So Nicholas is about 12, his sister Helen about 11, David about 9, and Roland, the protagonist, about 7 or 8. And they would all have been a year younger at the beginning of the story.

What I find interesting about this is that we are told that children like to read stories about children slightly older than themselves, and are less interested in ones about children who are younger. Yet in Elidor the protagonist, the one who takes the initiative, is the youngest. When my son was about the age of Roland in the story he tried to read it, and gave up because he found it “boring”. He was, however, quite happy to have it read to him. I think that may have been because he found it difficult to read. The reading level is more for 10 or 11 year olds.

So I wonder whether any children actually liked Elidor. Or any adults, for that matter. Perhaps it’s just me, and perhaps I’m looking for inspiration in all the wrong places.

But then I looked at the GoodReads lists that Elidor is on, and it is on quite a number of them. And perhaps the most telling, in the light of what I have just written, is:

Books for an 8-yr old boy with an older reading age

That pretty much says it all.

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Postscript

I originally posted this on 3rd April 2017, right after I had finished reading Elidor. As I usually do, I posted a basic review on Good Reads, and copied it to this blog with a few additional comments.

Three days later, at our literary coffee klatch, Prof David Levey raised one of the points I had made here — about Alan Garner’s fantasy stories being as much about this world as about other worlds, and the other worlds entering this world, rather than people leaving this world to go to other worlds.

I wanted to share the link to this post on Facebook to draw it to Prof Levey’s attention, but Facebook would not show the illustration of the book cover in the link, but rather something in the sidebar, linking to a Facebook group for a network of South African bloggers.

It seems that the people at Facebook, preferring people not to click on links that would take them out of Facebook, gave preference to an illustration linked to Facebook, no matter how irrelevant, rather than one in the article itself. In the past Facebook used to give one a choice of what illustration would display in links, but now there is only their arbitrary choice.

Eventually I deleted the widget with the link to the SA Bloggers Network, and copied this entire article into another blog post, and deleted the original. Then, and then only, did the link appear in Facebook with the book cover illustration. All that is to explain why this article is dated three days after it was actually written and posted, and why the link to the SA Bloggers Network on Facebook has been removed.

 

Where the rainbow ends

Where The Rainbow EndsWhere The Rainbow Ends by Clifford Mills
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

When I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in 1965, at the age of 24, I wished I’d had it to read when I was younger. Even though I was preparing for final exams at university, I bought as many of the other Narnia books as I could find, and shared and discussed them with friends, and bought them as Christmas presents for children that I knew.

One day a group of us were discussing the genre of children\s fantasy, in a wood that reminded us of the Lantern Waste, and we tried to recall such books we had read as children. One friend mentioned The Princess and the Goblin, and I was sad that I had not read any of the ones the others mentioned. The only such book I had read as a child had “rainbow” in the title, and it featured children looking for their parents, and being helped by St George and hindered by the dragon, At one point there were two forests, one bright and good, and the other dark and evil, where the dragon tried to distract the children from their quest. But I could not remember the title or the plot, so I wanted to re-read it. I knew only that one of the children was called Rosamund.

The following year I was in London, and knowing that the British Museum was a copyright library, supposed to receive a copy of every book published in the UK I spent a couple of days there searching for books with “rainbow” in the title, without success.

Eventually I found a copy on a secondhand bookstall in Woolwich Market. I grabbed a copy, and read it. It was a huge disappointment. It was nothing more than imperialist propaganda. It featured a lion cub called Cubby, who always got sick when he wasn’t dosed with a patent medicine called “Colonial Mixture”. St George was no saint, but was a mascot of the British Empire.

All those passed me by as a child, at least consciously, thought it may have brainwashed me into being a closet colonialist. But in 1967 is stuck out like a sore thumb.

So why did I read it a third time?

I was taking part in NaNoWriMo (National Novel-Writing Month) and the novel I was writing featured St George, so I re-read it to remind myself how St George was handled in fiction.

I suppose, when I read it as a child, I would probably have given it three or four stars. But now, it’s somewhere between one and two. And I still wish I had had The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to read as a child.

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Liberal genocide

There seems to be a trend, not exactly new, because it’s been going on for several years now, to blame anything that’s perceived to be bad on liberals. Here are a few examples that turned up in my Facebook feed this morning:

Liberal Mom Aghast as Huge Guy Wearing Lakers Jersey Walks Into Ladies’ Room:

A liberal mom got a rude awakening that changed her views about the “bathroom debate” and decided to share her story regardless of what the backlash would be. This is a reality check like no other.

Kristen Quintrall Lavin runs a blog called, The Get Real Mom, in which she exposes the harsh realities of what she calls, “momming.” However, on a recent trip to Disneyland with her young son, Lavin, she was exposed to another harsh reality — the reality of bathroom stalking, which made her question her progressive liberal views on the bathroom debate.

Zille’s Tweets and History’s Miasma | The Con:

In the departure lounge of OR Tambo (taking a break from complaining about the missing TV remote and milk) Helen Zille, the former leader of South Africa’s opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), and premier of the Western Cape, casually invoked one of the continued liberal myths of colonisation – that Europeans brought with them medical care to the colonies.

Liberal moms and liberal myths.

My question is, what does the gratuitous insertion of the word “liberal” contribute to either story?

I suspect that the answer is that the not-too-heavily disguised purpose of both articles is to make liberals and liberalism look bad or stupid.

But this kind of devaluation and debasing of the word “liberal” and turning it into a kind of general signal for disapproval tends to make it meaningless.

The main reason that people dislike liberals and liberalism is that they themselves tend to be authoritarian. Authoritarianism can range all the way from mild bossiness through being a control freak to being an absolute dictator, like Hitler or Stalin. But people who diss liberalism do tend to be control freaks of one kind or another.

<SATIRE>

Another trend, also not exactly new, is to devalue terms like “genocide” by applying them to things that are a great deal less than genocide.

If I wanted to follow that trend, I could say that all this anti-liberal propaganda is calculated to provoke liberalophobia (fear and loathing of liberals), in which the next step would be a genocide of liberals.

That wouldn’t be true, of course, because “genocide” means the systematic and planned extermination of an entire race of people, and liberals are not a race (in spite of the attempts of racists to make liberals seem to be a race by prefixing the word “white” to “liberal” when the latter is used as a noun). If it isn’t hate speech, it is at least anti-liberal propaganda.

My daughter recently accused me of mastering the art of clickbait when I reblogged another post recently (the curious can find it here). Well yes, the heading of this post probably may be seen as clickbait, Whether you believed or anyone expected what happened next is up to you.

</satire>

So no, I don’t expect a liberal genocide (but see here), but authoritarian governments do tend to kill off or at least crack down on liberal opposition. And most colonial governments have been authoritarian, at least vis-à-vis the colonised, whatever Helen Zille or Matthew Wilhelm Solomon may say.

A heartbreaking work of staggering genius

A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering GeniusA Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius by Dave Eggers
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It you read the blurb at the top of the Good Reads entry for this book, you will see it’s described as a hipster story from the 1990s. That puts it in the same genre as other semi-autobiographical hipster novels, like those of Jack Kerouac. Perhaps it’s a generational thing, but I liked Jack Kerouac’s books better. Or perhaps I just identified more closely with the hipsters of the 1940s (On the Road) or 1950s (The Dharma Bums) than w1th those of the 1990s. I found The Dharma Bums far more hip.

Dave Eggers, however, helps his readers.

He says pages 209-301 are just stuff about people in their 20s, and the book could just as easily have stopped at page 109. I agree. I quite liked it up to page 109. The story about this family in Chicago whose parents died, and they moved to California, and Dave Eggers ends up looking after his younger brother Christopher (Toph for short).

I read about 30 pages beyond page 109, got bored, and following the author’s recommendation skipped to page 301. But the last pages were not as good as the first ones. He goes on and on and on and on describing his thoughts when trying to decide whether or not to throw his mother’s ashes into Lake Michigan. I was occasionally tempted to start skimming such passages in Ulysses, but the temptation was far stronger here. The best bits are better than Kerouac at his worst, but don’t approach Kerouac at his best.

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Singapore, colonialism and Helen Zille

A few days ago there was a big tizz-wozz on Twitter about Helen Zille tweeting that colonialism was not so bad because piped water.

You can read more about that at Zille’s career in ruins:

She has a million followers on Twitter and as she waited for her flight she engaged, as is her wont, in some argument with her followers and critics.

And then, for some maniacal reason, at 8.25am, she tweeted: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was ONLY negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water etc.”

So powerful was the outrage from (mainly) black South Africans, who don’t have quite so rosy a memory of colonial South Africa, that by 9.59am she was obliged to tweet this: “I apologise unreservedly for a tweet that may have come across as a defence of colonialism. It was not.”

Except, of course, that it was. We are all prisoners of our time and our generations.

The timing could not have been better for those who were facing embarrassing questions from the judges of the Constitutional Court for the mess-up of SANSSA and CPS and the possibility that 17 million pensioners and other recipients of social grants might not get paid. That was a big joke, according to the president. Seventeen million people could go hungry, ha ha ha. They could be evicted for not paying rent, Heh Heh Heh.

But a silly tweet about colonialism, and suddenly the pressure is off.

And it was a silly tweet.

Did Thailand (then known as Siam) have no piped water until they were colonised by the Japanese in 1941? And did the Japanese have no piped water because they weren’t colonised? Did Ethiopia have no piped water before they were colonised by the Italians in 1936? Seeing the judiciary, transport infrastructure and water reticulation as products of colonialism is really daft.

But, like the misdirection of a stage magician, that silly tweet distracted the attention of the nation from something much more serious.

And, to give Helen Zille her due, she sometimes says and writes things a lot more useful than that silly tweet, and I think this is much more worth reading From the Inside: Lessons from Singapore | Daily Maverick:

I thought loftily: “What can we learn from Singapore? It’s an authoritarian country. We are the South African Miracle, the rainbow nation, that moved from being the skunk of the world to democracy’s poster child in less than a decade. Our transition was even faster than Singapore’s! They can learn something about democracy from us.”

I had drunk the Kool-Aid of South African exceptionalism.

She writes about how Singapore has changed in the last 35 years, a single generation, and what South Africa can learn from Singapore.

But I visited Singapore a generation ago, back in 1985, when South Africa was still wracked by P.W. Botha’s States of Emergency and Magnus Malan’s Total Strategy to meet the Total Onslaught.

Singapore was probably more authoritarian then than it is now, and though there weren’t Kasspirs and Hippos visibly prowling the streets there was, underneath the surface calm, that knowledge that somewhere behind the scenes Big Brother was watching.

But one other thing impressed me.

Singapore was a small country, and had no natural resources. The only resource it had was its people, and to make the most of that it invested heavily, very heavily, in education.

Back then, in 1985, the South African education system was broken, and had been badly broken for a generation, since Bantu Education and Christian National Education were brought in in the 1950s. The education wasn’t too good before the 1950s either, but at least then the government wasn’t deliberately trying to cripple it, as the National Party regime set out to do after 1948. And we can see the difference even today, when we meet the much-looked-down upon immigrants from Zimbabwe, legal and illegal, who are generally much better educated than their South African counterparts. Whatever else Mugabe and Smith before him (authoritarians both, like Singapore) managed to destroy, they did not set out to destroy the education system as the Nats did in South Africa.

Then came 1994, and all the talk of “transformation”.

But was the education system transformed? Hardly at all.

So yes, listen to Helen Zille when she talks about Singapore.

Singapore managed to transform their education system. We haven’t transformed ours.

 

 

The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the DayThe Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A few days ago I read Embrace by Mark Behr, and then read this book. I picked them up almost by accident at the library, and found quite a number of similarities. The protagonists are separated by age, but there are also similarities, in that both look back on earlier parts of their lives. In Embrace the protagonist is a boy who has reached puberty, and looks back on his childhood. In The Remains of the Day the protagonist is a butler, looking back on his working life.

If I hadn’t read them one after the other, perhaps I might not have seen a connection, but what stands out for me is the similarity of technique. For the schoolboy the “present” is a year of school; for the butler the “present” is a holiday trip he takes to the West of England. But in both the bulk of the story is taken up with recollections of the past, and wondering how accurate those recollections are.

In both there is a contrast between the present, and recollections of the past, and it is the recollections of the past that gradually lead to a reinterpretation of the present.

There are also notable differences, based on the age of the characters, and Kazuo Ishiguro manages, in my view, to handle it better. The butler, self-effacing, writes his memoir in a formal and professional style, which is inevitably stilted. He is dominated by the requirements of his job, by the need to give everything to the service of his employer. His own feelings and needs must be subordinated to the needs of the job, and so it is the the job that dominates his life. Even a sense of humour is to be cultivated according to the needs of his employer. Ishiguro portrays this very well indeed.

It also brings out for me the discomfort I feel about the “servant culture”. I would hate to be a servant, and would hate to employ one. I once shared a house with someone who wanted a live-in servant. I was quite happy to pay someone to come in to clean or do the laundry. That is paying someone to do a job one doesn’t have time to do oneself. It’s like paying a mechanic to repair my car. I could do it myself, but because I’m an amateur, it would take me much longer. But a live-in servant is something different. It means having a dependant, and being a dependant, and to me that was a very uncomfortable relationship. And so my housemate and I parted on rather bad terms.

And Ishiguro brings out all the things that made me feel uncomfortable about having a servant, and being one.

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