Sunday, May 11, 2008

Another thought on "literature"

There’s been much blogging in recent weeks about the definition of “literary”, so here’s another idea to throw into the mix.

My good friend the Ink-stained Toe-poker recently recommended (nay, insisted) I read The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, as a great example of what he deems literature to represent.

For him, literary fiction involves the most important parts of the story occurring between the lines. Having now read The Remains of the Day, I fully understand what he means – and agree that the “between the lines” concept is a good way to define quality literature.

For those who haven’t read this Booker Prize-winning novel, the story is told in the first person by Mr Stevens, an esteemed butler of a once renowned house, now in the latter stages of his career.

In this sad and moving story about repression and self sacrifice, it is what’s not said in the narrative voice that has the most power.

During a rare cross-country journey, Mr Stevens begins to recall important moments in his life, which more and more centre around his relationship with Darlington Hall’s house keeper, Miss Kenton – the very person he is on his way to visit.

The more he reminisces about the past, the more painfully obvious it becomes that Mr Stevens has lived a life denial. He spends an inordinate amount of energy justifying his choices in life as being the epitome of dignity and service, as befitting his station his life. But in fact, he has robbed himself of a chance to experience life, not just view it from the periphery.

At face value, Mr Stevens is proud man who has faithfully served his lord and household with a level of dignity to be admired by all who aspire to "domestic service".

In between the lines, lie the regrets and longings of a man whose true feelings are hidden even from himself, under layer upon layer of discipline, reasoning and “dignity”.

And it’s discovering those poignant truths – which even the narrator seems oblivious to - that make The Remains of the Day such a remarkable and memorable novel.

Of course, not every novel offering itself as “literature” provides the same experience, but The Remains of the Day has given me a new way to approach books in that often ambiguous category.


Linda Jacobs said...

Just reading your review gave me a lump in my throat! I like your ideas about "literary."

Bec said...

Wow - this is a brilliant review! I found the book Eucalyptus to be a bit like that. It was the many things not said, or not said directly, that were central to the point of the story. I must admit though, this story sounds a bit too sad for me. I find the idea of this type of regret excruciatingly painful...

Paula Weston said...

Thanks Linda and Bec.

Bec, I still think you will enjoy this, as even though the truth "between the lines" is sad, Mr Stevens fails to see it that way, which - oddly - provides a level of comfort.

I have no doubt you'll enjoy the narrator's (often stuffy) view on the world, which - in itself - is entertaining).

Charley said...

I enjoyed this book in college, and I intend to re-read it soon. I've also read Never Let Me Go, and I just can't decide how I feel about Ishiguro. I like his quiet writing, but there's just something... I can't put my finger on it... that haunts me about his books.

the ink-stained toe-poker said...

I was the same. Never Let Me Go is, to me anyway, the least of his works, kind of like you Charley, I was left feeling hauntingly unsatisfied, and not quite sure why. I'm still not sure I could pin it down. Despite it working in a similar way, it lacks Remains... soporific beauty and eh, romance and that powerful sense of careful, quiet, unrequited love.

Bec you should definitely read it. It's so moving and so wonderfully written.

Aye. I think that's what literature is - books where the literary stuff happens somewhere between the text and the reader, I would go as far as to say that it's beyond and, in a sense, maybe even bigger than the between-the-lines stuff you discuss in the blog Paula.

Thanks for giving us such a big nod though. I very much appreciate it. Quality blogging, my friend, quality blogging.
Right back to the football fiction...

Carla Sonheim said...

Thank you for such an excellent and thoughtful review... it's next on my list, for sure!

Gustav said...

Dear Paula Weston

I relish how you are always searching for the magic that makes story.

Your review gets at the heart of this beautifully written novel which makes me weep in many ways. Yet, it also pushes me to take risks, both as an aspiring writer and as a human.

Fyodor Dostoyevsky is another master at the "story between the lines" and uses the narrator in Brothers Karamazov as an instrument of revelation by not what he says but what he doesn't say.