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.