Methods of Movement
1986 Guardian interview, (pre-Remains), Ishiguro writes that he was dissatisfied with his early novels because he judged them as being too much like screenplays with sections of dialogue followed by explanation. During an illness, he read the Combray section of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, and saw how he could write in a less linear way by following the characters’ memories and thoughts to link together sections. At the risk of all sorts of legal trouble, I’m going to quote Mr. Ishiguro, begging his indulgence ahead of time.
(whiny voice: Don’t worry, he doesn’t read this blog).
“Quite aside from the sublime beauty of these passages, I was thrilled by what I then called in my mind (and later in my notes) Proust’s “methods of movement” – the means by which he got one episode to lead into the next. The ordering of events and scenes didn’t follow the demands of chronology, nor those of an unfolding linear plot. Instead, tangential thought associations, or the vagaries of memory seemed to move the novel from one section to the next. Sometimes the very fact that the present episode had been triggered by the previous one raised the question “Why?” For what reason had these two seemingly unrelated moments been placed side by side in the narrator’s mind? I could now see an exciting, freer way of composing my novel; one that could produce richness on the page and offer inner movements impossible to capture on a screen…I could put down a scene from two days ago right beside one from 20 years earlier, and ask the reader to ponder the relationship between the two…I could see a way of writing that could properly suggest the many layers of self-deception and denial that shrouded any person’s view of their own self and past. Breakthrough moments for a novelist are often like this: scruffy, private little events…Everything I have subsequently written has been determined by the revelations that came to me during those days.”
So how is this style expressed in Remains?
Let’s look for evidence in a passage from the novel’s third section, Morning-Day Two-Salisbury:
The protagonist, Mr. Stevens, is beginning the second day of his journey thinking about a future event, his soon-to-occur meeting with Miss Kenton, a woman he has a depth of feeling for, a woman whom he hopes to persuade to return with him to Darlington Hall. A particular visual memory comes to mind: “I can recall distinctly climbing to the second landing and seeing before me a series of orange shafts from the sunset breaking the gloom of the corridor where each bedroom door stood ajar…I had seen Miss Kenton’s figure, silhouetted against a window, turn and call softly, “Mr. Stevens, if you have a moment.”
This is powerful, perhaps erotic stuff. Poetic. Then he says, in his fussy, digressive fashion: “There are some very pertinent reasons why this memory has remained with me, as I wish to explain…
Well, what are these pertinent reasons? Probably that he loves her, but he cannot acknowledge that as it would mean having to acknowledge how he’s wasted his life. Instead, he presents a long-winded account of several incidents around the time Miss Kenton first came to Darlington Hall. Eventually, he meanders to another near erotic memory of when she appeared in his office bearing a bouquet of flowers to “brighten” the gloom. Of course, within the memory, Mr. Stevens rejects the idea of bright flowers and puts her down by criticizing her conduct in another matter, which leads to an argument that brings them closer yet in anger.
What I am trying to convey here is the elegant way Ishiguro moves about in time and space. Many authors might turn Mr. Stevens’ recollections into a “flash-back” event where the narrative moved in perhaps jerky, clumsy fashion. Instead of a smooth progression through a lot of time, a different story might begin: Darlington Hall-1922 “Mr. Stevens was dusting the trophies in the library. The bell rang, and he waited impatiently to see who would answer it.”
In other words, it would be more of a cinematic “flash-back” where there is a clear demarcation between two separate time-periods.
Ishiguro’s scene is all couched in memory, and the narrative moves in and out of the past as Mr. Stevens recalls long ago feelings that re-contextualize the book’s present. What’s important is the present; the thread which unites these disparate elements is his unexpressed affection and yearning for Miss Kenton, as well as his growing fear that he’s squandered his life.
This is very much about using the past to explain and justify things—a central theme of the book. Mr. Stevens is on a journey to justify the way he’s lived his life and must continually move about in time to do so. Ishiguro’s technique is ideally suited to show this.
The plot of Remains is actually fairly simple. Next week, we’ll take a look at it. Okay?