Saturday, July 29, 2006


I recently reread Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, as well as some of the literary criticism on that book. Several of the critics compare it to P. G. Wodehouse's works, in particular his Jeeves books and stories. This was probably inevitable, since these works are probably the best-known twentieth-century British works centered upon a servant. But I'd like to enter a few caveats.

First off, Jeeves is NOT A BUTLER. He's a "gentleman's personal gentleman," or valet. I emphasize this because at least one of the secondary works I read makes this mistake. Second, Jeeves feels none of the reverence for Bertie Wooster that Stevens felt for Lord Darlington. On the contrary, he estimates Bertie's mental capacity, or lack thereof, quite accurately (and is far from distressed by it). And while Stevens trusted in the morality of Lord Darlington's actions, Jeeves "trusts" Bertie only to make an ass of himself whenever possible.

Nor does Jeeves serve in a "great house" or supervise a large staff, as Stevens did. And while Bertie and Jeeves are sometimes guests at country houses with large staffs, in Wodehouse such houses are far from being places where great men decide the fate of the world, as they are in The Remains of the Day (at least in Stevens' mind). The closest thing to a major issue that is ever decided at Wodehouse's country houses is the fate of Milady's Boudoir, the magazine owned and edited by Bertie's Aunt Dahlia. To be sure, an aspiring dictator does make an appearance in the Jeeves books: Roderick Spode, founder of the "Black Shorts" (all the shirts were taken). But Spode's ambitions are presented as merely ridiculous.

In fact, the most striking parallel between The Remains of the Day and Wodehouse is not with Wodehouse's work, but with his life. Bizarre as it may seem, Wodehouse, like Lord Darlington, was accused of collaborating with the Nazis. And while Wodehouse was innocent, the accusation blighted his reputation during and after the war -- though, unlike Darlington's, Wodehouse's reputation eventually recovered.

You can read the whole unhappy story in Robert McCrum's Wodehouse: A Life, or Iain Sproat's Wodehouse at War. But briefly, what happened was this: in 1940 Wodehouse and his wife were living in France. When Germany invaded France, they waited too long to try to escape and wound up trapped behind the German lines. In July 1940, Wodehouse was interned as an enemy national, first in several French prisons and then in a camp in Germany. In May 1941 the Germans suggested to Wodehouse that he record some light-hearted broadcasts on his internment experience, to be broadcast to his fans in America (they were in fact broadcast to Britain as well). This was not a disinterested offer: their motive, which they of course did not explain to Wodehouse, was to impress American public opinion with their "humaneness," and thereby make it less likely that America would enter the war. Wodehouse, failing to foresee either the use which the Nazis could make of his "cooperation" or how his actions would look viewed from Britain, agreed. Though the Germans had not suggested that he would be freed from the internment camp as a reward for doing the broadcasts, he was in fact released shortly after agreeing to the broadcasts, which only made appearances worse. The broadcasts themselves were innocuous, and Wodehouse was guilty of nothing more than stupidity. But there was a vitriolic press campaign against Wodehouse accusing him of selling out his country, which at the time was widely believed.

The relevance of all this to The Remains of the Day is questionable, to be sure, and I don't even know if Ishiguro was aware of any of it. But it struck me as interesting, and I haven't seen it discussed anywhere else, so I thought I'd mention it.

(Incidentally, one side effect of allowing comments is that I now have permalinks that work, though the old "permalinks" aren't broken. When I get time I'll convert the links in my sidebar to genuine permalinks.)

It would never occur to me to compare The Remains of the Day and Wodehouse. For Pete's sake, one is tragedy, the other comic farce.
Hi - good comment but a few points.
I don't think wodehouse was just guilty of stupidity in allowing himself to broadcast from berlin - to understand his mental attitude you have to get his Colonel Blimp like lack of comprehension of how politics and war were changed by the nazis. he still was living in his pre-lapsarian garden of eden to which he will continue to offer refuge to others whose existence may be more irksome than our own.
Also his broadcasts are more than innocous; they are also very funny. i love the passage describing the parades where the internees are lined up twice three times a day to be counted so the germans could be sure none of the geriatrics had scaled the walls to lead the resistence in upper (or lower) silesia. after much counting, muddle and re counting wodehouse concludes with the joke that when the war ends he is going to buy a german and keep him in the back garden to count him three times a day. Good joke - but look what it says about wodehouse's sunny optimism even in a german internment camp in 1941 - he believes that it will all end and things will go back to being how they were where he is rich enough to be able to buy someone to be his servant and to do his bidding. And that is where ishiguro comes in. Remains of the day is all about how horrible it is to live in a system where one human is for sale to another.
And i think he has commented on wodehouse in relation to Stevens. i can't find the reference now but did read it some years back on-line.
And for pete's sake, if you think Remains of the Day is tragedy you are probably thinking of that horrible schmaltzy sentimental piece of shit of a film. the book is a whole lot more than mere tragedy. genius transcends genres.
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