what remains of the day

May 27, 2005 at 7:10 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

last night i finally turned over the few remaining pages i had left unattended of kazuo ishiguro’s very fine novel which, i believe went on to win the booker prize. years ago when i first encountered the novel, i had thought that the novel would be boring, what with its blurb about the perfect english butler reminiscing about his work.

quite frankly i thought it would all be about dusting off sculptures and wiping out scraps on dinner tables and how they would reflect class issues and all that. well, i was right. but the story is told so flawlessly, i was engaged from the very first page.

stevens is the epitome of a professional. he waits at the “fine gentlemen” he serves while his father laid dying on the attic room where he is billeted. he is deeply in love with ms. kenton who is the chief maidservant, but he never lets his feelings get in the way of their work, or maybe he just didn’t realize he had these feelings for her up until she went off to marry someone else.

on his road trip stevens gets to reflect on all the years he spent serving lord darlington, an anti-semite, nazi sympathizer and begins to wonder whether he had indeed served a greater purpose by serving a “great gentleman”. this is, to stevens’ mind, the best measure of dignity. that one could carry on his work to the best of his abilities outside the hassle of human reality — and frailty.

halfway into the book i decided i would approach my own profession in much the same way that stevens did. with dignity, by his definition. but as lord darlington’s affairs came to light, and as ms. kenton’s subplot unravelled, i realize stevens was only all too human, and that his restraint was admirable but his obstinate insistence on denying his emotions for what they really were, and his blind obedience to a man of dubious stance was not something i would not want to emulate.

when ms. kenton announced her plan to marry, and all stevens could say was “congratulations, ms. kenton, now if you will excuse me i have to attend to some urgent matters,” or some other words to that effect, i realize i was reading into a comedy of errors, but one nonetheless more tragic because there was, at that precise moment an opportunity for stevens to lay his cards on the table, as if ms. kenton was simply waiting for his cue.

or when lord darlington commanded that two girls in stevens’ staff be dimissed, on account of them being jewish, it is in line with his definition of “dignity” that stevens would carry out the command, much to ms. kenton’s consternation. it was a decision lord darlingotn would come to regret, but at that exact moment stevens had the opportunity to put his foot down, in as much as he himself would later admit to ms. kenton that he felt the dismissal was unjustified.

and as the narrative climaxed, it dawned on me that stevens is not the employee to emulate. in his conversation with ms. kenton at the end of his road trip, he admits his heart broke upon hearing ms. kenton say “…what it would have been like if i had been with you instead, mr. stevens,” or something like that.

when stevens went on to elucidate on the greatness of lord darlington, justifying his mistakes as those of someone who was only pure of intentions and wanted to play his role in the crafting a better world (or a brighter future for Europe), i couldn’t help but wonder just how much devotion stevens was capable of, even if at one point darlingotn put him up to immeasurable embarassment at the hands of his lordship’s kumpanyeros who belittled his command of international affairs and economic matters.

stevens lived in an insular, sheltered world by extension of his association. he kept his sight fixed on seeing to it that his functions were carried out, regardless of the person he was serving.

and it got me to think: how sensible is it to approach one’s work with the same zeal as stevens did?

if i were to concentrate on his attention to detail, his organizational skills and his professional, no-fuss handling of ms. kenton’s occassional outbursts, then i would certainly applaud stevens. as any worker bee would attest, it would be one’s source of pride that he or she be able to do his or her job with nothing but perfection in mind and in execution.

but where does one draw the line between being part of a team, being a subordinate and being his own person? stevens drew the line at dignity, but he defined it along terms that would later cause him a heartache.

at the end of the novel stevens sits on a bench in westcombe, watching pier lights go on at dusk. and he gets to think about bantering — that most rudimentary of human activities, and how it serves a purpose for his own ends. he reflects how bantering might be a good way to deliver what seems to be required of him by his new employer, a gabby american noveau riche called mr. farraday. stevens gets to think about what would be the best thing to do with the remains of his day, and it is this endeavor that he sets himself out to perform.

i myself get to think that even as i strive for the perfection of my own craft, i must recognize at least that after clocking in eight hours (mostly less) at work, and eventhough i depend on it for everything else i do with my other 16 hours of life, work is just work. yes, one is obliged to perform his work to as near perfect a maner as possible, and without delay.

but beyond the deadlines, beyond the tasks, beyond the receivables and the deliverables, one must take a broader view of his day and realize that how one lives the eight hours of his life he devotes to his work is just as important as the way in which he spends the rest of his day. at the end of the day what remains for each and everyone of us is something that does not depend on what we do within office hours.

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