“Banter,” The Remains of the Day, and the Lives of the Dead

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In Tim O’Brien’s The Things they Carried, he, or at least his narrative persona, tells us that “Stories can save us,” and that “What stories can do, I guess, is make things present.” He goes on to say that “in a story, which is a kind of a dreaming, the dead sometimes smile and sit up and return to the world.”

O’Brien was talking about writing stories, and what he says is certainly true, but it also applies to reading stories. Last night I was rereading Kazuo Isiguro’s The Remains of the Day, which I first read in a graduate seminar around 1993 or so. The story is narrated by Stevens, an English butler for a once great estate, Lord Darlington, whose house has fallen on hard times and has been sold to an American named Farraday. Stevens can’t figure out how to deal with Farraday, and in particular, he spends pondering the concept of “bantering,” or making small talk to no apparent purpose. Farraday engages Stevens in banter when Stevens is serving tea or dusting books in the library. Occasionally the “banter” crosses the strict social lines between Butler and the person he serves. For example, when Stevens hints that he might visit a woman who once worked at Darlington Hall, Farraday jokes: “My, my, Stevens. A lady-friend. And at your age.” He goes on to joke, “I’d never have figured you for such a lady’s man, Steven . . . . Keeps the spirit young, I guess. But then I really don’t know it’s right for me to be helping you with such dubious assignations.”

Stevens spends pages on the topic of bantering. He writes: “Embarrassing as those moments were for me . . . . he was, I am sure, merely enjoying the sort of bantering which in the United States, no doubt, is a sign of a good, friendly understanding between employer and employee, indulged in as a kind of affectionate sport.” He even supposes that “it may well be that in America, it is all part of what is considered good professional service that an employee provide entertaining banter,” though “this business of bantering is not a duty I feel I can ever discharge with enthusiasm.”

It’s this business of bantering that brings me to the point. The students in the graduate seminar were the same ones in most of my fiction workshops. One guy, Jeff, spoke in a heavy nasally accent that I associated with New York, perhaps Brooklyn, though it seems Jeff was from Chicago or someplace like that. Jeff wasn’t the type you’d expect to be in a graduate writing program in Mississippi. He’d worked in some type of investment business, I remember, and though the rest of us came from every possible background, there was something stand-offish about Jeff. He tended to say some harsh things in class about other stories, and whenever he made a comment, he had a habit of reaching into his empty shirt pocket with finger and thumb and twiddling around, like he was reaching for a cigarette from a pack. He didn’t have a good filter on what he said. Very little tact. And on the evening our class discussed The Remains of the Day, Jeff kept coming back to this concept of “banter.” He seemed to have just as much trouble with the concept as Stevens did.

“I just don’t get all this talk about Banter,” Jeff said. “What is this business of bantering he keeps talking about?”
I don’t know that there’s anything significant about the banter in the book, other than it illustrates the difference in Americans and the British and the way we react to the social barriers we establish between classes. Jeff was not a banterer, at least not with me or the people I hung out with. But he wrote a couple of nice stories during his time at Southern Miss, and he had some other good qualities that rose to the surface from time to time. I’m sure there was a lot to appreciate in him that I never bothered to look for.

A year or so after I left the program and moved to Colorado, I found out that Jeff and another guy who’d hung around the program for a year or two were killed in a small plane crash in Mississippi. The other guy, Dale, was flying. It saddened me to think about dying that way. Last night, thinking about “this business of bantering,” brought Jeff back for a while. I wonder what sort of stories he would have written if he’d had more of a chance.

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