Title: The Remains of the Day
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Release date: September 12, 1990
Rating: 5 out of 5
TL;DR: A proper English butler (who proves a rather unreliable narrator) reflects on changing times in England before and after World War II.
There are few men left in England in 1956 like James Stevens. The long-time butler of Darlington Hall knows that he is the last of a dying breed, yet that fact does not bend his iron spine. In fact, it only fortifies his unbending sense of propriety.
The new American owner of Darlington Hall seems like a nice enough man, but he knows nothing of the customs that have defined the shape and texture of Stevens’ life. Therefore, when Stevens receives a letter from Ms. Kenton, the erstwhile housekeeper of the grand estate, he resolves to go to her and plead with her to return to her former position and restore Darlington Hall to some of its previous glory.
Yet as the tale unravels, it becomes apparent that no amount of proper butlering or efficient housekeeping can restore the tarnished name of Darlington, Stevens’ now-deceased employer.
The Remains of the Day is told in diary-style observations of Stevens’ trip as he motors through the English countryside, as well as long flashbacks to events that, decades later, still weigh heavily upon Stevens’ mind.
Stevens recounts the extensive preparations that went into a “conference” between British and German politicians and members of high society—a meeting of Nazi sympathizers, in short. As Stevens reflects now on the subsequent decline of Lord Darlington in English society—and the decline of Stevens’ own position following the Second World War—he also recalls fond memories of Ms. Kenton, for whom it is obvious he nursed a great deal of feeling.
In the twilight of a long, perhaps misspent, career, where does one go next?
Themes of loyalty, pride, tradition, dignity, duty, regret, one’s legacy, and the changing mores in post-war England are all on display in this quietly heartbreaking novel.
The Remains of the Day is a fascinating study of unreliable narration. Stevens, both by training and by constitution, is often unwilling or unable to account for personal feeling. He regrets the role Lord Darlington played in the run-up to the War, and likewise must regret also his role in facilitating these meetings. Likewise, his inability or unwillingness to communicate his feelings for Ms. Kenton have given him a great deal of unexpressed heartache through the years.
All of these suppressed emotions bubble up throughout the narrative. Stevens rarely admits to any of them, which makes the tale all the more rewarding for the reader. It is our job to pick up on what he is saying between the lines, to piece together a story which pride and decorum dictate he only reveal in incomplete patches.
I enjoyed the slow unraveling of this story quite a bit. Although it was one of the first books I read in 2014, it stayed with me as one of the very best books of the year. (Also, it won a Booker Prize, so, you know, others agree.)
Quotes of Note:
It is all very well, in these changing times, to adapt one’s work to take in duties not traditionally within one’s realm; but bantering is of another dimension altogether. For one thing, how would one know for sure that at any given moment a response of the bantering sort is truly what is expected? One need hardly dwell on the catastrophic possibility of uttering a bantering remark only to discover it wholly inappropriate.
A ‘great’ butler can only be, surely, one who can point to his years of service and say that he has applied his talents to serving a great gentleman – and through the latter, to serving humanity.
In any case, while it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points’, one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.
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