The Remains of the Day
I was directed to this novel by CNN presenter Fareed Zakaria when he called it “the best book I read in 2017”.
Being woefully ignorant of the author, Kazuo Ishiguro, I was expecting some literary expose on a subject in Japan. And he has indeed written in this area, but this book is firmly set in English culture, especially as it flourished before the second world war.
It is essentially a memoir/love story of an English butler working in an upper class mansion, Darlington Hall, headed by a politically active 'Lord' in the years leading up to the war.
Had I known that the author was brought to England from Japan in the 1950s as a preschooler, I may not have been taken by surprise with the subject.
The cover is festooned with praise from the highbrow literary establishment and then further burnished over two or three pages inside the front cover. And adding even more heavyweight credibility is an introduction by author Salman Rushdie.
Expecting a volume still smoking as it came off the press, I was surprised to see it was copyright in 1988 and first published in 1989. It was published again in Canada in 2014, hence the “new” discovery.
Having read praise such as “a dream of a book” and “I couldn't put it down” led me to expect more intense drama. It was easy to put down, but also easy to pick up again.
It certainly is a book for people with a serious interest in more subtle literature. Its genius became more apparent as I neared the end of the read and expect it will stick with me longer than most.
The essential character, is the storyteller, Stevens, an English Butler. For him 'butler' is more than a job, more than a career, but rises to the level of a calling, even life identification. He talks of great butlers the way people today might dispute over the merits of great athletes. Propriety, 'dignity' and discretion are the defining qualities. At one point he indicates that the English is the only culture capable of producing the emotional restraint crucial in good butlers. “A butler of any quality must be seen to inhabit his role, utterly and fully.” He says that having one's own opinions, outside of one's own affairs, compromises loyalty.
As I have mentioned, it is a memoir set in mid-century around the second world war. There is great bustle many guests and some 30 employees before the war. Now with a new, non political American owner, there are no crowds and four employees is enough.
The story is told over a six-day (maybe more precisely four) period in the late 1950s as the butler is taking a holiday driving trip in a confined area in southwest England in his employer's luxurious Ford. A stated mission is to meet and hopefully rehire a former housekeeper, Miss Kenton, (she is married with a different name, but it is only mentioned in passing) who had worked in the pre-war Darlington Hall.
He has construed from a letter he received from her that she may be interested in returning. Although he never states it, and probably would never admit it to himself, one suspects he has a more personal interest in the woman.
As the story begins, Stevens is describing the virtues of being a butler and the standards he hopes to emulate. He articulates much of the certainty of a person who has made his important life decisions and is following them single-mindedly.
It is only at the end we see him gently venturing into reviewing these decisions. And they ultimately revolve around his relationship or the limits of it with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton. We get the idea that as he nears the end of his life (the remains of the day) there is an inkling that he may have missed out on something, while immersed in his career.
But “what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?” “And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.”
I was taken aback by the length of the author's sentences, counting one at 82 words. It did include a couple of semicolons. As I reflect on it, it seems plausible that Stephens would couch his communications carefully, lean toward indirectness or even obfuscation. So this thinking/speaking style may be in character and also reflect the English culture he lived in and revered.
It seems this trip may be the first ever 'holiday' Stevens has taken and as such a greater adventure than a few days driving might seem.
One of Ishiguro's messages may be that we are all tempted to reflect on our life as we age and consider the decisions we made and how they guided the course it took.
There is no explanation where the author's special 'butler' knowledge, employed in the book, came from.
The love story element is made intriguingly delicious because it is so curtailed by the times, the culture and most importantly the emotional restraint. There is never even a hint or even daydream of a salacious relationship, although a little 'marital squabbling' occurs.
Miss Kenton in some exasperation says “You are perpetually talking of my 'great inexperience', Mr. Stevens. And yet you appear quite unable to point out any defect in my work. Otherwise I have no doubt you would have done so long ago and at some length.”
The author's interest in the wars and how Germany was treated may be played out through Lord Darlington's mission to try to treat Germany better than was done by the Treaty of Versailles. Darlington's fortunes seems to have fallen as a result of this effort when the second war started.
Ishiguro also alludes to the English class system whose decline seems to have accelerated with that of the empire between the wars. We hear how old money and aristocracy trumped 'new money' in how the upper classes were discriminated. Stevens suggest he and his 'idealistic' generation have moved away from this classification.
Stevens mentions how he moved from job to job early in his career seeking a position “in a truly distinguished household” that would give him satisfaction and scope to excel.
He sees his contribution to world affairs as how he manages situations “a butler could cause a thing to occur at just the right time and place without guests even glimpsing the often large and complicated manoeuvre behind the operation.”
One of Stevens concluding reflections where he is trying to get the knack of “bantering” having dismissed it as of little importance “it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in __particularly if is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth.”