The Remains of the Day
by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
Vintage (1990)
245 pp

It is with great pleasure that I present my own pick for the Best of the Booker on Booker’s 40th Anniversary. Kazuo Ishiguro’s transcendent The Remains of the Day. One of my favorite books, let alone favorite Booker winners.

I am not bitter that this book was not selected for the short list for the Best of the Booker, but I really don’t understand it. Perhaps they thought — and were possibly right — that many people who read this book are informed by the beautiful Merchant Ivory production with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Perhaps — and they would be wrong — they thought the book was unduly esteemed and does not on its own merit a high place. The book itself has the power to evoke all of those emotions, that wonderful atmosphere, that subtle pain.

You’ve got to enjoy yourself. The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.

The book begins with Stevens, an old butler of a now musty Darlington Hall, asking his new American master if he can have leave to visit an old friend, Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), a friend who might just solve their staffing problems since she once was the home’s housekeeper during its glory days between the world wars, when important gentlemen from all over the world met to discuss international affairs. Then Darlington Hall was immaculate, a true source of pride for Stevens. A small misfortune — Miss Kenton’s marriage is breaking up — could perhaps have some silver lining if it allows Miss Kenton to come back to help restore it. Stevens gets his leave and begins his quest down the road.

While driving through the country, Stevens thinks back on the Darlington Hall’s glory days, that have now become infamous. Stevens still feels a sense of pride but is troubled by a barely acknowledged sense of shame. These conflicting emotions confuse him, and he can never quite reconcile them. He is proud of his work maintaining the house; only now, looking back, he realizes that his service might not have been as important or as noble as he once thought. He’s staked his life on his impeccable service, and to make matters worse, the home now does not even need much of a staff. Time is moving away from the haunting past, the glorious past.

Stevens is now entering the evening of his life. It is sad to watch him move forward with such trepidation and insecurity. In a way, he is seeking his old housekeeper both as an attempt to bring back the wonderful period between the wars and as an attempt to atone for his indirect involvement in the affairs of the home. This might provide some comfort in what’s left of his life.

Of course, a lot of this is back story, intricately woven into a tale of an aging and unsettled old man. I feel that if I try to explain it further I would not only spoil some of it for you but also cheapen the book itself — it’s best just to refer interested readers to Ishiguro’s handiwork.

Ishiguro’s writing is subtle. Somehow he gets us to feel and understand so much from a narrator who says so little and who avoid acknowledging his feelings. Stephens is one of my favorite characters in all of literature, despite the fact that he is only a butler of a great house. He holds so much emotion even though he won’t let it out (which is an excellent puzzle for the reader attempting to understand). Stevens’s emotions seep into his guarded words. It is a pleasure to reread this book for at least two reasons: the story has so many layers one can always uncover something, and it’s an excellent exercise to analyze sentences and paragraphs to study how Ishiguro achieves what he does.

Ishiguro’s ability to write about large themes (in this book we see pacifism, bigotry, class structure, duty, feminism, real politik, old passing to new, old age, guilt, regret, and most importantly life, death, and love) without addressing them directly or becoming didactic is what makes him one of the best writers out there today. I have been slightly disappointed after reading his two latest: When We Were Orphans (2000) and Never Let Me Go (2005) (but even those were shortlisted because of their masterful writing). He still has my complete attention simply because he wrote The Remains of the Day.

For those who have read the book, here are some final thoughts:

What happens to Stevens? How does he spend what’s left? He’s left sitting on the pier under those beautiful moody lights which helped him realize that his best days have turned out to be shameful, and he has nothing to look forward to. Honestly, he has really lost Miss Kenton. That time passed years before when he still considered his job more important than his life.

Ishiguro’s ending is much better than the film’s not-so-subtle, disappointing resolution.

It occurs to me, furthermore, that bantering is hardly an unreasonable duty for an employer to expect a professional to perform. I have of course already devoted much time to developing my bantering skills, but it is possible I have never previously approached the task with the commitment I might have done. Perhaps, then, when I return to Darlington Hall tomorrow — Mr Farraday will not himself be back for a further week — I will begin practising with renewed effort. I should hope, then, that by the time of my employer’s return, I shall be in a position to pleasantly surprise him.

A perfect ending which shows that Stevens’s foray into the uncomfortable unknown is about to be shut down. Back to the cave. And now with even less of a reason to come out.

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By |2017-09-23T11:38:18+00:00July 10th, 2008|Categories: Book Reviews, Kazuo Ishiguro|Tags: , , , , |10 Comments

10 Comments

  1. Stewart July 10, 2008 at 6:27 am

    This is my favourite novel ever.

    A perfect ending which shows that Stevens’s foray into the uncomfortable unknown is about to be shut down.

    The split infinitive at the end, after a whole novel of perfect English, is certainly not a mistake and suggests to me that Stevens’ mind is failing, just like his father’s did.

  2. redheadrambles July 10, 2008 at 9:59 am

    Oh – you have such good taste… I love this book as well. It has been a while since I read it and your review makes me want to revisit it. Once were Orphans was my first Ishiguro book and at the time I was very impressed by it. I enjoyed Never let me go as well but I agree that neither book comes close to matching The Remains Of The Day. Have you read The Unconsoled?
    You must be a very fast reader, to be reviewing so quickly – I on the other hand am shamefully slow – which is unfortunate for a would-be book blogger!

  3. Trevor Berrett July 10, 2008 at 11:13 am

    Stewart: I never can decide what my favorite novel is, but it is often this one. Nice insight into the split infinitive at the end. I’d never noticed it before, let alone extrapolated meaning from it. Split infinitives are not on my radar, but they definitely would be on Stevens’s. Your insight makes the image of his sitting alone on the pier even more sad, and the title is much more ominous even than before.

    Redhead, thanks for the compliment! I have not yet read The Unconsoled, but I look forward to that day. (I also haven’t read An Artist of the Floating World). As for my speed, I fortunately/unfortunately spend 2 1/2 hours of each day on a train for my commute. And if a train is delayed (like yesterday!) I have a surprising amount of time on my hands to read! Still, my reviewing will slow down now that I’ve posted the Best of the Booker shortlist because I’d read those before and therefore had something new to review each day despite the fact that I hadn’t finished a book. But hopefully I won’t slow down too much!

  4. […] subtle touches that show just how sad the ending truly is. For example, over on Trevor Barretts’ recent blog posting on the book, the ending is seen as sad enough as it is, but there’s a grammatical tic in there that, almost […]

  5. Ronak M Soni December 2, 2009 at 11:09 am

    There be spoilers below
    I finished it yesterday, and I was really puzzled by the end. Almost completely solved, however, by these two sentences of yours:

    He holds so much emotion even though he won’t let it out (which is an excellent puzzle for the reader attempting to understand).

    and

    Stevens is now entering the evening of his life.

    This last, however, makes me think of the ending as a rather happy one: he observes that the evening is the happiest part of life. True, he observes that this is so for others, but maybe the commitment to learning bantering is a commitment to fit in. I’ll probably have to reread it, but thanks for the perspective.

    There be spoilers for the movie Yojimbo below
    Didn’t the book ever remind you of this movie, the scene where Mifune just stays still in front of a gun because he understands that his time is up?
    No more spoilers.

    Another funny thing: the passages about butlery in the book reminded me of a description of all art. ‘What is a great book?’ is as relevant a question as ‘What is a great butler?’, and very similar to it too.

  6. Trevor December 2, 2009 at 5:30 pm

    Wonderful stuff, isn’t it? I still don’t think the end is too positive, though. I take it that Stevens is trying to talk himself up a bit. I think he has a lot of regrets, and this might be a way of hiding those from himself. Then again, we can hope for him. After all, he did finally chase down the only woman we know of whom he loved. Maybe he will free himself up a bit and enjoy his days, making them the best of his life because he will be more open with his emotions. I kind of take that to be the ending depicted in the Merchant Ivory adaptation (a wonderful film, but not my favorite ending).

    Also, it’s been years since I saw Yojimbo, so I can’t comment on that scene. Not sure I would have made the connection, though, so thanks!

  7. Trevor June 26, 2010 at 9:24 pm

    I didn’t know this, but I’m sure everyone else does — or if not, everyone soon will: Kazuo Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go has been adapted for the big screen. You can see an impressive trailer here.

    My favorite Ishiguro — if not my favorite book — is The Remains of the Day. While reading Never Let Me Go I was consistently distracted by his technique, which I felt to be basically the same he’d used in when creating Steven’s consciousness, though in the case of Never Let Me Go not used as well. I enjoyed Never Let Me Go, and in time as my minor complaints against the similarities in structure and technique (it is a great technique) faded, the story itself became stronger. This trailer made me want to revisit the book. Not sure I will. I imagine my old complaints would resurface fairly soon.

  8. KevinfromCanada June 27, 2010 at 12:45 pm

    Never Let Me Go is my least favorite Ishiguro by a long shot — I like all of his other books. I suspect my personal aversion to dystopias is the main reason and I will be avoiding the movie for just that reason. I also would like to say that my memories of Nocturnes have become consistently more positive — I’d like to see more short fiction from him.

  9. Trevor June 27, 2010 at 9:34 pm

    I keep not reading Nocturnes, though I almost bought it the day it came out, so excited was I for more Ishiguro. Now it has almost slipped my mind, so thanks for bringing it back Kevin!

    I’m curious for your thoughts about When We Were Orphans. I always feel like I’m the only one who liked it, and I really liked it. I thought the structure fantastic.

  10. […] Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro (original review July 10, 2008).  Here we have Stevens, the quintessential English butler, only the days of the manor house have […]

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