The Remains of the Day
by Kazuo Ishiguro (1989)
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.