3 May 2019

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The cover art of the Vintage edition of this book grabs my attention every time it crosses the desk at the library.  I was probably first in line when the film came out but the details have blurred.  It's time to revisit this story, and to do it properly.

The Remains of the Day begins in the summer of 1956.  Mr. Farraday has offered Stevens, his butler, the Ford so he can take a holiday while he's away for several weeks in the United States.  Stevens, unaccustomed to an offer to enjoy the countryside in such leisure, replies that he has seen the beauty of England from within the walls of Darlington.  After much cajoling from Mr. Farraday about seeing the world, Stevens relents and gratefully accepts the kind gesture.   The arrival of a letter from a former housemaid, Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn) seals his plan for a destination.

Darlington Hall was once a noble country house filled with dozens of servants to wait on family and  guests.  Modern times and new ownership have meant sweeping change and Stevens now heads a staff of only a few.  Reading between the lines of the former housemaid's letter, Stevens wonders if perhaps she would like to return.  What becomes apparent by this point is that this is very much a novel about the things that are not said.

I will admit that it wasn't until I reached the 80 page mark that I started to feel invested in this story.  The rigidity of language, absence of emotion, and lack of description when it came to soft-furnishings kept me at arm's length from the characters, vast rooms and hallways at Darlington Hall.  Then it all became clear....that's exactly Ishiguro's point.  Stevens' English reserve and pinpoint execution of his position as Head Butler come through loud and clear.

When Stevens' narration turns to retrospection, it's back to just before WWII.  An important conference is about to take place at Darlington Hall with an American senator, a German ambassador, and a gentleman from France with political ties.  Oswald Mosley's backshirts and Nazi sympathizers have circled around Lord Darlington causing much concern for members of Lord Darlington's family and other political figures.

One aspect of being an excellent butler is to see all but say nothing, at times to the point of detriment.  Stevens' stiff upper lip is exhibited in the extreme when he's told his father is dying in a room upstairs...

   'I'm proud of you.  A good son.  I hope I've been a good father to you.  I suppose I haven't.'  
 'I'm afraid we're extremely busy now, but we can talk again in the morning.'

At day's end, Stevens triumphs in the fact that every detail of his responsibility to Lord Darlington and the conference was a success.  Is Stevens devoid of sentiment or overflowing with a sense of duty? 

During his car journey to Cornwall to meet with Miss Kenton, Stevens is neglectful of details such as water in the radiator and petrol in the tank.  Whether ignorant in the ways of motor vehicles or on the slippery slope to sloppiness, he's losing his edge.  He questions what remains of this next phase of his life and how to move forward.  Has he been too rigid, spent too much time pleasing and trusting others....and what does he have to show for it?

As Stevens sits on a pier, watching the lights turn on and brighten the dark sky, he realizes it's not too late to change.

Ishiguro's patient storytelling unfolds beautifully in The Remains of the Day; it's a masterclass in the art of 'show' rather than 'tell'.  And while I didn't have the best of starts with this novel, by the end I was completely won over.

Portrait of Alexander J. Cassatt by Mary Cassatt 
(1880)

4 comments:

  1. It has been far too long since I read this, and seen the film. This is a wonderful review, bringing me right into the story. I shall have to read this again, and soon.

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  2. Lovely of you to stop by, Nan. I've just looked up the shortlist for the year Ishiguro won and see that he was up against some very stiff competition...Atwood, Bedford, Banville, Tremain and Kelman.
    I think the author would prefer this book had a 'Booker Prize' sticker on the spine instead of the 'Romance' one that my library attached.

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  3. I read this book after I had seen the movie - having the actors in my mind & knowing the story, gave me an 'in' to the first part of the book, that I might have struggled with too. I'm curious to see if a reread 20 years later, holds up. I've read a lot more Ishiguro since then - I'm not sure I would call any of his books a romance - a study into human nature - yes - but romantic?

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  4. I made a small attempt to remove the Romance sticker without causing too much damage but then thought better of it. Sometimes you just have to let things go!
    A reread of this story now that you have twenty more years of life experience can only make it more interesting, Brona. Thanks for stopping by and sharing your thoughts!

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