Faber & Faber, 1988, 245 pages
The Remains of the Day is a profoundly compelling portrait of the perfect English butler and of his fading, insular world in postwar England. At the end of his three decades of service at Darlington Hall, Stevens embarks on a country drive, during which he looks back over his career to reassure himself that he has served humanity by serving "a great gentleman". But lurking in his memory are doubts about the true nature of Lord Darlington's "greatness" and graver doubts about his own faith in the man he served.
Kazuo Ishiguro slowly, languorously unwinds his small-moments-of-great-import stories, with narrators who only gradually reveal what the story is really about. He is a master of voice and circumspection, much like his character, Mr Stevens, the head butler in charge of Darlington Hall.
As Remains of the Day opens, Mr Stevens is planning a day trip to see an old colleague who left Darlington Hall many years ago. It is the 1950s, and the estate where he has served for decades has just been purchased by a rich American. His employer lends him his automobile while he goes on business to London. After some back and forth about the nature of Mr Stevens' trip and his previous employer, Lord Darlington, he gets underway.
Mr Steven meanders, physically and mentally. His narrative goes back and forth from the heyday of Darlington Hall in the 30s to the present day, when he looks forward to seeing Miss Kenton, once the chief housekeeper, again.
A great deal of Mr Stevens' reminiscing is about the duties of a butler. He speaks of great butlers, and an old, defunct society of butlers, and one might get the idea that all Mr Stevens has ever cared about is serving his employer. He talks about the importance of drawing up a proper staff plan, and how he was once complemented on his silver polishing and how this might have had a small but significant impact on an important international matter. Mr Stevens is a butler's butler, the very epitome of butlering.
It is sometimes said that butlers only truly exist in England. Other countries, whatever title is actually used, have only manservants. I tend to believe this is true. Continentals are unable to be butlers because they are as a breed incapable of the emotional restraint which only the English race are capable of. Continentals - and by and large the Celts, as you will no doubt agree - are as a rule unable to control themselves in moments of a strong emotion, and are thus unable to maintain a professional demeanour other than in the least challenging of situations. If I may return to my earlier metaphor - you will excuse my putting it so coarsely - they are like a man who will, at the slightest provocation, tear off his suit and his shirt and run about screaming. In a word, "dignity" is beyond such persons. We English have an important advantage over foreigners in this respect and it is for this reason that when you think of a great butler, he is bound, almost by definition, to be an Englishman.
There is, however, a plot underneath this first-person narrative. It is about Mr Stevens' regrets and mischances at the end of a long life. One of those is Miss Kenton, of course. It doesn't take too much to read between the lines early on and realize that these two had electric currents of romantic tension running between them - which manifested in all sorts of petty arguments over duties, passive-aggressive note-passing, and finding opportunities to remonstrate with each other.
The issues ranged from Mr Stevens' father, also a butler, who came to Darlington Hall when he had nowhere else to serve, to the revelation that Mr Stevens liked to read sentimental romance novels in his time off, to the dismissal of a couple of Jewish maids.
Oh, yes. That's when the real story unfolds. Lord Darlington, it turns out, played host to all sorts of international visitors in the pre-war era. Visitors who were dedicated to preventing another world war. Visitors who thought Germany was a peace-loving nation being abominably treated by the victors after the Treaty of Versailles. Visitors from France, visitors from the U.S., visitors carrying best regards from Berlin.
Obviously, this does not turn out well. We see only what happened in the 30s prelude and the 50s postscript to the life of Lord Darlington, but Mr Stevens, who was in the midst of things, stoically maintained his duty and professionalism, and a conviction that it was his job to serve and not to have opinions. A conviction that only breaks down finally, at the end of it all.
What is the point of worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one's life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.
Remains of the Day (1993)
The 1993 Merchant-Ivory film, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, was Oscar-bait and it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, but didn't win any. Generally faithful to the book, it did a pretty good job of conveying the themes and subtexts of Ishiguro's novel, though no movie can capture all the nuances of such a literary novel heavy on inner monologues. Naturally, many of the important little moments were either omitted or altered, and the political situation portrayed in the book was made much less nuanced in the movie.
Although it's over twenty years old, I hadn't seen this movie until after I read the book, and it was certainly worth Netflixing.
Verdict: Exquisitely written and as English as English can be, Remains of the Day won the Man Booker Prize in 1989. Beneath the surface of this polite little period piece about a fading world of English manor houses is a complex character drama and a moral fable. 9/10.
Also by Kazuo Ishiguro: My review of Never Let Me Go.
My complete list of book reviews.