Kazuo Ishiguro was once an author eternally on my to-be-read list. Every time I saw his novels in a bookstore, I would think: ‘You know? I ought to read him. He’s so iconic in contemporary literature.’ But then like a goldfish I would see something shinier and forget all about him.
Ah, the olden days when I have not read the achingly lovely and slowly devastating The Remains of the Day. Since then, I have acquired two more Ishiguros: Never Let Me Go and An Artist of the Floating World with the hopes of reading one of them by the end of the year.
It has been a while since a novel has affected me in such a visceral way. Lately, I’ve been reviewing and contemplating books exclusively on their literary merits that I’ve almost forgotten what it was like to connect emotionally with a novel. The Remains of the Day tapped into one of my greatest fears: the fear of a wasted life. I’m already living my fear now. The years I should have spent living life to the fullest and laying the bricks of a career has been used up, struggling against anxiety, severe depression, and what is newly-suspected to be bipolar II disorder.
The idea that I may not realize the high aims and dreams I set out for myself in high school suffocates me. I had been so passionate, so ambitious.
Stevens, the first person protagonist of The Remains of the Day, also aspires towards greatness. He wants to help further “the progress of humanity.” As a butler in pre-World War II England, though, there are limited means for his goals. Thus, his chosen contribution to the world is by giving the best service he could possibly muster to Lord Darlington, a man Stevens wholeheartedly believed to have the highest moral character and to whom Stevens devoted the bulk of his life to. We enter the novel in 1956 when Lord Darlington has passed away and Darlington Hall has been sold to a wealthy American gentleman: the only ones who could afford great British country manors anymore.
Stevens’ age is never specified in the novel, but it is clear that he is nearing retirement age. In the prologue, Stevens is noticing more and more errors creep into his daily work. Two happy coincidences occurred close to the beginning of the novel: Stevens’ American employer offering his car for a weeklong road trip and the reception of a seemingly unhappy letter from Miss Kenton, Darlington Hall’s proficient ex-housekeeper. Stevens thinks if he could persuade Miss Kenton to return to Darlington Hall, the mistakes he is starting to make would be kept to a minimum. He plans to use the proposed road trip to seek out Miss Kenton for this very purpose.
For six days, Stevens’ drive around the English countryside takes us deep into his musings and recollections. Stevens’ thoughts slowly unfurl and we gradually see that all may not be what it seems. His ideals on what makes a great butler is honorable at first, but soon becomes sad and pitiable. His feelings for Miss Kenton and vice versa may not be exclusively professional. Most heartbreaking of all, Lord Darlington, a man Stevens has always believed to be good and true, may not be such a great man after all. And if that is the truth, where would that leave Stevens? His life would have been nothing but “a sad waste.”
Plenty of reviews and analysis I have read after finishing The Remains of the Day noted Stevens’ shocking coldness and predilection for white lies, denial, and self-delusion. Some have also branded Stevens a rather pathetic figure, who baldly says that the polished silver at Darlington Hall has, in its way, helped contribute to the world. Yet I always found Stevens to be a sympathetic figure. I watched a short interview with Kazuo Ishiguro and it gladdens me that he seems to like Stevens too. There is an everyman in Stevens. Ishiguro noted that not all of us are CEOs of a large company or presidents of a nation. We don’t leave a direct mark on the world. Most of us have jobs and we don’t know what our contributions are going to be used for, not really. We may take pride in what we do and try to do it as best as we can, but in Stevens case, the man he works for is misguided at best, foolish at worst. People putting their faith and working for political figures today can be equated with Stevens.
There are also comments that the pace of The Remains of the Day is too snail-like. I concur: this is a slow read. The Remains of the Day deals with a man looking back on his life and career. Sure, events happen but this is a character study above all. It’s Stevens’ epiphanies that matter most.
If you have ever watched a BBC period drama, with its liberal use of olden words like “perchance,” take note that the prose of The Remains of the Day is exactly like that. I don’t mind the very controlled prose, I happen to love history and period dramas. And the “voice” fits Stevens perfectly. Is there a man more formal, more mannered, more repressed than Stevens?
Finally, most of the reviews I have read noted that Stevens’ “my heart was breaking” inner thought to be the most powerful section of The Remains of the Day. But to me, the most potent segment of the book is when Stevens cries, while saying:
I gave my best to Lord Darlington. I gave him the very best I had to give, and now – well – I find I do not have a great deal more left to give.
I gave an audible breath of relief when Stevens’ accidental companion gave him kind advice: that Stevens ought not to look back all the time and start looking forward. The Remains of the Day is a sad, sad novel, but it is not without hope. And for that I am grateful to Ishiguro.