Review: Remains of the Day

I’d heard good things about Kazuo Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day, but thought it was a dying-person-thinks-about-dying book so I didn’t read it. Then I saw a snippet from the movie in an episode of The Sopranos and needed to know why Anthony Hopkins was hiding a book from Emma Thompson. If you need literary reasons to pick it up instead: Remains of the Day won the 1989 Man Booker Prize and Ishiguro has won the Nobel Prize for Literature.

From the back cover:

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.

From this, it sounds like a dying-person-thinks-about-death book even though Stevens isn’t old enough to be measuring his burial plot. Slow explorations of regret are often tedious, but this isn’t because Stevens has so little self awareness that it’s the reader’s job to sort actual events from his perceptions. On the surface, he’s good at his job and passionate about the quality of his work. On a deeper level, he’s an insufferable snob and it’s hard to imagine any house running smoothly under his direction:

But let me return to the question that is of genuine interest, this question we so enjoyed debating when our evenings were not spoilt by chatter from those who lacked any fundamental understanding of the profession; that is to say, the question ‘what is a great butler?’ (31)

Note that aside about those who lacked any fundamental understanding of the profession. While Stevens enjoyed these debates, he was probably the only one. I can’t imagine working with someone who held this opinion of me and my work. Stevens values himself according to the quality of his own work; when he questions the work of someone else, he questions their value as a person. He’s cutting, bordering on cruel, which contrasts sharply and disturbingly with the obsequious facade he presents to his employer.

The following is one of the best summaries of his outlook. In this passage, he’s thinking about a letter received from Miss Kenton. Miss Kenton worked at Darlington Hall roughly twenty years before and left to get married. Stevens has long sneered at her choice because his life is so devoted to Darlington Hall that he can’t understand her priorities. After reading her letter, he thinks:

It is of course tragic that her marriage is now ending in failure. At this very moment, no doubt, she is pondering with regret decisions made in the far-off past that have now left her, deep in middle age, so alone and desolate. And it is easy to see how in such a frame of mind, the thought of returning to Darlington Hall would be a great comfort to her. Admittedly, she does not at any point in her letter state explicitly her desire to return; but that is the unmistakeable message conveyed by the general nuance of many of the passages, imbued as they are with a deep nostalgia for her days at Darlington Hall. Of course, Miss Kenton cannot hope by returning at this stage to ever retrieve those lost years, and it will be my first duty to impress this upon her when we meet. I will have to point out how different things are now—that the days of working with a grand staff at one’s beck and call will probably never return within our lifetime. But then Miss Kenton is an intelligent woman and she will have already realized these things. Indeed, all in all, I cannot see why the option of her returning to Darlington Hall and seeing out her working years there should not offer a very genuine consolation to a life that has come to be so dominated by a sense of waste. (48)

Gross. Even if you haven’t read this book, you know that Stevens is interpreting this letter badly. The great tragedy of this story is that Stevens has been so consumed by his work that when his new employer insists he take a holiday, he’s forced to consider the whole arc of his life. I almost said “reconsider,” but didn’t because I’m not sure Stevens has ever truly thought about his life and his interactions with others. There’s that quote by Socrates about how an unexamined life isn’t worth living which might be one of the underlying theses of this novel.

So even if I’m not a fan of regretful-person-thinks-about-life books, I’m a fan of this one. At times, Stevens runs on a bit about the pride he has for his job, or his obsessive worry that his bantering skills aren’t up to his new employer’s taste—”banter” was used so much in this section that the word began to look meaningless—but it all adds up to a very thorough, moving, and deeply sad portrait of an individual who has tied his whole life to one thing only to realize that thing might not have been worth his life.

Overall: 5.0 (out of 5.0) One of my favorite winners of the Man Booker Prize (so far). I’ve started The Buried Giant and Never Let Me Go and didn’t care for either, so if one or both of those books put you off Ishiguro, you may still be moved by this one.

Image from Amazon

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