Book review: “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro

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Book review: “The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro is a sad, bleak book about a man who finds near the end of his life that he has wasted it.

On the second to the last page of this 1989 novel, Stevens, an English butler who, during an auto trip through the countryside, is musing about events in his life, decides that he needs to stop thinking so much about his past.

“I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day.”

His solution is that he will work even harder at learning the skill of bantering.

 

“Dignity”

Stevens, the son of a butler, is a man who has taken on the role of the butler to such an extent that, as he relates, he is never off-duty unless he is alone. And, as his ruminations in the pages of this novel show, he is not really ever himself even when he is alone.

Certainly, he is unwilling to let himself experience his feelings or, for the most part, even recognize their existence.

His life is focused on being a “great butler” which, for him, means embodying the character trait that he calls “dignity.”

Throughout his life and throughout this car trip, Stevens parses the meaning of “dignity.” But, when he is asked point-blank by a passing acquaintance, Dr. Carlisle, “What do you think dignity’s all about?” he is caught flat-footed.

“It’s rather a hard thing to explain in a few words, sir,” I said. “But I suspect it comes down to not removing one’s clothing in public.”

To take off the role of butler would be, for Stevens, to show himself naked to the world.

 

“A kind of affectionate sport”

A novelist could easily turn Stevens into a comic figure. Ishiguro doesn’t.

He gives Stevens an Everyman quality, and the reader is likely to resonate with the butler as he tries to figure out the meaning of things he doesn’t understand and develop strategies to deal with them.

Such as bantering.

Stevens has worked for decades for Lord Darlington at Darlington Hall, but his employer has died recently, and, now in 1956, he is working for the new owner, Mr. Farraday, “an American gentleman.”

Farraday, who is leaving on a trip, suggests that Stevens take the Darlington Hall auto and go on a little vacation. Stevens comes to think this is a good idea, in part because he can look up Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, a former housekeeper at Darlington Hall. He has received recently a letter from her and has the sense that she would like to return to work at the house. This would help him deal with a rash of “small errors” that he has made. These have been caused, he decides, by overwork.

He mentions his plan to stop to see Miss Kenton, and Farraday, grinning broadly, responds, “My, my, Stevens. A lady friend. And at your age.”

Stevens is embarrassed to the core, but he is quick to add, in his recounting of the conversation, that his new employer was

merely enjoying the sort of bantering which in the United States, no doubt, is a sign of a good, friendly understanding between employer and employee, indulged in as a kind of affectionate sport.

 

“My professional armoury”

It is clear that, in a mechanistic way, Stevens understand what bantering is.

However, on an emotional level, he is clueless.

ishiguro.remains

As he explains midway through the novel, he sees bantering as an element of his role as butler, one that he should be able to learn as he once learned how to stand up straight and silent in the background during a meal.

I have been endeavoring to add this skill to my professional armoury so as to fulfill with confidence all of Mr. Farraday’s expectations with respect to bantering.

For instance, I have of late taken to listening to the wireless in my room whenever I find myself with a few spare moments — on those occasions, say, when Mr. Farraday is out for the evening…. Taking my cue from [his study of one particular program], I have devised a simple exercise which I try to perform at least once a day; whenever an odd moment presents itself, I attempt to formulate three witticisms based on my immediate surroundings at that moment. Or, as a variation on this same exercise, I may attempt to think of three witticisms based on events of the past hour.

This is not a man who is comfortable in his own skin.

Nor one who trusts himself. Or even knows himself.

 

“The illusion”

Stevens is a man who believes that the English are the only men who can become “great butlers” because they are able to exercise “emotional restraint.”

Continentals — and by and large the Celts, as you will no doubt agree — are as a rule unable to control themselves in moments of strong emotion, and are thus unable to maintain a professional demeanour other than in the least challenging of situations.

Stevens describes the role, identity and presence of a butler later in the novel when he is discussing how it is more difficult to wait at table when there are two people for the meal than when there is one person or several.

It is when there are two diners present, even when one of them is one’s own employer, that one finds it most difficult to achieve that balance between attentiveness and the illusion of absence that is essential to good waiting….

Put in other words, this “illusion of absence” isn’t just the acme of being a butler waiting on diners at a table. It is also, for Stevens, the trick that he has played — wittingly and unwittingly — on himself.

He is absent from his own life — unable and unwilling to see and feel who he is.

 

“Why, why, why”

During a short period in between the world wars, Lord Darlington was under the spell of some British Fascist leaders, and, at their urging, he ordered Stevens to fire two Jewish maids so that the staff would be Jew-free. Stevens dutifully did so despite the strong opposition of Miss Kenton, for whom the maids worked.

A year or so later, out of the blue, his lordship tells Stevens that he was wrong to order the dismissal of the two maids.

Again, Stevens goes to Miss Kenton, and, in what he thinks is a jocular manner, relays the news that “it was all a terrible misunderstanding.”

Miss Kenton, who nearly quit over the issue, responds, “As I recall, you thought it was only right and proper that Ruth and Sarah be sent packing. You were positively cheerful about it.”

Stevens denies that, asserting, “The whole matter caused me great concern.”

Miss Kenton is astonished and tells him:

“Do you realize, Mr. Stevens, how much it would have meant to me if you had thought to share your feelings last year? You knew how upset I was when my girls were dismissed. Do you realize how much it would have helped me?

“Why, Mr. Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?”

 

Sad and bleak

In fact, Stevens doesn’t realize what it would have meant to her. He doesn’t realize how it would have helped.

And he doesn’t realize how much he “pretends” in his life. He is so defended from life that he doesn’t realize much about his existence. He doesn’t realize that he is living a non-life.

This, for me, is the key scene in The Remains of the Day. It summarizes everything that has so far occurred in the novel and contains the kernel of all that will follow.

It is possible to read this novel and feel anger toward Stevens for dismissing the Jewish maids and blindly helping his employer as he is used as a pawn of Adolf Hitler and being cruelly tone-deaf in his relations with Miss Kenton and putting his job above caring for his father as the man is dying upstairs.

At one point in his car trip, Stevens pretends that he did not work for Lord Darlington whose reputation was shattered by news coverage of his coziness with the Nazis. And he pretends at another point to some simple townspeople that he himself is a gentleman who has rubbed shoulders with the likes of Winston Churchill.

A reader of The Remains of the Day could find Stevens despicably servile and, in the privacy of his thought, vainglorious.

But I see him as a sad man living a bleak life through his own fault.

Because of his fears to show himself naked to the world.

Patrick T. Reardon
8.25.16

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