Thoughts: The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

Almost caught up now. It took me this long to realise that while Spuggy was borrowing the Kindle, we actually have a book that’s on my TBR list! So I read it. Spoiler warning etc.

I missed out on gorging myself on Ishiguro novels when I was younger by a very slim margin. I had a Japanese literature phase, where I read anything with a Japanese author’s name attached, plundering the library at sixth form for rare but absolutely worthwhile treasures (Mishima’s The Temple of the Golden Pavilion, Tanizaki’s The Makioka Sisters and that was literally all), and later the Waterstones in the Boro, our local bookshop being very small and me not having realised that I could order things in there, where I found Murakami and duly read everything I could find.

I still remember seeing Ishiguro’s name and being interested, but by that point I was thinking that I should broaden my horizons, and I foolishly never picked him up.

Until now.

So, I know there’s no real value in my saying, “Yes, I thought this Booker Prizewinning book was very good,” but I’m afraid I shall have to.

I have a soft spot for first person narrators giving away more than they think they are anyway, and Stevens is particularly well-drawn, happy to discuss the things he’s interested in and only given away in the ways that flesh and blood people give themselves away when you meet them for the first time.

It’s unclear whether Stevens is writing a diary or letters or only imagining us, his invisible addressees. Either way, his openness still doesn’t extend to emotional affairs, and we’re often only given hints by other characters remarking on his expressions, or what we can read in the inadequate repeated phrases that are the only way he knows how to communicate with people. The nuance of a “Sir?” and the way he lets assumptions slip by, habitually trying to be invisible but he’s a human being, no matter how hard he tries, and he can never quite manage it.

Is it a particularly British thing, to value the utter self-annihilation of the lower classes in service? I don’t know enough about aristocracy in other countries to be able to say. But it does form a(n increasingly small, I think,) part of our cultural identity, doesn’t it? The poker-faced butler, the unflappable dark suits and dresses flitting around big houses, of whom not only hard work is demanded but silence and invisibility as well, not to mention all rights to a house and family of their own, seen by Stevens himself as a small betrayal. All these tropes that we forget came into being for a reason, which was that they were what was aspired to. The possibly apocryphal story of the butler and the tiger in the dining room is the sort of story you think you’ve probably heard somewhere yourself, and you understand, as Stevens does, that it’s something to aspire to, that it comprises the dignity of a butler, to be able to handle everything with this extra added decorum.

It’s not just unrelenting melancholy, of course. There’s a lot of humour in the poker face, and Ishiguro does it fantastically. The scene where Stevens is co-opted into explaining sex to young Cardinal is written in the exact same straightforward, deadly serious manner as the rest of the book, but it made me laugh out loud.

And now Stevens has given everything – he’s had his own, messier, more personal tigers in dining rooms of course – and the question he never asks but spends the book trying to answer is: what does he have to show for it?

His full living of the role of The Butler means that he has tied his whole identity to the man he serves, who he has no influence over, to whom he’s just a tool, and The Remains of the Day asks us, what if that man isn’t particularly nice, or isn’t particularly bright, or is on the wrong side of history? Stevens can never really know to what extent Lord Darlington was sympathetic to the Nazis (or can he?) because he doesn’t let himself know (or does he, and he just doesn’t want to tell us about it?). He tells us nothing about what goes on when anonymous movers and shakers come to the house, concentrating on the logistics of the service, and he repeats throughout the book, to callous rich men and angry, earnest Cardinal, that he has no opinion on politics. But he’s already shown us how well he can bury himself beneath The Butler’s clothes, and little bits and pieces of political opinion and defence (over-defence?) of Lord Darlington escape in his silent monologues. Ambiguity and contradiction fill the story as Stevens remembers things wrong and tries to pin himself down, tries to define the things by which he defines himself.

Stevens came to be a butler in an exciting new age, when the ambitions of young men in service (I don’t wonder if Stevens doesn’t allow himself much of an opinion on women because he knows he can never take a wife himself if he wants to continue down his chosen road – certainly he never let himself admit his affection for Miss Kenton) were different from those of their forebears. It’s new and interesting to see Stevens as being young and radical, because at the point we meet him, the world has moved on and he has been left behind, as everyone is. But he continues to change within himself, and he never does come to final conclusions about all the things that take up so much of his thoughts.

But in the end I felt happy for him. I think he did what he had to do, and he faced some personal truths for perhaps the first time in his life, without filtering it through The Butler’s role, and he came out stronger than I think he assumed he was. He admitted he worked for Lord Darlington for the first time, he met with Miss Kenton and didn’t try to attribute any of her or his decisions to excuses. I could talk for ages more about Miss Kenton’s intentions to leave the house in its darkest days, and Stevens’s relationship with his father, but I think I’ll leave it there for now. Stevens did the best he could do, and I wish him a happy retirement.

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