Friday, October 5, 2012

The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day
By Kazuo Ishiguro

This is the third Kazuo Ishiguro novel I have read in the past twelve months. If there is one overriding theme throughout them (the others being An Artist of the Floating World and Never Let Me Go) it is that Ishiguro is not interested in the story that appears on his page so much as he is interested in the story going on in your head whilst you are reading the words he put on his page. More directly, Ishiguro's novels are about the story not being told as opposed to the story being told. Furthermore, like his other novels, The Remains of the Day may not even really be about what it's about but rather may be an elegantly crafted metaphor about something entirely different. If I've sufficiently confused you, good. Let's get on with it, then.

The Remains of the Day is Ishiguro's third novel. Published in 1989, it was the winner of that year's Man Booker Prize and has garnered the status of classic since then, and for good reason. The novel is a thematic work of genius that examines (but doesn't examine) the subjects of dignity, loyalty and social constraints in post-colonial Great Britain as well as being a metaphor for the very same Great Britain.

The story centers upon Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall, an old country house occupied by a preeminent English gentleman prior to World War II but currently (1956) owned by an American who bought the house (complete with authentic English butler) after the death of its former occupant. The story is ostensibly about short motor car trip undertaken by Stevens from Darlington Hall to the West Country in order to visit a former colleague. The story progresses as a series of journal entries along the way in which Stevens elucidates on the finer points of the domestic services industry and what (not who) makes a good butler. He also recounts several key events that occurred during his tenure at Darlington Hall that speak volumes about himself, his staff, his employer and the world around him. Though Stevens seems like a trustworthy character and one would hardly call his judgment into question, one must continuously question his ability to recall instances with the clarity this story requires. This gives the entire narrative a subconscious haze that must be navigated at all times.

The entire narrative is written in the stiff colonial language of the gentleman class and Stevens, like the people he has worked for in the past is obsessed with how he is perceived. Language and decorum are , therefore, tools in his profession as a way in which to cultivate an air of dignity benefiting a house such as Darlington Hall. ItThey are also self-constructed walls of social and class constraint that willingly bind Stevens to the house and the gentleman therein, regardless of his own opinions.

In lieu of thinking for himself, Stevens adopts an unconditional trust in his employer. Loyalty, dignity and professionalism trump all personal issues. In one particular scene which plays out as both comedy and tragedy, Stevens carries out his duties on a especially busy evening while his father falls ill and dies. It is an apt description of the social constraints that bound the class conscious British between the wars.

Buried deep within the bedrock of Steven's recollections is a more personal account of Darlington Hall's housekeeper, Miss Kenton. It becomes plainly apparent to the reader that Miss Kenton and Stevens have significant feelings for one another, but their professionalism, coupled with Steven's inability to read subtlety and nuance (to the point that I began to think Stevens might simply be mildly autistic, but I'll leave the psychological analysis of this novel to more capable reviewers) conspire to keep them apart. Even when a simple word or gesture might have broken the proverbial ice, they remain colleagues throughout, much to the consternation of this reader.

There are a lot of levels from which a reader might read this novel, but the most interesting (at least for me) was that The Remains of the Day is a brilliant metaphor for the end of the British Empire. In fact, the metaphor is so apparent (once you notice it) that it rivals Animal Farm in its bluntness. The novel itself is set in 1956 and although it is never mentioned in the book, that year coincides with the nationalization of the Suez Canal by General Nasser in Egypt. In Great Britain, the loss of the canal marked the end of the Empire. The era of the gentleman, country houses and the butler was over and Stevens himself is has become a relic of the past, a quirky historical curiosity sold along with a house to an American with a great deal of knowledge about colonial Britain but no idea how to actually be a gentleman.

But at a deeper level it is a social commentary on the relationship between crown and Empire. Lord Darlington represents the crown and the butler Stevens represents the Empire in this exquisite analogy of pre- and post-war Britain. Much like the pre-war British colonies in Asia and Africa, Stevens places an undue and undeserved amount of trust in Lord Darlington only to find that, in the end, Lord Darlington was involved in affairs far beyond his scope of understanding. Indeed, Lord Darlington represents a bygone England and his views are not even remotely in tune with the times. Naturally, Stevens remains unconcerned with his lord's affairs and serves him any way he can.

When war breaks out and Darlington finds himself on the wrong side of the line, it is Stevens that suffers most. And when Lord Darlington passes away, Stevens remains, left alone to pick up the pieces under the watchful eyes of an American. The parallels between this story and the demise of the Empire are so plentiful it probably merits a second reading at a later date.

The fact that Kazuo Ishiguro can write novels with so much nuance and subtlety is extraordinary. It takes a very gifted writer to write novels that work on a multitude of levels. Off the top of my head I can only think of a handful that have that capacity. I would hazard a guess that this novel wouldn't appeal to everyone due to its verbosity and pace (it is rather slow in bits) but The Remains of the Day really pays off in the end. I know that Salman Rushdie's novel Midnight's Children has been deemed the Booker of Bookers but I'd give the nod to The Remains of the Day as the best Booker winner I've ever read.


Sam (Tiny Library) said...

You have really sold this book to me with this review! I've been sort of interested in reading it for a while but didn't have a clear idea of what it was about. I love that it's a metaphor for the end of the British Empire, can't wait to read it.

Brian Joseph said...

I have not read this but it has been on a list of books that I have wanted to read. I really love books that really allegorical. All the better if there are multiple levels to them.

....Petty Witter said...

As you say it takes a talented writer to pull off a novel that works on many layers. So glad you enjoyed this, thanks for sharing your thoughts.

JoV said...

I agree. This should be the booker of the booker. It is one of the best booker prize winner I have ever read too! Thanks for the review.

Stephanie said...

What a wonderful review. I read this one a few months ago and was astounded by how quiet and yet devastating this book was. I completely agree with your thoughts about the idea of the story *not* being told. I'm currently reading Sarah Waters's The Night Watch, and think that she does something similar (although not to such an extent.)

Stephanie @ Read in a Single Sitting

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