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5 April 2019

Review - The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day
Kazuo Ishiguro
Faber and Faber, 1989
PB, 256pp

The Remains of the Day has been adapted for the stage, and I'm going to see it in a couple of weeks! So it seemed a good time to put up this review, which I wrote last year as part of the Shiny New Books celebration of fifty Booker Prize years. Hopefully, after i've seen the play, I will write a but about how that was. But first, the book.

I first read The Remains of the Day (first published in 1989) more than twenty years ago now in the mid 90s, before (I think) the book was filmed. I reread it for the review, but before doing that, I put down my recollections from the 90s (yes! I'm OLD!)

In memory, then, the central character, Stevens, middle aged butler from Darlington Hall near Oxford, recalls his life in vivid episodes. The one that stood out most for me was his employer's dalliance, in the 1930s, with fascism, mainly during weekend gatherings of the English country house-party set, a fraction of which seemed to have curdled into love for Hitler.

I vividly remembered the scene in which Lord Darlington asserted that democracy had had its day, was outmoded (really, I remember thinking? In the 30s? It had hardly been tried). The humiliation of Stevens when he's invited to comment on some abstruse economic issue, his failure to grasp it taken as proof that he and his class should leave government to their "betters".

That last scene stood in - for me - for much of the book, for a man oppressed and ruled by the last gasp of an ancien regime, almost forbidden by a self-imposed code to step outside his role and live. Rereading in 2018, of course, one irony was the degree to which - after the past couple of years - the authoritarian Right is clearly not (yet) banished to the pit prepared for it.

So, what did I make of The Remains of the Day when I reread it?

Well, I’d forgotten just how riveting the book is. I went through 200 odd pages one night and the remaining 50 at a gallop next lunchtime - despite there being few ‘events’ in the story.

Yes, Stevens takes a road trip - but this is really a gentle meander giving him occasion to muse on what he’s done with his life. He has a goal of meeting Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper at the Hall who walked away twenty years before, but this doesn’t actually happen till late in the book and it is a vary short episode.

While very little might seem to happen, all that does illuminates Stevens’ life and character. He was invited by Mr Farraday, the new American owner of the Hall, to go out and see his "own country" - but characteristically most of what he does see arises not from intention but from missteps or random encounters with helpful strangers. It's fascinating that Stevens is so passive. This is I think key to his character - with his philosophy of ‘dignity’, the quality that makes a "great" butler, to which he adds ideas of living vicariously (and contributing to the world) through one's master's doings, and of never dropping the ‘mask’ of the butler - unless alone. When he’s caught out of role (for example, reading a romance novel from the library) he makes such an extraordinary fuss, such a business of distancing himself, that you can only wonder what is going on underneath.

In fact Stevens seems to aspire to an almost mystical degree of self-effacement. It's not surprising then that he's so much an unreliable narrator that he actually tells us so, the version of events he gives often being unpicked later. What life, what reality, can a man like Stevens have, when his ultimate triumph is to stand in the shadows proudly serving his master even when that master stumbles morally?

Because Lord Darlington did stumble, allowing allowed himself to be used of in the murky Establishment plots of the 30s, when there was much cosying up to the Nazis. Stevens is right, of course, to point out that the (fictional) Lord Darlington wasn't alone in this. I suspect this is an episode of English (especially) history that has been kicked into the shadows, rather as Stevens suppressed any judgement on his own employer. In that sense, Stevens' sometimes painful reckoning with his past might be taken as a rather prescient commentary on the country as a whole, as might other aspects of the book.

But that’s not all there is here. The Remains of the Day is a subtle, mulitlayered book with a great deal else going on. In places very funny, but often deeply sad, it also tells the story of two (once) young people - Stevens and Miss Kenton - trying, at some level, to connect but either afraid, constrained or just too inexperienced to do so.

Both strands lead to bleak conclusions. There is the ultimate revelation of a man who sees all he has lived for knocked down. Lord Darlington is disgraced and dead, the Hall sold, the society of "professionals" by which Stevens set such store scattered to the winds (I lost count of the number of times he says he has ‘lost touch with’ one or another well-known gentleman's gentleman. Are they dead? Retired? Or is he now a pariah, given the Darlington connection? Stevens is not to be trusted on such matters and we can only speculate on this as on so much else.) There is also that lack of connection.

Stevens himself is a magnificent character, at once so stiff upper lip that you wonder he doesn’t crack his toothbrushes and also sad and vulnerable. And this is an extraordinary book, with so much to give. A worthy winner of the Booker in any year, and still so readable.

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