Friday, February 2, 2018

Classic Fiction: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

I decided it was time to read the 1989 Man Booker Prize winning The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro, who was also awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017. This is not my first exposure to Ishiguro as I have read both Never Let Me Go and The Buried Giant, but this is perhaps the book he is best known for, so I looked forward to exploring it.

The Situation: Stevens, an English butler who has loyally served at Darlington Hall for three decades, has decided to take a road trip of sorts to see an old friend and coworker, Miss Benton. Upon the death of Stevens' previous employer, Lord Darlington, Darlington Hall has been sold, and now bought, by an American gentleman named Mr. Farraday who has kept Stevens on, as well as any of the other staff who wished to stay. It is at Mr. Farraday's suggestion that Stevens has decided to take this trip, as he was hardly ever one to take a day off for any reason. It is during this trip that he will reflect not only on the sights, villages, and people he will come to meet on his journey, but also his life of service to Darlington Hall, and more specifically, Lord Darlington himself.

The Problem: Ultimately, Stevens is simply a man who works very hard, who decides to take advantage of a brief period of time when his employer will be away to take a drive to meet up with the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall, and perhaps even persuade her to rejoin the staff as the present staff has found themselves a bit overstretched as of late. However, such a drive seems to allow him time to reflect honestly on his previous employer and some of the events the occurred after World War I and before World War II. The more Stevens remembers, the more he finds himself defending his unwavering service and loyalty to a man whose reputation seems to have declined sharply since he was at the height of his influence. The more the butler remembers, the more he is forced to acknowledge that Lord Darlington may not have been a man so deserving of his life's attention.

Genre, Themes, History: The is a fiction novel set in post-WWII England, but often reflects back to Stevens' days of service before the second world war took place. One theme that Stevens finds himself exploring throughout the novel is that of dignity and the various definitions that can be given for the word, including his own. It seems that Stevens' brand of dignity means carrying out his tasks as a butler at all costs to himself and his own desires, even if that means family members in crisis are ignored when a guest of Lord Darlington's must be attended to. Stevens is also insistent on carrying out his duties to his employer even when he makes less than favorable alliances with certain political figures and organizations. For one, Stevens feels like Lord Darlington's political actions are none of his business, and two, despite how people talk about him after the war, Stevens is still insistent on defending his former employer's honor. What is interesting is as the novel unfolds, Steven remembers more details, or perhaps simply allows himself to, while also coming closer to meeting up again with a woman with whom he had peculiar, though strictly professional relationship.

My Verdict: Though I loved Never Let Me Go, Remains of the Day may be the best book for those looking for an easy introduction into Ishiguro's work. It's short (less than 300 pages), and easy to follow, even as Stevens moves back and forth through time, remembering stories about his time in Darlington Hall. Stevens himself may be a bit frustrating, but that is more than likely the point as the man is so dedicated and so unwavering in his duties that he lets nothing, and I mean nothing, get in the way of him being an excellent butler. Ishiguro masterfully handles how everything is revealed, as nothing feels rushed, or out of place, or left unsolved. 

Favorite Moment: Hard to say really. There are many nice small moments in the book, but so much of it is Stevens attempting to convince himself that he has spent his life well in the service of a noble man, when it slowly becomes evident that may not be the case. The revelations are small, but slow-coming, and Stevens is not one to get worked up about them.  

Favorite Character: Young Mr. Cardinal has a small presence in the book, but he proves to be someone who also cares for Lord Darlington much like Stevens does, but is not content to sit idly by while the man is taken advantage of.

Recommended Reading: Never Let Me Go is also a great example of Ishiguro's masterful storytelling.      

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