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October 15, 2011 / Rachel Bednarski

Review: The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro

I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as if the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.

A simple, elegant story, and characteristically Ishiguro-ian, The Remains of the Day tells the tale of Mr. Stevens, the butler at the highly regarded Darlington Hall and his centrality at the fall of English aristocratic tradition. The novel’s present is formed through Stevens’s solo motoring trip across England towards the end of his career, which prompts his recalling of his life as a butler at the stately home of Darlington Hall and his tumultuous working relationship with the housekeeper, Miss Kenton.

Tenaciously dedicated to his job – which, as the master of Darlington is an important political figure at the time, he views as being key to the developments of post-First World War relations between England and Germany, ‘And you think that it was my good fortune to have had their ear on many great issues of the day, yes, when I think back, I do feel a certain gratitude. It’s a great privilege, after all, to have been given a part to play, however small, on the world’s stage.’ – even in his own private off-duty reminiscences Steven’s cannot relinquish his role as butler, even maintaining that the sentimental romance novels he reads alone are perused for duty’s sake in order to develop his command of the English language. Indeed, as the novel progresses its narrator is transformed from a character of upstanding nobility to one of pity as his misguided faithfulness to his servitude is revealed to have been in vain.
Yet Stevens fails to recognise, from his lofty position of self-placed grandeur, that far from occupying his perceived position at the centre of pre-Second World War politics, he has become insular and has never been anything more than domestic, whilst matters of historical significance have happened around him. Stevens has become emotionally stunted through his dedication to his role and his determination not to compromise on his own definition of dignity. One of the novel’s central themes follows the relationship between Stevens and Miss Kenton, and their unacknowledged feelings for one another. Stevens’s emotional unapproachability and his often overly-imperturbable attitude towards his colleague eventually prove fatal to their delicate relationship and Miss Kenton eventually seeks a husband elsewhere, leading to her resignation from Darlington Hall. More than twenty years later, Stevens assumes that a fleeting visit to Miss Kenton’s current residence in Weymouth will lead to reconciliation and a final relationship between the two. To be English about it – Stevens is really quite an arse. The reader is witness to his missed opportunities, particularly in regards to his relationship with Miss Kenton, and is constantly aware of the portentousness of Stevens’s resolute self-repression and his victimisation as a result. He never has the opportunity to become his own person.

A word that has sprung up in my mind during my three encounters with Ishiguro novels is ‘calm’. And in the case of The Remains of the Day the calm elegance of his prose perfectly reflects the austere British-ness that Stevens, embodies. He is a metaphor for English civility. The novel is a portrait of classic English reserve and Ishiguro’s understated prose serves in highlighting the tragedy of his protagonist’s tale.

Much of the story is provokingly ambiguous, but this is key to Ishiguro’s style – like real life, nothing is overt and his ideas are conveyed with subtlety, making them all the more powerful in their delivery. Ishiguro presents an astute commentary on British reserve as it is embodied in Mr Stevens. By far the most charming parts of the narrative are those which touch upon Stevens’s humorous grapples with the modern English custom of banter:

Embarrassing as these moments were for me, I would not wish to imply that I in any way blame Mr. Farraday, who is in no sense an unkind person; he was, I am sure, 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. Indeed, to put things into a proper perspective, I should point out that just such bantering on my new employer’s part has characterized much of our relationship over these months- though I must confess, I remain rather unsure as to how I should respond…I have been endeavouring to add this skill to my professional armoury so as to fulfil with confidence all Mr Faraday’s expectations with regards to bantering.

Whilst I didn’t find The Remains of the Day to be quite the masterpiece I had been led to expect by friends and reviews prior to my beginning it, and it certainly comes nowhere near matching Never Let Me Go in terms of story, characterisation and imagery, it is nonetheless an significant, beautifully crafted commentary on English custom and politics and one which is certainly deserving of its Booker Prize win.

Oh, and Antony Hopkins and Emma Thompson make the perfect Mr. Stevens and Miss Kenton in the film adaptation.

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2 Comments

Leave a Comment
  1. jakesturgess / Oct 21 2011 10:53 am

    I disagree it’s better than Never Let Me Go. Way more better. You’re just all about the sci-fi

    • blookblog / Oct 21 2011 11:07 am

      Well my argument was going to be that you haven’t read either of these books, but unfortunately you’ve read them both. Never Let Me Go is better. You prefer The Remains of the Day because you’re all about the upper classes. And banter.

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