I was elated on hearing the news that the British writer Kazuo Ishiguro won the 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature. I am one of those ‘old school’ readers who bemoan the dying art of formal and elegant writing which has been replaced by a more casual and conversational style in modern times. Ishiguro’s books are written in impeccable English. It is a pleasure to read his exquisitely worded prose. The Remains of the Day, winner of the 1989 Man Booker Prize, was the first book I read by him. I saw the Merchant Ivory film based on the book starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson before I read it and although the film was excellent, the novel simply took my breath away. Imagine my surprise then on learning that he wrote this perfectly crafted masterpiece in a feverish rush in four weeks! I would like to pen my thoughts on this moving story as a humble congratulatory tribute to this fine author.
Written in first person narration, this is the story of Stevens, an English butler employed in Darlington Hall and among the last of a vanishing breed, who sets out on a motoring journey in the year 1956 to the West Country on the suggestion of his American employer, Mr. Farraday. Darlington House previously belonged to Stevens’ former employer, the now deceased Lord Darlington. The purpose of the journey is ostensibly to meet with Miss Kenton, now Mrs. Benn, a former housekeeper who had left the manor house twenty years ago on getting married and to propose that she rejoin the understaffed establishment. Stevens had earlier received a letter from her that hinted of an estrangement from her husband and of her wish to return as an employee.
The journey is both an outward and inward one for it also becomes a journey into the past. As he travels, he reflects on his time of service at Darlington Hall and recalls the dinner parties and the distinguished guests who frequented the great house of the era. The narrative is recounted in a stream of consciousness style in flash back form interspersed with moments from the present. He reminisces about his father, the butlers in other prominent houses, his loyalty to Lord Darlington and his relationship with Miss Kenton with whom he had many childish skirmishes.
But the truth is that he harbored romantic feelings for the housekeeper which he was unable to express even to himself let alone to her. For Stevens was so devoted to duty and decorum that serving his master was the primary objective of his life. And in his extreme dedication to service and obsequious subservience to his master, he denied his own feelings and consequently lost his only chance at love. He prides himself on his stoic dignity but this dignity doesn’t allow him to show the slightest bit of vulnerability even on the death of his father to which he reacts impassively.
Stephens is an unreliable narrator. We learn a lot more from what he conceals than from what he reveals. It is through the reactions of the other characters that we get an insight into the events. For instance we learn that Lord Darlington was used as a pawn by the Nazis and was labeled a Nazi sympathizer after World War II. Stevens once went as far as dismissing two Jewish maids on the urging of his master. He is aware that what he did was morally wrong and Miss Kenton even called him out for it but he justified his action in the name of dignity. What does Stevens do when he realizes in retrospect that he may have unwittingly trusted a man who had made grave mistakes? His entire self-worth came from serving a ‘great gentleman’ and to question Lord Darlington’s motives would shatter his self-image and render the purpose of his life meaningless as it would be tantamount to admitting that he in some way participated in the bigotry. With the constant dissimulation and the rationalization that follows, he exhibits a classic case of what the French existentialist Sartre referred to as “la mauvaise foi’’ or bad faith.
There is an interesting passage where the narrator describes the English countryside: “What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, its own greatness, and feels no need to show it.” Stevens’ emotions are as controlled as the land around him and Ishiguro’s writing itself displays an understated elegance akin to the countryside. Stevens can barely understand himself but Ishiguro is able to peel the façade and make the readers discern the unfelt and the unsaid. An interesting device employed by Ishiguro is the use of the pronoun ‘one’ by Stevens which creates a distance as opposed to the more personal “I”.
“Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding.”
Although Stevens is a tragic character, the book starts off as a delightful comedy of manners- the fastidious anachronistic butler who was once entrusted with the task of talking about the birds and the bees to Lord Darlington’s godson is now disconcerted by his American employer who has a penchant for bantering- and it evolves gradually into a poignant story of loss and regret. As Stevens reminisces, here and there glimpses of truth emerge leading to the climax when the mask slips a little as he faces the truth that he has been trying to avoid and reflects on the remains of the day. And when Stevens remembers the moment when Miss Kenton confessed to him that she wanted to marry him, he cries out in a moment of lucidity: “ Indeed- why should I not admit it?- in that moment my heart was breaking.” And in that moment, my heart broke for Stevens and for what could have been and never was and never will be and I was reduced to tears. It broke for Miss Kenton too and her frustrated attempts to reach out to Stevens on several occasions.
Miss Kenton however lives with more authenticity and integrity than Stevens and has her family life to look forward to. But Stevens is the more pitiable character- a man so stunted emotionally that he doesn’t know who he is under the carefully cultivated layers of decorum and propriety – sort of like the silver he so meticulously polishes till it is shiny and sparkling with no trace of tarnish . Dignity may be a lofty ideal but it also encompasses sacrifice as he realizes in one heartbreaking moment of admission when his raw emotions come gushing out:
“Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. . . . He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted that I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?”
All along while reading, I had the urge to grab Stevens by his stiff collar and shake him out of his self-deception but when he finally showed his human and vulnerable side, I broke down along with him.
The clever title of the novel suggested by a friend of Ishiguro’s refers to the concept of Freud’s Tagesreste ( day’s residues)- memories awakening to bring to consciousness the residual debris or the repressed matter which would otherwise remain unconscious. The remains of the day could mean assessing what remains of your life after examining the past- the despair of a life not lived fully but it could also imply looking forward to the future to decide how you want to live the remainder of your life.
This story evokes a certain milieu in England with its class dynamics of the “upstairs” and the “downstairs” and it is as much the story of a changing England through the inter-war and post war years , the last days of Empire and the rise of America, as it of the private epiphany of Stevens. In fact through the quintessentially English butler, Ishiguro has captured the universal experience- who among us hasn’t wondered if the road not taken would have led to more happiness and fulfillment?
Congratulations to Mr. Ishiguro on this well-deserved award! Although I’m happy that such a prestigious honor has been bestowed on him, the award is secondary. Nobel Prize or not, I’ll always admire him for his amazing creativity and talent. He has been blessed with the gift of writing and his writing, in turn, is a gift to our world.
*Cover Photo: By Source, Fair use, https://en.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4568066