A review of The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Reviewed by Magdalena Ball

The Remains of the Day
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Faber Modern Classics
ISBN: 9780571322732, 272pages, April 2015, RRP $aud12.99

One of the few downsides to being a book reviewer is that you don’t get many opportunities to read or re-read older classic books. Most of what comes through the door is newly released. So when a publisher like Faber releases new editions of classics like The Remains of the Day, it’s a great opportunity for reviewers like me to do just that. The new Faber Classics have now launched 16 titles that have remained popular with classics readers for at least 25 years, with the intention of coming out with 6 additional titles each year. The books are inexpensive and well-designed paperbacks with simple appealing covers that fit neatly in a handbag or on a bookshelf. Some of the classics also include extra material like introductions and supporting material. Nightwood by Djuna Barnes, for example, contains an introduction, almost as beautiful as the book (maybe more so) by Jeanette Winterson and also the original introduction by TS Eliot. Other books in the first wave of releases includes such well known texts as Arial by Sylvia Plath, Look Back in Anger by John Osborne, Self-Help by Lorrie Moore, and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. I chose Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning title because I haven’t read The Remains of the Day (nor have I see the well-lauded film, though I intend to now), and I’ve got a copy of Ishiguro’s latest novel The Buried Giant patiently awaiting my attention and wanted to read this one first. I wasn’t disappointed.

If you’re one of the few people who don’t know the plot of The Remains of the Day, the story takes place in 1956, and is told in first person by the Jeeves-like Stevens, who recounts a rare trip from Darlington Hall where he works, to the West Country, where he goes on a mini-holiday, ostensibly to entice Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper, back into his employ. Though very little happens in the present day narrative: Stevens travels to the West Country, runs out of fuel, meets with Miss Kenton, and returns home, all without incident, during the trip, he reflects on his years of service, his former employer Lord Darlington and the politics in which Darlington was involved. He also relives key moments in his relationship with Miss Kenton, and above all, on the nature of honour and what it means to live a dignified and worthwhile life:

The great butlers are great by virtue of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing.  They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstances tear it for him in the public gaze; he will discard it when, and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone.  (43-44)

Stevens himself seems to fully believes all he says as he progresses through his trip. Little by little he chips away at his own sense of self, journeying not just physically, but mentally as he progresses towards Devon. Always he speaks with a measured voice, and explores his past in a way that begins with a clinical self-justification:

I carried out my duties to the best of my abilities, indeed to a standard which many may consider ‘first-rate.’ It is hardly my fault is his lordship’s life and work have turned out today to look, at best, a sad waste-and it is quite illogical that I should feel any regret or shame on my own account. (201)

and ends with a clear self-indictment:

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 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? (256)

The novel is set between the two wars, WWI and WWII, and even at his most naive, Stevens is aware that his boss, Lord Darlington, is involved in a questionable way, supporting Germany, entertaining Nazis, and even going so far as to get Stevens to dismiss two Jewish maids on the grounds of their Judaism. Stevens does this without question, even though he clearly knows it is wrong, and even though Miss Kenton argues vehemently against it. This unquestionable loyalty to his employer is a character flaw that Stevens tries to justify in the name of dignity, but the reader is well aware that it isn’t acceptable to hand over moral responsibility to someone else, however well-heeled or titled they might be. Stevens formal style of speaking attempts at a kind of meticulous honesty, believing the pretence that Miss Kenton calls him out on is justified on grounds of his role as butler, but he is forced to face what he has done, not only to himself, but to Miss Kenton, his father (though he never does revisit that relationship), and to others who had come to care for him, and whose care was sacrificed to the meaningless ‘cause’ of butlerism.

There is enough of dramatic irony in the book to create a strong forward thrust to the plot. Long before Stevens realises it, the reader knows that he has come to love Miss Kenton. We are also aware, as much through our historical perspective as through the narrative itself, that Stevens’ admiration of Lord Darlington’s anti-semitic politics is morally wrong. So there’s relief when Stevens arrives at his epiphany. We want to forgive him, so painful is the sense that his whole life has been a sham and that he’s wasted his opportunities for love, for meaning, and for self-actualisation. It’s at this point that the notion of the ‘banter’ or small light talk, becomes focal. It represents the breakdown of the order to which Stevens has clung to for so long, because it isn’t ‘banter’ at all, but honest conversation that Stevens is missing. In a show of resilience, Stevens finishes the novel with plans for increasing his skills in bantering in the hopes that he can engage his new American employer, Mr Farraday, whose lack of awareness of the stringent class distinctions that made up Stevens’ world provides a mild kind of hopefulness – perhaps a route towards warmth and responsibility. Though there aren’t many hours left in Stevens’ day — indeed the time of unquestioning ‘dignity’ in service above love, family and true emotive response is long gone–The Remains of the Day nevertheless ends on a hopeful note.  This is a lovely, easy to read, and powerful book. The simplicity of its narrative belies a far deeper and more complex underlying truth, and this new Faber & Faber edition draws attention to how fresh and relevant the book remains to a modern audience.