On Reading The Remains of the Day

I read this book during my short-lived obsession with Downton Abbey (abandoned due to lack of time, make no mistake, it is an excellent series). The only book by Ishiguro I’d read before this was The Unconsoled, which was a confusing read that I didn’t finish, so I was a little apprehensive at the start.

This is the story of a butler, Stevens, and his experiences working at Darlington Hall for his old employer Lord Darlington and his new American employer Mr Farraday. Stevens goes on a road trip, of sorts, across England to meet an old colleague, the ex-housekeeper of Darlington Hall, Miss Kenton.

The subtlety of Ishiguro’s writing was very appealing. A friend and I were especially enamoured with how he described the English landscape:

The English landscape at its finest – such as I saw this morning – possesses a quality that the landscapes of other nations, however more superficially dramatic, inevitably fail to possess. It is, I believe, a quality that will mark out the English landscape to any objective observer as the most deeply satisfying in the world, and this quality is probably best summed up by the term ‘greatness.’

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 though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.

One could say the very same thing about Ishiguro’s prose. The narrative is carried out with a sense of restraint, a politeness and a sort of blandness; or what we would expect from a good butler like Stevens.

The book is also centred on the lofty ideals of “dignity” and “greatness”. Stevens mulls over what makes a truly “great butler”, and one of his criteria is the need for “dignity”. But what is “dignity”? He also goes on about how a good butler stays in form and only truly slips out of form when he is completely alone.

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?

The importance of helping great men with their work is also central to Steven’s philosophy. He reflects on his years serving Lord Darlington, one of these “great men” and can’t help but question the “greatness” of his master. He doesn’t bring it up but the biggest questions underlying all of his reflections: Have I wasted my life as a butler, if I did not serve a great man? Have I wasted my life on this ideal of “greatness”? Was it all self-delusion? And: What could have been? (or what we now know as the midlife crisis)

Indeed — why should I not admit it? — in that moment, my heart was breaking.

The story was heartwrenching in its own way. I’ve spent a lot of time reading historicals and one never thinks about the butler. The grand lords and beautiful ladies are the main attraction, while the butler is this stodgy, dignified servant keeping their lives in order. But the butler does think, he does have a life apart from serving his master. At what point does his duty end and his own conscience and yes, dignity come to the fore? Should he serve and obey or question and follow his own morals and beliefs?

The book also touches on a far larger issue, whether the common man can be trusted to make decisions for himself and for the world, or if it should be left to men better informed,  i.e. the nobles. Ishiguro explores class differences and human dignity, with a great deal of subtlety.

What can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services. What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.

TROD made me examine my pre-conceived notions of duty, dignity and the noble ideals man creates. Perhaps we might look to Mr Ishiguro himself for some insight. From the excellent New York Times review by Lawrence Graver:

In his first two novels, Mr. Ishiguro evoked a Japan struggling to rebuild and come to terms with a tarnished past. In ”The Remains of the Day,” he turns his eye on another myth-shrouded society, that of Britain in the last days of empire. Although each of his novels is set at an important historical moment, Mr. Ishiguro says he is more interested in examining the way people, and by extension societies, come to face truths about themselves.

Mr. Ishiguro said in a telephone interview from his home outside London that he tended to focus on elderly characters out of his own concern about how members of his generation would account for themselves in the years to come.

”I’m still a relatively young writer,” said Mr. Ishiguro, who was born in 1954, ”and I tend to write out of a projected fear of what would happen. To combat complacency, I suppose I’m always trying to remind myself in my writing that while we may be very pleased with ourselves, we may look back with a different perspective, and see we may have acted out of cowardice and failure of vision.

”What I’m interested in is not the actual fact that my characters have done things they later regret,” Mr. Ishiguro said. ”I’m interested in how they come to terms with it. On the one hand there is a need for honesty, on the other hand a need to deceive themselves – to preserve a sense of dignity, some sort of self-respect. What I want to suggest is that some sort of dignity and self-respect does come from that sort of honesty.”

Side note: Recently I have started making my way through The Elegance of the Hedgehog, and I thought what a perfect juxtaposition it made to TROD.

[This is a repost of an earlier review from my tumblr.]

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