My rating: 4 of 5 stars
The back of my copy of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day uses phrases like “elegant,” “cruel,” and “quietly devastating” to describe this slender volume. This was another book read on the recommendation of my sister, and neither she nor the cover blurbs lied. I found the work to be a nearly flawless study of the life and reflections of a figure that has been often parodied but seldom understood– the English butler, living out a long and possibly futile career of service to a grand manor house in the first half of the twentieth century.
My readings lately have been orbiting around the First World War. I read Logicomix not long ago and was struck by the role that the War played and realized how little I knew of the history of the conflict. Logicomix led me to Wittgenstein’s biography, in which the War was the backdrop to the dissolution of the philosopher’s native culture and empire. Right now I’m about halfway through Keegan’s excellent one-volume treatment of the First World War, and I was not surprised to again find the War haunting the pages of Ishiguro’s work, its repercussions echoing down the halls of the house to which Ishiguro’s protagonist, Mr Stevens, devotes the prime years of his career.
The Remains of the Day is a novel about reflections, reminding me in many ways of Gene Wolfe’s Peace, one of my all-time favorite novels. As far as actual action and plot, not much happens on the surface: a butler, Mr Stevens, who has spend his career as the head butler of Darlington House in the service of Lord Darlington, finds himself in the evening of his life (this is where the title comes from) reflecting on his years of service as he takes a motoring trip across southwest England to renew an old acquaintance. The larger themes come out only slowly, as Stevens’ interior monologue takes him back and forth between reflections on the countryside and villages he is passing through and his own memories of past years at Darlington House.
You learn several things right away. The first is that Stevens defines himself in terms of “dignity”– a quiet, steady service to a worthy lord. We meet Stevens’ father in his recollections and see how this shaped his upbringing, and we get hints of the sort of international policies that were hammered out in unofficial meetings between great personages coming together at Darlington House. This is where the echoes of the Great War make themselves felt: Lord Darlington and his allies feel the terms of the Treaty of Versailles deals too harshly with the German people and want to preserve international peace by mitigating some of the more draconian strictures.
Stevens explains his view of the world at one point: To us the world was a wheel, revolving with these great houses at the hub, their mighty decisions emanating out to all else, rich and poor, who revolved around them.
As the novel progresses, Stevens is forced to acknowledge the ultimate failure– and indeed the sinister advantages made– of Lord Darlington’s naive idealism. What is more difficult though, is his slow realization of the costs his years of service have had on his own life. It is in this slow, subtle realization that Ishiguro’s writing truly excels. Stevens’ self-reflection, his recollected narratives, are couched entirely in painfully reserved– at times almost Asberger-like in its emotional detachment– preoccupations with proper decorum, dignity, and service. His attempts to reflect on his own feelings, such as those associated with his father’s death and his own unrequited love, are painfully stymied and round-about.
In many passages I found myself reminded of nothing more than Data from Star Trek: the Next Generation trying to understand certain difficult human emotions or expression. Stevens admits that a truly great butler– and for all his humility it is clear that he believes himself to be one by dint of doing good work at a great house– wears a persona he must never remove, and even in his own self-reflections, in the monologue within his mind, we see this persona so carefully constructed that he is unable to escape from it, even at the cost of his relationships with others.
This makes Stevens himself an unreliable narrator, something that again reminds me of Wolfe. It’s not that Stevens tells outright lies, but he either cannot reveal or cannot even perceive emotional nuances that would be obvious to anyone else. Because of this we don’t, for instance, ever learn the true extent of Stevens attachment to the acquaintance he is traveling to see or what their past relationship may have entailed– not because Stevens is covering it up, but because to speak of such things would be irrelevant or unseemly. He doesn’t give us his own emotional state; we’re left to learn of how he is feeling at particular times by the interactions he has with others and the questions they ask him. What we have, always, is the consummate butler.
I don’t know what Ishiguro knew of this world, nor do I know how much a story like this was a model for things like Downton Abbey today. But it seems to me he got a lot right about people who give themselves up entirely to a certain cause or perceived ideal and what happens when one is forced to live up to the fact that loyalty may have been misplaced or– even worse– ultimately futile.
If I have a single complaint about this novel, it’s because I’m partial to fantasies in which the house itself is part of the story. The quote by Stevens above puts me in mind of places like the Professor’s house in The Chronicles of Narnia or Evenmere of The High House. In this novel, Darlington House is never anything more than the background. We don’t see much of its character. We don’t really get any sense at all about what it looks like or its moods or atmosphere. Perhaps this is intentional: for Stevens, it is simply a workplace to be managed with a quiet and ceaseless efficiency. It also means that Darlington House has the strength of non-specificity; imagine any large, stately English manor house: that is Darlington House.
Like every story, The Remains of the Day is a love story at its core, but it is a buried love story. It is a love story of carefully spoken courtesies in which the shape of things unsaid only slowly become apparent. It is a romance of averted glances and missed opportunities, all the more tragic because the hero only slowly has any awareness that they have been missed. The ending, for all its soft cruelty, was satisfying, if not unexpected. This is not a book about storms or sudden, swift changes. It is a book about an evening– of an age as well as a life– about the slow fading of light and the reflections that long English evenings in the countryside entail.