Book #63

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

In the summer of 1956, Stevens, a long-serving butler at Darlington Hall, decides to take a motoring trip through the West Country. The six-day excursion becomes a journey into the past of Stevens and England, a past that takes in fascism, two world wars, and an unrealised love between the butler and his housekeeper. 

Oh, Stevens. You broke my heart, and you broke your own. Your unending loyalties, your irrevocable insistence to wear a constant mask, your irrepressible need to adapt your own behaviours and personality to fit whichever esteemed person you’re conversing with; all of these stubborn requirements you set for yourself have contributed to such a sad picture of life.

You embody everything we know a butler to be; unwavering, stoic, able to conjure anything from thin air according to the needs of your lord or his guests. But this monolithic dedication has hardened you to joy, to your own needs, and to your own grasping of life. Such a sad and lonely existence, and yet you refuse to be deterred, despite your realisations.

Ishiguro has explored this life to an impressive depth, yet one which isn’t immediately obvious. We meet Stevens as he begins to embark on a journey through England in his master’s car, a permission granted kindly by the master himself. Throughout his travels, we plunge with him into his memories, and come back to the present to witness his current adventures. He gives us little of himself, ensuring his recollections are complimentary to both himself and his previous employer, creating both an unreliability and an understanding of his loyalty and self-oppression.

There’s so much commentary here on class distinctions, the dangers of pride, the importance of building a distinguished career balanced against the necessities of a joyful personal life. I was so moved by how truly sad this all is; that someone can place such high value on their career that their life and relationships suffer as a result, that someone can wear so many different disguises in order to please others that they no longer know who they are without a disguise. Stevens is such a pitiable character, and yet I loved him.

This is an emotional novel, so elegantly crafted, and utterly impossible to describe. It’s an experience, an awakening, and a wonderful, woeful warning.

“But then, I suppose, when with the benefit of hindsight one begins to search one's past for such 'turning points', one is apt to start seeing them everywhere.”