Knopf/Everyman's Library, 2012
originally published 1989
The Remains of the Day was the reading choice for my IRL book group for January 2024. We'd read a couple of Ishiguro's novels prior to this one, starting with Never Let Me Go and more recently, Klara and the Sun, but of the three, The Remains of the Day is one that that most fully captured my heart, although a couple of our members found it to be on the level of snoozefest or not interesting because they couldn't relate to any of the characters. To each his/her own and all of that, but I loved this book.
The story is revealed via Mr. Stevens, butler at Darlington Hall where he has served faithfully for decades. It's the 1950s and the house has had a change of ownership from the original Lord Darlington to an American millionaire by the name of Farraday, who offers Stevens time off and the use of his car while Farraday is off to America. Stevens decides to accept the offer, having in mind a visit to the former housekeeper, a Miss Kenton (who is now Mrs. Benn), whose recent letter implies a failing marriage. Stevens, who notes that there is a problem with the staff plan, believes that if he can convince Miss Kenton to return to service at Darlington Hall, her presence will fix the problem and everything will be righted again. At least that's what he tells himself.
Each day of his road trip is spent recollecting his career while revealing things about himself in the process. At the forefront of his mind are the concepts of "dignity" and "greatness" :
"The great butlers are by great 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 off 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. It is, as I say, a matter of 'dignity'."
As the trip progresses, he also spends time reflecting on his former employer, who believed that "fair play had not been done at Versailles and that it was immoral to go on punishing a nation for a war that was now over." In 1923 Darlington had hosted an "unofficial international conference," examining ways in which "the harshest terms of the Versailles treaty could be revised." He brought together "a broad alliance of figures" who shared his beliefs as well as those who were concerned about the possibility of the "economic chaos" in Germany spreading worldwide. He continued his work on Germany's behalf throughout the interwar years, bringing Nazis to Darlington Hall, and at one point even ordering Stevens to dismiss two housemaids because they were Jewish, a "duty" which according to Stevens, "demanded to be carried out with dignity." As he at some later time notes, "A butler's duty is to provide good service. It is not to meddle in the great affairs of the nation." Through it all, Stevens believed that "Whatever complications arose in his lordship's course over subsequent years," he had acted out of a "desire to see justice in this world." In the postwar present, of course, Darlington had been outed as a dupe and a Nazi sympathizer, a fact reiterated to Stevens over the course of his travels; his reaction is that is is not his fault if "his lordship's life and work have turned out today to look, at best, a sad waste..." and that it is "quite illogical" for Stevens to "feel any regret or shame" on his own account. However, he makes a number of shifts in this thinking while on his journey. He has always taken great pride in, as noted above, conquering his feelings when "shaken" by "external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing," but as the book comes to its conclusion, he will end his journey with some painful realizations about his own life and exactly what price he has paid for his dutiful and faithful service over the decades.
I love the butler metaphor, and The Remains of the Day is one of those rare books that will stay with me always, largely due to Ishiguro's ability to make Stevens so incredibly human to the point where it's impossible not to find some measure of grief for the man. It reminds me more than a bit of his Artist of the Floating World, which is also set in a time frame of values shifts in which the main character takes a step back for reflection, a novel of both memory and tragedy. Both are beautifully written, but Remains of the Day edges out on top, although very slightly. Very highly, highly recommended.
February's book group read: Pyre, by Perumal Murugan.
I followed up my reading with the film from 1993. As always, it was a bit different from the novel (which I liked better) but so very nicely done, fleshing out much of Stevens' character and offering Miss Kenton more of a presence than the novel afforded her. When I asked my fellow book group members if they'd seen the movie, some of them had, years ago, and when I mentioned that I'd rented it for $4.00 on Amazon, I got the feeling from some of them that they felt maybe the $4.00 was not worth revisiting the novel as a film. Invisible, inner eyeroll -- their loss, not mine. I couldn't move away from my television while it was playing because it was so very, very good. I highly recommend it as well, but read the novel first, for sure.