Thursday, February 11, 2010

The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro's 2005 novel Never Let Me Go was one of my favourite books that I read last year. It was with great anticipation that I saw Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day on the Booker Prize list. It was my duty, if you'll pardon the joke, to read this work. Now that I have, let's take a look.

It's 1956 and Stevens, the butler at the famous Darlington Hall, has been given a week's holiday and permission to use the classic Ford to drive around. He intends to see Miss Kenton, a former co-worker from the good old day, and he will try to lure her back to the manor as he needs staff. Throughout his drive, Stevens revisits the memories of these happy days in which his employer, Lord Darlington held conferences to fix the situation in Germany post-WW1, and when Stevens and Kenton had such a great working relationship.

If this isn't one of the most English novels I've ever read, I'm not sure what is. Essentially this is a love story between a butler and a housemaid who are so repressed and so into their jobs that nothing ever comes of it. Every character seems to be completely oblivious to each other, and when there is a moment where the mask slips, the old proper way of doing things takes hold, stifling any real emotion or intimacy.

There are countless examples of this in The Remains of the Day, and probably one of the best examples is when Stevens' father dies. During an extremely important gathering, maybe the biggest for Darlington Hall, Stevens Sr, a footman underneath his son, suffers a stroke and is confined to his bed. He is going to die and he knows it. Stevens the younger, while attending to this great conference, full of important policy-makers, cannot find it in himself to be excused from these proceedings. He must always be on-duty. Being a butler is not a role, he keeps reminding the reader, but is a state of being. When he does go see his dying father, Stevens Sr's mask falls away and he wonders aloud if he's been a good father. The younger Stevens politely laughs and asks if he's feeling any better. There is no moment of tenderness or intimacy or reality for Stevens. All that exists is his duty.

The images and metaphors in this novel are an absolute delight and Ishiguro's construction is impeccable. The job for Stevens is his all, is Ishiguro's objective correlative. One of Ishiguro's common features in his novel is the first person narrator, who by definition, is unreliable. The reader must be an active one, attempting to read between what Stevens is telling us.

Stevens' pretext for visiting Miss Kenton is one of professional reasons. The reader knows that it's just a pretext. Stevens misses Miss Kenton quite a bit, and this is evidenced by Stevens re-reading her letter over and over and over, going through it line by line. It's this type of subtlety that lends the novel its excellence.

There is a lot happening in this novel and very worthy of closer inspection. I said a couple posts ago that I measure a novel by how well it could be taught, how much could be teased out. There is no doubt in my mind that The Remains of the Day would be an excellent novel on a course devoted to English literature.

The Remains of the Day is a fascinating complex character study of an archetype, and a character study of Great Britain of the time between the two World Wars. This is as English as it comes, and it is a terrific read. I heartily recommend this novel to all. It is definitely worthy of the Booker Prize.

Next up on my reading table is Wallace Stegner's National Book Award-winning The Spectator Bird, E. M. Forster's Howards End, and Booker Prize-winning The Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively. Check back for reviews and thanks for reading.

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