Sunday, October 25, 2009

The remains of the day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The last few days, I have been enthralled by Ishiguro's beautiful haunting elegy for lost love and mistaken causes. Surely one of my best reading experiences of the year !

Meet James Stevens, or rather Mister Stevens, imperturbable butler of the Darlington Halls. We are in 1956 and Mister Stevens has embarked on a motoring trip trough the English countryside “en route” to meet Mrs. Kenton, a former colleague he hasn’t seen for twenty years. On his expedition, Mr. Stevens, now in the fall of his life, is remembering his years at the service of Lord Darlington, to whom he has devoted his whole life.

Stevens takes a lot of professional pride in his job and has always strived to be a “Great Butler” but he acknowledges that this “greatness” is very difficult to define. Two characteristics seem predominant: to posses a dignity in keeping with the position and to be attached to a distinguished household. To help us to better understand the attitude and the role of a great butler, Stevens tells us a few anecdotes of this refined dignity, especially when applied under stressful situations as exemplified by some great butlers and by his own father (who works for the same household).

As the book and the butler’s introspection progress, together with Stevens we understand that he too has attained this Dignity, but it has come at a price. His devotion to his Lord and his attempt to attain that rare aura of dignity has come at the expense of his own emotions, of his own feelings. It has made him loose his individuality, even his humanity. It has become impossible for him to live a fulfilling emotional life. Stevens still does have feelings but cannot bring himself to express them about personal matters, as expressing such emotions would compromise his dignity. His feelings are hidden so deep that they cannot resurface again, even when his beloved and admired father dies, even when the love of his life reaches out to him. Stevens is aware he has failed grossly in his personal life through his devotion of Lord Darlington.
But also in the second characteristic of a great butler, “to be attached to a distinguished household”, Stevens has been let down by his master. The great Lord Darlington has fallen in disgrace after the War. Darlington, whose character has been inspired by the real Lord Londonderry , has indeed, in the years before 39, tried to build bridges between the English establishment and the Nazi regime. When the true face of the enemy becomes clear during and especially after the war, Darlington reputation, because of his pro-German stance, is thoroughly destroyed.

Stevens has finally a meeting with Mrs. Kenton who is now married and a soon to be grandmother and he understands she will not come back to Darlington Hall. Mrs. Kenton admits to occasionally wondering what her life with Stevens might have been like. Stevens is fully aware of her feelings, but fails to reciprocate. It is not only the constraints of his social situation, but also his own emotional maturity (or immaturity) that holds him back. During their time spent at Darlington Hall, Stevens chose to maintain a sense of dignity, as opposed to searching and discovering the feelings that existed between him and Miss Kenton.

Stevens understands that he has missed true opportunities and is left behind to collect the remains of his unfulfilled life.

This superb book, makes one think about and evaluate our life and career. Maybe we have still time to correct some errors before we too collect the remains of the day.

The Remains of the Day (1989) is the third published novel by Japanese-British author Kazuo Ishiguro. The Remains of The Day is one of the most highly-regarded post-war British novels. It won the Booker Prize in 1989 for Best Fiction, and was later adapted into an Academy-Award nominated film, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. The novel ranks in the Sunday Times list of 100 greatest novels.