This ‘modern classic’ was first published in 1989, and won the Booker Prize that year. While I had heard of the novel, I had never read it; I was further motivated to read it as a Booker Prize winner and by the author being a Japanese writer I didn’t know.
Kazou Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, Japan in 1954 and moved to the UK at the age of five. He has written six novels, all of which have won prizes or received major recognition. He currently lives in London with his wife and daughter.
The novel is told in the first person by Stevens, who was the butler in Darlington Hall, which was the residence of Lord Darlington in the 1930’s. Darlington Hall was a grand place, with many servants, Stevens having overall responsibility. Lord Darlington was a man of considerable wealth and influence, both socially and politically. He died after the war, and Darlington Hall was sold to an American, Mr Faraday, who has downsized both the staff and the use of the Hall.
Much of the book is Stevens’ recollections of events that took place when his lordship was in residence, and we learn that Stevens is preoccupied with the extent to which he was (like his father) a top butler. Stevens comes to define a top butler as a true professional who carries great dignity to his profession. The descriptions of relationships (and dialogue) among staff and with the lord of the manor are brilliant: they convey clearly the culture of the English aristocracy in the 20’s and 30’s.
Mr Faraday plans to be in the States for an extended period, and he suggests to Stevens that he take the motorcar on a sightseeing trip. Stevens accepts his offer and coincidently decides to call on a Miss Kenton who was the one who supervised all the housemaids at Darlington Hall. Miss Kenton left the Hall years ago, and has married. Now, Stevens wonders whether he can persuade her to return to the Hall, as there are hints that her marriage is in difficulty. The working relationship between Stevens and Kenton was very formal, but one cannot help but wonder if there is an unacknowledged attraction between them. In the last chapter, they meet again, and the message of the novel is revealed: Stevens muses: “After all, what can we ever gain forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?”
The novel moves at a very leisurely pace, with very little action. Major events are recounted by Stevens factually and without emotion. The characters, the setting and the story-telling all completely support that retrospective, self-doubting theme. In spite of Stevens’ wordiness, his character shines through in a way that he is able to maintain the reader’s attention.
If one is looking for tale with plenty of action and excitement, The Remains of the Day would not be a good choice. But if one would like to curl up with a superbly-written story, immersed in history, and long-forgotten characters, a story that succeeds admirably in making its point, then Remains is for you.
As a sort of aside, I would add that the criteria for winning the Booker Prize may have shifted over the last twenty-five years. It’s hard to imagine that a novel with little overt physical or emotional action could win, given the level of current competition.