I had heard such rave reviews about this novel by the Nobel Prize winner, that I had to try it myself. Here is the blurb, my review follows.
“Here is Kazuo Ishiguro’s profoundly compelling portrait of Stevens, the perfect butler, and of his fading, insular world in post-World War II England. Stevens, at the end of three decades of service at Darlington Hall, spending a day on a country drive, embarks as well on a journey through the past in an effort to reassure himself that he has served humanity by serving the “great gentleman,” Lord Darlington. But lurking in his memory are doubts about the true nature of Lord Darlington’s “greatness,” and much graver doubts about the nature of his own life.”
From Penguin Random House
After hearing all the praise for The Remains of the Day (a Booker Prize winner), one may be surprised to enter the book and be greeted by the stiff, restrained language of a lonely butler. No spectacular prose, no display of grandiose style. Instead, the precision of a controlled language, the paradox of gracious formality. And as we follow Stevens in a journey across the English country side and down the memory lane, portraits slowly emerge.
A portrait of England between and after the wars : the ambience among the gentry, the daily keeping of the aristocratic houses, the tensions between the allies after the first war, and how the political unrest in Germany sent waves of trouble to England; all this rendered through colourful vignettes.
“The great butlers are great by their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost.[…] 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. [..]It is, as I say, a matter of ‘dignity'”
And even more subtly, the portrait of Mr. Stevens, our butler. Through his recollections of the past, his musing about the meaning of his job, and his memories of Miss Kenton, we come to grasp the extent to which his professional occupation became his whole personality, how during more than thirty years of service, he put personal judgement and fulfilment aside and sought only to accomplish his duties to the best of his abilities.
“Why, Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?”
Devoted, loyal Stevens, who seems unable to shed the butler skin and expose his inner self. A whole life in the corset of this restraint dignity he sought to perfect. Stilted Stevens, who, held back by conventions and the call of duty, is unable to express his feelings and take a chance on love. Lonely Stevens who lets true love slip through his fingers.
“But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such a moment turned out differently? One could presumably drive oneself to distraction in this way”
And then, at the evening of his life, he is forced to watch as cracks appear in his swift efficiency armour. We observe as he first struggles with them, forcefully refusing to acknowledge the faults in this life of perfect devotion. A slow, tamed tension builds until the sudden eruption of the painful confession.
“Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made is own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted.[..] I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?”
Was it worth it? Did the quest for this professional “dignity” outweight the necessity of a personal life and ethics ? What could have been? Does life still have something new to offer? Soon enough though, flickers of hope are dashed, and the aging butler puts his crackled armour on again , slips his lustered shoes on, and, regrets and pain aside, reembarks on his quest for perfection in his job.
“What is pertinent is the calmness of beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.”
Did Ishiguro realise when he wrote this passage, how accurately it described his own work? Was it a conscious ambition? Because there is greatness in this delicate portrayal of a life of missed opportunities, greatness in this restrained yet vivid language. And as you turn the last page of this monologue, you wonder when exactly this lump in your throat appeared, when your chest started to throb, when Stevens grew on you that much, at what moment this intimate yet formal recollection pierced your heart and left you with an unshakable melancholy, a sense of devastation.
“Indeed – why should I not admit it? – at that moment, my heart was breaking.”
Conclusion: a masterpiece. Storytelling at its finest. Not too much words, no boasting. Just quiet, humble perfection, subtle beauty.
Want to read this beauty? You can buy it here.