Friday, March 15, 2013

The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro

I know I spent my last post regaling the niceties of an easy read.  I do not intend to recant any of that.  However, no easy read will ever come close to capturing my love the way a book with depth does.  Case in point: The Remains of the Day.  Now, I have not always had an appreciation for these types of work.  In fact, I read Remains in high school for my AP Literature course and did not enjoy it.  I found it boring and, frankly, did not get it.  Oh how tastes change.

Remains, written by Kazuo Ishiguro, follows an English butler, Stevens, as he reflects on his long career at Darlington Hall.  Ishiguro uses a several day road trip to allow Stevens the time to think back on his years in service.  Stevens, who serves not only as butler but also the narrator of the story, spends a good deal of time pondering the qualities which make a good butler.  As he contemplates various aspects of the role, he hearkens back to various stories and experiences from over the years at Darlington.

It is easy to understand why I found this book boring in high school.  The plot moves very slowly and nearly all of the story telling is in Stevens' recalled memories.  Stevens is a stately figure, highly concerned with dignity and what is proper.  These inclinations affect his voice as a story teller.  He maintains a formal tone and the reader really must see beyond his words to understand the true story.  This is why I did not understand the book as a teenager.  Stevens, on the surface, tells a series of anecdotal stories about being a butler and takes a drive through the countryside.  Beneath that, however, you see a man who is seeking validation for the life choices he has made.  You cannot read this book without giving it your full attention and still see its beauty.  Isiguro's mastery of language and character is stunning.

Perhaps I should give Downton Abbey some credit as another reason I enjoyed this book so much more on this, my second reading.  In high school, I had little mental imagery for an English butler; now, however, I saw dear old Carson taking this journey along the English country roads.  To read Stevens' voice as Carson's did, no doubt, help me in some ways to connect to it better and to see his perspective.  And how can anyone not love Carson?  Stevens can be cold and mechanical at times; Carson can be as well, but his impersonal qualities are always balanced by his tender heart.  I believe Stevens has such a heart as well, but it is buried so far under his quest for dignity that even he struggles to locate it.  This is evident at the end of the novel when Miss Kenton, who he was traveling to meet, turns out not to be interested in returning to Darlington and instead is returning to her husband.  The realization does not seem to phase Stevens superficially, but the astute reader sees him once again floundering in his search for meaning as he returns to Darlington and the quest to master bantering with his employer.

Remains also served as a reminder to me of just how American I am in my thinking.  Stevens describes classic British upper class thinking when he recounts conversations with the long-time master of Darlington.  The ideals of this breed are a far cry from what we take for granted in America (I suppose this makes sense since we did split with the Brits two hundred years ago and have been trying to encourage independent thinking ever since). The largest difference which stood out to me centered around equality.  In America, we value equality nearly to a vault.  We believe as a culture that every voice needs be heard and every person deserves an equal opportunity.  Ideals expressed by the wealthy nobles in Remains, however, see value in separation of the classes and genders.  The men talk about how foolish it would be to do away with a ruling class for the rest of the people would never have the education or ability to handle international or domestic crises the way the lords have for centuries.  It certainly is a big cultural break in thinking and caused a lot of thinking of my own.  While America is not completely classless, our society is unique in the ability of its citizens to overcome the socioeconomic status they were born into and become whatever they dream to be.  On the flip side, Stevens also describes some thoughts which are exquisitely British in their nature.  For instance, in describing a countryside view he points out that it is its simplicity which makes it beautiful ("What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint.").  As a self-diagnosed Anglophile, I love the charm of not only this perspective. but all of the quintessentially British things Stevens says and does.

Stevens' stories, though they can appear to be meaningless, are his way of reflecting on the meaning of his life and career.  Near the beginning of the novel, Stevens says, "My father's generation was not one accustomed to discussing and analysing in the way ours is and I believe the telling and retelling of this story was as close as my father ever came to reflecting critically on the profession he practised." What he does not realize is that he does the same through his stories.  It makes me wonder; how do modern workers process?  Do we over-analyze our career paths to the point where we cannot stick with one long-term?  Certainly fewer and fewer people have the lifelong dedication to one profession the way Stevens and his father did.  My generation is expected to change careers up to eleven times throughout our working lives.  Then again, perhaps our career disloyalty is due to the fact that we are not seeking our identity in our work.  Stevens sacrificed all semblance of a personal life to achieve professional perfection; this decision is amplified at the end when Miss Kenton opts not to return to a life in service, but to her family.

Ishiguro's work, if read properly, leaves the reader with much to think about.  I find myself grateful to have love in my life and a family I care deeply for.  However, I still am searching for the professional meaning Stevens had.  And not just meaning, but work for which I have a passion.  Is it possible to truly have both?

Have you reread books you did not enjoy in high school?  How did the experience turn out for you?  Were they better or worse than you remember?

Pages: 245
Date Completed: February 28, 2013


  1. I'm so happy I read it when I was ready for it.

    I probably should go back to all those books I read at school and I hated (or disliked at best). I would probably love them now.

    In Poland the literature is taught chronologically, so in high school you start with the Bible, various mythologies, then Middle Ages and then after you've made your way through all the centuries you arrive in the 20th century where you read mostly stuff about World War II and the Holocaust.

    I feel it's a completely messed up way to teach literature. You should start with easy things and then slowly groom the students to become serious readers. Don't give them stuff they are not ready for! They might be put off reading for good.

    1. That is so interesting. I have never heard of literature being taught that way. I completely agree with you. Some stuff just needs to wait until you are older and have a better understanding of life and literature. You run a serious risk of killing any potential love for books. Still, I do love that there is some definite order to the process.