Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Remains of the Day ~ Kazuo Ishiguro

I was super-excited to read Remains of the Day because Never Let Me Go was so subtle and amazing and heart-wrenching.  And Remains of the Day is similar in some ways - the story kind of sneaks up on you despite the apparently pointless ramblings and reminiscences of the narrator and in the end, you are surprised by its depth and power.  I didn't love this one as much and I loved Never Let Me Go, but in the end, I am just as astonished.

Also like Never Let Me Go, Remains of the Day is pretty difficult to summarize without giving away - well, not really the ending, because there's no big unveil, but more of the point or the underlying message?  But whatever, I'm just going to tell you how I read it because it's not much of a secret and you could conceivably read it differently.  Really, no spoiler alert is necessary here.

Mr. Stevens is a traditional English butler, all "yes, sir" and straight-spined and a little snobbish, serving the American who purchased his former employer's home post-WWII.  At the beginning of the novel, he's embarking on a road trip in his boss's car while the latter is in the States.  This is his first time traveling and, seemingly, the first time he's ever reflected on his life.  Throughout the novel, which is organized by day and location, Mr. Stevens reflects on his former employer, former colleagues, the nature of dignity in a butler, and the purpose of his life.  It becomes clear that because of Mr. Stevens' lifelong professional efforts to maintain his dignity (meaning, in part, to never be unprofessional in the presence of another human being), he has never allowed himself to connect to another person or be in touch with his own emotions.  A telling example of this stiffness, when Mr. Stevens is speaking with his father, who has just collapsed:
The he said slowly, "I hope I've been a good father to you."I laughed a little and said, "I'm so glad you're feeling better now.""I'm proud of you.  A good son.  I hope I've been a good father to you.  I suppose I haven't.""I'm afraid we're extremely busy now, but we can talk again in the morning." (p. 97)
Even in reflection, Mr. Stevens has no emotional response or sense of regret regarding this episode.  He is a butler through and through.  Worse than that, and though he doesn't realize it, he has become a relic.  His present employer sees him as a novelty, and he is often mistaken for a gentleman, because the distinction because the upper- and lower-classes has become blurred, just as their respective roles have, something that nobody has bothered to tell him.

This was probably a great novel - Ishiguro tells two very different stories here, one of which Mr. Stevens doesn't even seem to realize he is narrating.  Unfortunately, I just couldn't love it because Mr. Stevens is so mind-numbingly boring.  For example:
By the very nature of a witticism, one is given very little time to assess its various possible repercussions before one is called to give voice to it, and one gravely risks uttering all manner of unsuitable things if one has not first acquired the necessary skill and experience.  There is no reason to suppose this is not an area in which I will become proficient given time and practice... (pp.131-132)
I get that his obsession over things like misplaced Chinamen (I'm thinking hoping these are statues) and the fact that his employer glanced at the tines of the fork in his hand are a) what makes him such a fantastic butler and b) what has blighted both his internal and social lives, but I just couldn't bring myself to care.  I was sad for Mr. Stevens but it was just hard to be invested in him.  Which I guess implies that his situation is all the worse because he has spent his life thinking only about insignificant details.

I did enjoy how Ishiguro connects the English butler to the English countryside:
I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama that sets the beauty of our land apart.  What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraints.  It is as though the land knows its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout about it. (pp. 28-29)
This is more than just a novel of the dullness of being a butler, how a life of service and blind faith can be emotionally blighting, but a story of the reticence of the English in general, a quality that I believe is now changing.  In fact, it is already changing in the time period of the novel - bantering has become common and is Mr. Stevens' bane - but Mr. Stevens doesn't seem to recognize the change, or the fact that his role, and all people's roles, have changed.

The process of writing this post is actually making me appreciate more thoroughly how masterful this novel is.  Ishiguro expertly explores the depths of emotion in a man, a place, and a time, without ever doing so in an overt way.  Despite my boredom with Mr. Stevens, Ishiguro has again left me wondering if I've just read a masterpiece.  (And also if I should give Downton Abbey another chance.)

1 comment:

  1. I liked Remains of the Day the first time I read it, and loved it the second time. The parts that come off boring the first time seem better integrated into the whole unreliable-narrator thing on the second go-round.

    Oo, but don't read A Pale View of Hills. It is not as awesome. My brain could not handle it. I felt better later when I read an interview with Ishiguro where he was like, "Yeaaaah, that one was super confusing. I am way less confusing now." :p

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