The Remains of the Day
By Kazuo Ishiguro
Faber and Faber, 1989.
"It seems increasingly likely that I really will undertake the expedition that has been preoccupying my imagination now for some days."
Thus, Kazuo Ishiguro begins Mr Stevens' six-day journey to Cornwall in 1956 to reclaim the services of Miss Kenton, lost to both his employer and himself some twenty years before. Set in the 1930s at Darlington Hall, a secluded mansion in the romantic, English countryside, The Remains of the Day is a delicate story told by a masterful storyteller of the friendship between Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton, the butler and the housekeeper, and the love that grows between them and lasts for the rest of their lives.
Set against the backdrop of the quiet beauty and elegance of the fading world of English aristocracy, The Remains of the Day won the Booker Prize in 1989. It highlights Ishiguro's gift for poignant character studies of masculinity that continues with Mr Ryder in The Unconsoled (1995).
Mr Stevens is the perfect, English butler, studious and analytical, sensitive and diplomatic, with all the refined elegance of a gentleman's gentleman. But Mr Stevens is also the flawed man of Shakespearian tragedy. Since the most important thing in his life is always the practice of his profession, he is oblivious to the world around him. He entertains no opinion about the covert dinners at Darlington Hall with Germans and other heads of Europe in the lead up to WWII and is ignorant of his own repressed love for Miss Kenton. Mr Stevens' identity is subsumed by his role as butler.
During the course of his six-day journey, Stevens takes us into his confidence as he investigates, at some length, the precise definition of "dignity" and further regales the reader with an account of his efforts to perfect the newly required "art of bantering". He embarks upon an analysis of "what" makes a great butler: good accent, impeccable command of language, general knowledge of a wide variety of topics including "newt-mating", and the ability to ensure there are "no discernable traces left" of any "recent occurrence", such as a tiger shot while "languishing beneath the dining table", by the time "dinner is served". Indeed, the unforseen event of his own father's death whilst both are on duty at an auspicious occasion at Darlington Hall is a particularly poignant case in point.
The Remains of the Day is a book you will either savour like a long-deserved cup of English Breakfast or find infuriating and tedious from first drop to last. If the offer of six days on the road with Mr Stevens would send you rushing for your overcrowded appointment diary, then don't pick up The Remains of the Day, because The Remains of the Day is Mr Stevens. However, the reader who takes the time to slow to the rhythm of Stevens' thoughts, speech, and lifestyle will likely revisit the journey many times.
As a love story, The Remains of the Day stands alone, embracing the tragedy of Romeo and Juliet, without the Italian flavour of violent emotion, the setting of Wuthering Heights, with none of the brooding despair, and the intimate, masculine narration of Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, without the adolescent frankness. Told with grace and subtlety, Kazuo Ishiguro's simple, delicate story is, most of all, like a haiku poem.
The book is written in first person narrative so the reader is privy to little more than Mr Stevens will himself admit. But understanding the narrator is the key to unlocking the forbidden romance. Kazuro describes their love by what he does not say, telling the story by withholding information in a way that articulates the repressed emotion of the butler and is reflected in the restrained quality of dialogue, which is truly the highlight of the book. We learn to read between the heavy, velvet drapes, behind the gleaming silver, and under the crisp, starched doilies to uncover a romance that is unspoken, not only to the reader but also to the love object and even the narrator himself.
The dialogue arises in intimate moments shared in close, personal spaces like Mr Stevens's private pantry and the cosy warmth of Miss Kenton's parlour. Under the guise of "professional communication", they playfully tease and tantalise each other and the reader, are tentative and hesitant in their inquiry of each other's motives, and sometimes suffer hurt and withdrawal.
However, The Remains of the Day transgresses romance conventions in significant ways: the hero and heroine are not young and beautiful, the story is told by the male character, and the lovers do not openly speak their love, but, if romance is "about the sizzle and not the steak", then this is a story of singularly restrained passion and truly enduring love.
The Remains of the Day will not be rushed and neither will Mr Stevens. I maintain every hope that one day Mr Stevens will find himself in the happy position in which he is able, at last, to declare his honourable intentions and offer Miss Kenton, with much preamble, a long-awaited proposal of the arrangement commonly known in the romance genre as marriage, though at such time as this may occur, children, of course, will be entirely out of the question.