Sunday, March 6, 2011

Motoring Around Mr. Stevens's Head: The Remains of the Day

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day falls into the category of Books I Respect More than I Enjoyed. Is that good or bad? Damning with faint praise? I don’t know. The Remains of the Day and I have a long history: I bought the book shortly after it won the 1989 Booker Prize, read about half in the mid-nineties, set it aside, and lent it to a friend, who read about half before returning it. I had no trouble finishing The Remains of the Day this time around.

A plot summary for the handful of people on the planet who haven’t read the book or seen the movie: The Remains of the Day is a first-person story, narrated by Mr. Stevens, a career butler. Mr. Stevens tells us about a motoring trip in England, but the novel is more of a drive down the Memory Lane within his head. Mr. Stevens plans to meet with a former co-worker, Mrs. Benn, nee Miss Kenton, so he spends most of his time remembering his past – including some incidents with Miss Kenton – rather than describing landscapes. Mr. Stevens sees some beautiful landscapes, too, which Ishiguro plants so we observe Mr. Stevens gaining new perspectives on the world by venturing out of Darlington Hall, his home and workplace for many years.

Rather than rehash more of the book, I’ll focus on a few points that particularly struck me as I read…

Ishiguro’s Language. As with Never Let Me Go (previous post), Ishiguro constructs in The Remains of the Day a beautifully seamless, consistent narrative: Mr. Stevens’s voice is formal and sounds, at least to this American who has never met a butler, quintessentially butler-like with its politesse and phrases like “that is to say.” Some of his exchanges with Miss Kenton are heartbreaking in their circumlocution, though there’s also a fair bit of understated humor.

Dignity and One’s Place in the World. More heartbreaking, though, is the conflict between a servant’s personal and work lives. Mr. Stevens speaks frequently of his dignity, loyalty, and acceptance of his place in the world, even telling a visitor to Darlington Hall that “It is not my place to be curious about such matters [of global importance], sir.” But Mr. Stevens slips up, giving a group of strangers he meets on the road the impression that he himself spoke with world leaders about “great issues of the day.”

Lord Darlington, His Employer. At the end of the book -- and the end of a day -- Mr. Stevens speaks, on a pier, with a former footman he’s just met: they talk about their pasts, and Mr. Stevens confesses that Lord Darlington was courageous but also misguided. (I won’t reveal why except to say that the book involves discussion of world wars.) He also confesses that “I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?” The footman advises Mr. Stevens to stop thinking about the past so he doesn’t get depressed, a bit of advice that Mr. Stevens seems to take to heart, resolving to “adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day.” At the top of the list? Working on being more open to bantering with his new American employer, the man who let him borrow the car for the road trip. There’s nothing like a good road trip – or motoring holiday – to find a nice fork in the road, whether the road is on a map or inside one’s head.

Up next: Julia Franck’s The Blind Side of the Heart, a dark, dark novel about Germany, mostly between the world wars. It’s another book that’s very good but slow to read.


  1. This is one of my Favorite.Books.Of.All.Time.It is so tragic. You just want to jump into the book and beat the hell out of Stevens and go, "LOOK! Go get Miss Kenton before she gets married! Just tell you how you feel! She likes you too!" But the guy is like stone and can't do it, because that's how he rolls. Screw global warming. That's tragedy.

  2. Thanks for the comment, SocrMom78! That painful personal tragedy is exactly why I respect the book so much. Mr. Stevens really is like stone! Which made the "birds and the bees" conversation all the funnier. (And sadder, in a way.)

    Good luck with your Modern Library 100 reading! That's a great reading project.

  3. I also enjoyed the movie. Stevens' "stoneness" is tragic but yet also so human.

  4. Kinna, I agree... the stoniness and being human are very connected. I think that's why the passage where Stevens mentions world leaders felt so sad to me.