Tuesday, November 23, 2010

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Anthony Hopkins as "Mr. Stevens" in the film

The Remains of the Day is a Booker Prize winner by Japanese/British author Kazuo Ishiguro.  It is another novel about the upper crust British class.  (Why do I keep reading these?)  This on the surface does not sound like anything I would be interested in.  A movie was made of the novel starring Anthony Hopkins.  It looked very snooty.  So I’ve steered clear of it.  However, if your interested in books at all and contemporary fiction especially its hard to avoid the critical praise heaped upon Kaz Ishi.  So I caved in and read his most famous title.  I’m happy to report that it is a good book.

“The Remains of the Day” is structured around a road trip taken by Stevens, a butler at the famous Darlington House in England.  During this road trip, Steven reflects back upon his career of servitude.  It is through these flashbacks that the narrative of Stevens’ life is told.  Perhaps Ishiguro’s greatest achievement is how well he is able to leave things untold and the reader is still able to fill in the gaps, and the full picture is revealed…somewhat.  For instance, Stevens’ comes to realize that perhaps Lord Darlington isn’t the great man he always thought he had served – in fact he was likely a Nazi sympathizer.  But the complete nature of Darlington’s failings is never told.  Ishiguro could have double the size of his book simply by telling the whole story.  It probably would have been easier. But the story is stronger for what is left out.

The main characters of “Day” are Stevens, of course, Miss Kenton, and Lord Darlington.  Stevens is not a likable guy in my opinion.  He sees his complete, unwavering servitude as “dignity”.  He has deluded himself into thinking this way because of a similar quality in his father told through another memory.  In which, his father’s loyalty to his master is tested and his father does not waver.  Later, when the father health is failing Stevens sees his commitment to his duties over attending to his ill father as ‘dignity’.  Literally his whole life is serving Darlington

Darlington is a minor character in that he is somewhat shrouded in mystery.  We don’t really get to see much of his true character, because all of his time on stage is revealed through Stevens’ delusions.  In this way, however, he serves the story well, as it illuminates for the reader this major failing of the main character.  As for Darlington’s character, he is perhaps best described by a young visitor to the house…the younger Mr. Cardinal, a friend of the family through his deceased father.  Cardinal describes Darlington to Stevens as being an old fashioned, noble gentleman who believes too much in being a sympathetic winner.  This led him to believe that the resulting Treaty of Versailles after Germany’s defeat in WWI was too harsh.  The Germans in convening years have exploited his kindness and have used him as a pawn.  Darlington himself is deluded by “gentleman” qualities.

Miss Kenton is a housemaid at Darlington House, who is the only person that is really able to speak with and relate to Stevens in such a way that he actually seems human.  Yet, even these conversations are few and far between…yet, they are the chisel that breaks through the harsh fa├žade Stevens’ has constructed.  Miss Kenton’s obvious feelings for Stevens and his obliviousness to them is further illustration of Stevens’ delusion.  Stevens’ road trip includes a visit to the now married Miss Kenton.  It is this visit in which Stevens begins to come to the revelation of one of the book’s major themes, the idea that one must stop looking back, and must stride forward.  An encounter with a stranger in the park after this meeting with Miss Kenton reiterates: (Paraphrasing)  “Most people consider the evening the best part of the day. Why not kick your feet up and enjoy it?”  Stevens begins to question what he will do with the remains of his day…

I didn’t like Stevens, until perhaps the very end and even then he can’t completely break free of his delusions, but I did like his story.

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