KAZUO ISHIGURO The Remains of the Day. Reviewed by Linda Funnell
This classic novel by the recent Nobel-winner gives us the life of an English ‘gentleman’s gentleman’ and invites us to analyse the relationship between master and servant.
This year the Japanese-born English writer Kazuo Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature; Remains of the Day is perhaps his best-known work, which was awarded the Booker Prize in 1989 and subsequently made into a film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.
What makes a great butler? It is a question to which Stevens, butler of over 30 years’ standing at the great English country house Darlington Hall and Ishiguro’s narrator, returns again and again. Readers of this fine and troubling novel may find themselves posing another question: ‘Was it really so recently that whole sections of English society believed it was not their place to question the acts of their masters?’
The novel opens in 1956. Lord Darlington has died and the great house has been sold to an American, Mr Farady. Inevitably, Stevens (we never learn his first name) finds Mr Farady a contrast to Lord Darlington – for one thing, he seems to expect his butler to banter with him, a skill not traditionally in the remit of his profession. For another, he suggests his butler have a few days off while he is away and take his car – he will even ‘foot the bill for the gas’.
Thus, not without some hesitation, Stevens sets out on his first motoring holiday. He heads to Cornwall, to an appointment with Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper at the Hall. Miss Kenton had married and moved away many years ago, but a recent letter has had Stevens thinking she may be persuaded to return and solve some of the Hall’s present staffing problems.
As he takes in the sights from Oxfordshire to Cornwall, driving through landscapes he has previously only seen in books in Lord Darlington’s library, Stevens’s thoughts turn to the past, to the 1920s and 30s and the heyday of Darlington Hall when he was at his prime in his profession. During this period the Hall hosted many gatherings of the great (Churchill, Eden and Lord Halifax, among others) and was a centre of intense political manoeuvrings.
The dark heart of Lord Darlington’s story is that he was seduced – as were so many members of England’s aristocracy – by Germany in the interwar years, and by Hitler’s ambassador, von Ribbentrop. Motivated, according to his butler, by a desire to behave honourably towards Germany after her defeat in the First World War and to ameliorate the terms of the Treaty of Versailles which were crippling the country, the lord became a dupe of the Nazis. As a visiting American put it bluntly, in international affairs he was an ‘amateur’. Stevens recalls Darlington recanting his anti-Semitism and abhorring Mosley’s Blackshirts, but the damage was done and in the post-war years his reputation was finished.
The dark heart of Stevens’s story is that he so efficiently, professionally and unquestioningly supported his master, no matter the personal cost. The practice of personal service required an impenetrable equanimity, and the greater the challenge to this equanimity, the greater the triumph when it could be preserved. Stevens’s father had also made a career ‘in service’, and the scenes between father and son are shocking in their impersonality.
In Stevens’s world, you need to believe that keeping the silver sparkling is an aid to negotiations upon which the fate of the world hangs; that every single need of your own must always come second to the demands of your employer; and that you will unquestioningly carry out your master’s wishes, whether it is to educate his godson in ‘the birds and the bees’ or to sack the Jewish maids.
The novel’s great triumph is Stevens’s narration, which gives an intimate portrait of a man incapable of intimacy. The voice is immediate yet distant, allowing us to see what remains unspoken as well as the implications of what is said. It is a voice of its time, and of a particular kind of Englishness.
As he travels beyond the closed world of Darlington Hall, Stevens’s beliefs are challenged, but never seriously shaken. Towards the end of the novel a stranger observes to him how evening is the best part of the day, and that retirement has been a great happiness for him.
But for Stevens, it is clear that nothing will ever match the memory of Darlington Hall as it was, of shafts of afternoon sunlight falling across an upstairs corridor, and entering a room to find Miss Kenton framed by the window.
Kazuo Ishiguro The Remains of the Day Faber and Faber 2010 (first published 1989) PB 272pp $19.99
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