Note, the format of my Short and Sweet reviews differs in that they simply comprise the book blurb and a short response (hence, the short and sweet).
After reading (and loving) Kazuo Ishiguro’s newest book The Buried Giant, I had to read The Remains of the Day – friends kept telling me it was a must-read. Interestingly, I chose to take it to Sydney when I attended my grandfather’s funeral last week. If anything, the timing made my reading experience even more poignant. Here’s the blurb:
The Remains of the Day won the 1989 Booker Prize and cemented Kazuo Ishiguro’s place as one of the world’s greatest writers. David Lodge, chairman of the judges in 1989, said, it’s “a cunningly structured and beautifully paced performance”. This is a haunting evocation of lost causes and lost love, and an elegy for England at a time of acute change. Ishiguro’s work has been translated into more than forty languages and has sold millions of copies worldwide.
Stevens, the long-serving butler of Darlington Hall, embarks on a leisurely holiday that will take him deep into the countryside, but also into his own past. Reflecting on his years of service, he must re-examine his life in the face of changing Britain, and question whether his dignity and properness have come at a greater cost to himself.
In short, I loved this book. It’s a book I will read again and again. I’m probably not going to say anything that hasn’t already been said before about this book, but here are a few of my thoughts. The Remains of the Day is a beautifully structured, subtle and evocative portrait of a man caught in a time of great change, who suddenly has the time and space to reflect on his life, his life’s work, and his relationships with others. He’s a man who’s always had a clearly defined sense of what he is – a ‘great’ butler, but less of an idea of who he is aside from his working role. Who is he when he’s not Stevens, the butler? Can he be Mr Stevens, the man, as well? A man who loves, grieves, and enjoys life?
And let me now posit this: ‘dignity’ has to do crucially with a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits. Lesser butlers will abandon their professional being for their private one at the least provocation. For such persons, being a butler is like playing some pantomime role; a small push, a slight stumble, and the facade will drop off to reveal the actor underneath. (p43)
Reading this, I wanted to cry in frustration and sadness at several points of his story – to shake him for missing the obvious and for putting his role as butler above emotion and love and friendship. I laughed at his attempts to learn to banter. I thought about Stevens’ definition of dignity and how it changed as he met people from outside the world of the great house he had so long inhabited. And I dwelt on the question of who one really is, taking away titles and job descriptions.
For me, it was poignant. My grandfather was not an easy man to live with and not one who shared his story, which included being a prisoner of war in his late teens and immigrating to Australia, with many. I wonder at what cost his own rigidity came to himself. I wonder if this self-reflection, so powerfully conveyed by Ishiguro, is something we all encounter at some point.
‘Now, look, mate, I’m not sure I follow everything you’re saying. But if you ask me, your attitude’s all wrong, see? Don’t keep looking back all the time, you’re bound to get depressed. And all right, you can’t do your job as well as you used to. But it’s the same for all of us, you see?’ (p256)
Available from good bookstores and Allen & Unwin (RRP $12.99 for Faber Modern Classic version). My copy was courtesy of Allen & Unwin.