*spoilers: DO NOT READ ON IF UNPREPARED*
almost ridiculously laughable a tad on the silly side that I had to think for a long moment about whether to class this book as a work of Japanese or English literature in the “Categories and Tags” section –if Wikipedia is not your friend, I can share with you that Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki but moved to London at the age of 5– but thankfully realisation thwacked me metaphorically on the head not too long afterwards: how could I pop this one in any other category than that of the most thoroughly English of natures? For one, it’s about a butler, so unless the Queen decides to pen an autobiography (Majesty, I would consider it an honour if the idea appeals. Big love to all the fam.) I’m not sure how much more ‘English’ one can get.
Stevens the butler takes a short road trip from Oxford to Cornwall –and the shortness of the journey is reflected in the equally diminutive number of pages– making quite a big deal of his shenanigans, bless him, and reminiscing on the glory days of the big house he leaves behind him.
♥ I know a stiff-upper-lip and the concept of “dignity” is of enormous significance for the English race in general*, but the sweetheart who narrates TROTD takes it to the next level when he forgets to offer his condolences to the housekeeper when her aunt dies…because he’s too worried she might cry in front of him.
♥ Now you mention it, a tone of typical English awkwardness underlines a large proportion of the book, so I’ll outline a few of my favourite exemplifications if I may:
1) the set of Britannica encyclopedias that Lord Darlington pretends to consult every time he wants to bring up something negative with Stevens and can’t bring himself to look him in the eye.
2) the ‘birds and the bees’ talk Stevens is required to have with the fully grown (by which I mean he is ENGAGED. On the verge of marriage. Oh dear.) godson of his employer, which involves not a few misunderstandings. For what it’s worth, I don’t think that Stevens ever managed to accomplish his task (obviously). I am now exceedingly concerned for the wellbeing of this young man –and his bride– on their wedding night.
3) the “sentimental romances” Stevens peruses to improve his vocabulary, to the surprise and delight of the housekeeper who catches him reading one.
The Big Scoop:
If you hadn’t guessed it already from the distinct lack of, well, synopsis, The Remains of the Day is not one to read if you are a seeker of thrills, for the simple reason that nothing really happens. The few words written above are the eventual products of a good 15 minutes’ racking my brains as I struggled to think about what actual events go on. HOWEVER, one must not let this get in the way of the enjoyment potential, for enjoy it I most certainly did.
For, in fact, it is what is not expressly said in writing that proves to be the most interesting. Nowhere at all in the entire thing does Stevens depict himself as treating Miss Kenton (the aforementioned housekeeper) with anything but a slightly patronising, even condescending, tone, and yet the quietly sad ending to the book shows just deep their mutual love, too late realised, ran. “I get to thinking about a life I might have had with you, Mr Stevens” is the matter-of-fact statement from Miss Kenton which truly reveals the resigned suffering of her marriage to a man she only loves in a “steady” fashion, while Stevens himself, in a revelation that is hitherto without precedent, states that “at that moment, [his] heart was breaking”.
Yes, the tone of the novel is defined by a certain reserve, and yet it is this quality that makes the characters so endearing in such a short time. The tranquil beauty of various English landscapes is not proffered thrustingly, but without marked effort; the simple pleasures of the people Stevens meets is neither venerated or condemned but merely presented how it is, as ‘the everyday’; there is no happy ending, because real life rarely complies with the wishes of its participants or viewers. The first person narration allows the reader to see Stevens as he wishes himself to appear, certainly, but the reactions of those with whom he comes into contact betray a deeper truth; particularly touching are the two occasions upon which these exchanges with others reveal that he is crying, after the death of his father and his final meeting with Miss Kenton.
I run the risk of sounding trite when I say that it is the easiness of this work that has stuck with me; there is something so nimble about the manner in which we ably flit from past to present, and the weights of both World Wars are painted in colours that allow them to be swallowed without sticking. While this was undoubtedly pleasant, the pastel shade of the writing was sometimes TOO effortless. Being a stickler for those works that make my brain ache (I know, I take geek to a new level), I need some traction, something to stick my teeth into. So it is with this in mind that I happily give TROTD 8½/10.
* On a different note, for some hilarious examples of this and more, I highly recommend following @SoVeryBritish on Twitter. I have shed enough water in hysterical tears of laughter elicited by their posts to water a small plant for a fortnight. Maybe thirteen days at a push.