Personal reading habits, and book review: The Remains of the Day

A friend of mine recommended this to me, and from the brief synopsis he gave (a top-of-the-line English butler in the mid-20th century, reflecting on the changing times and what they mean for his profession), I immediately knew I would love this book — or at least that its subject material was right up my alley, though I hadn’t read or even heard of the author, Kazuo Ishiguro, before. But I put it on my Amazon wish list, and another friend of mine sent it to me this past month for a belated Christmas present.

I let it sit on my coffee table for a few weeks — waiting for the right moment, I suppose, though I knew I had to be careful about that. For the past few years, my primary reading has been through audiobooks in the car, since I figured out that my commute time was not being efficiently spent. I’ve been a compulsive reader since I was about 8, but my reading time has dwindled since I left college. When you work 40 hours per week, have the usual extracurriculars (though at least not a family to attend to), and most important of all, are pursuing a major writing project, it’s very difficult to find time to just sit and read, even though I believe that is absolutely crucial to developing as a writer, and there’s no point at which you stop benefiting from regular reading.

Back to The Remains of the Day — I could see it wasn’t a long book, which was encouraging. So I picked it up Friday evening, at the start of Easter weekend, and I finished it mid-afternoon on Sunday. It was enormously satisfying to finish an entire book in such a short time.

And this book was everything I expected, and more. I did not expect it to have quite that degree of sadness, especially right from the start — in the first few pages, when Stevens is describing his total inability to banter with his American employer. It’s funny, of course, but also carries an underlying sadness that rises to the surface through the rest of the novel.

I was so impressed by the construction of the book — the pacing, the framing of it in the context of a six-day road trip (I have gotten absurdly sentimental about road trips, after shows like Supernatural), while he reflects on memories spanning thirty years. The road trip is all the more significant because it’s his first time out of his neighborhood, which strikes the modern audience (or me, anyway) as awfully sad — much like one of the first lines in Flight Behavior, which made a deep impression on me: “The sheep in the field below, the Turnbow family land, the white frame house she had not slept outside in ten-plus years of marriage: that was pretty much it. The wide-screen version of her life since age seventeen. Not including the brief hospital excursions, childbirth-related.”

What Ishiguro does so wonderfully is that he delivers us a character who takes enormous pride in what he does and his profession as a whole, who would never say he is sad, but the tragic isolation of his life bleeds through so clearly to the readers, that it comes as no surprise when he’s sobbing on that bench by the pier in the last pages.

I love how the layers of Stevens’ story unfolds. The honesty and intimacy of his narration are remarkable, given how the central theme of the book is how he never appears “off duty” except when he is absolutely alone, and his insistence on that code over his life led to such a tragic outcome for himself and Miss Kenton. So I interpreted his narrative frankness as achieved by how he clearly believes he’s confiding in another butler, someone in the same position as himself, to whom he can let down all the walls.

So we learn first about the nostalgia and pride he takes in his years serving Lord Darlington for so many years — and yet he flatly denies to any outsiders that he was ever employed by Lord Darlington. His explanation to Mr. Farraday isn’t convincing, and by the end, we learn his reasons for feeling ashamed of that connection, even though he wouldn’t say it outright, not even in the narration. He admits that Lord Darlington made mistakes, and that he himself made mistakes in following such a strict code — which, incidentally, is a huge sign of personal growth and development, because so many people who spend their entire lives in a rigid, closed environment can never consider the possibility that something in it was fundamentally wrong.

But Stevens, despite his devotion and love for his work, is still able to reflect on his entire career, the code by which he served (which was to trust implicitly that his employer is a great man who knows better about all issues, so Stevens didn’t raise any objections even when Lord Darlington directed him to fire any Jewish employees they had), but it culminates in this crisis, on the last page:

“Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really — one has to ask oneself — what dignity is there in that?”

And, of course, that quest to capture the meaning of dignity to the English butler was what Stevens had been pursuing the entire book.

The series of anecdotes about Miss Kenton, leading up to Stevens’ reunion with her, was also powerfully effective. Every story Stevens tells is colored by his restraint, yet you begin to get a good picture of other characters, and especially how Miss Kenton must have seen him and struggled to deal with him. Frankly, I can’t see what ever attracted her to him — his whole soul was devoted to being the perfect butler (which is what made the scene where she caught him reading a “sentimental romance,” and forcefully drew the book out of his hand, so charged), and I couldn’t even picture what their married life would be like. How could he be a full-blooded husband with her, let alone a father?

One possible answer to that question lies in another awfully sad section of the book: the sequence of stories about Stevens’ father, and his interactions with him, leading up to his death.  First, one of the most memorable lines of the book happens when Stevens goes to see his father in his small, spartan room at the top of the house, that even strikes Stevens as resembling a prison cell:

My father reached forward to the only chair in the room, a small wooden one, and placing both hands on its back, brought himself to his feet. When I saw him stood upright before me, I could not be sure to what extent he was hunched over due to infirmity and what extent due to the habit of accommodating the steeply sloped ceilings of the room.

How awful it is that they can’t even talk to each other without dropping their role as butlers and coworkers (though I know that it’s an old English tradition, but nevertheless one that still seems incredibly chilly and distant, to address your parent in the third person: “I hope Father is feeling better today”), though I did detect some crustiness in Stevens Sr. that I imagine many fathers have (“Relate [your point] briefly and concisely. I haven’t all morning to listen to you chatter”).

But that changes when Stevens Sr. is on his deathbed and clearly knows it. In their final conversation — the night of an extremely important and secret international conference held at the estate — Stevens is summoned by Miss Kenton (who, up until that moment, had been refusing to speak directly to him after reaching her breaking point of being micromanaged) to his father’s room, where after inquiring about whether everything was “in hand downstairs,” they have this exchange:

“I’m glad Father is feeling so much better,” I said again eventually. “Now really, I’d best be getting back. As I say, the situation is rather volatile.”

He went on looking at his hands for a moment. Then he said slowly: “I hope I’ve been a good father to you.”

I laughed a little and said: “I’m so glad you’re feeling better now.”

“I’m proud of you. A good son. I hope I’ve been a good father to you. I suppose I haven’t.”

“I’m afraid we’re extremely busy now, but we can talk again in the morning.”

My father was still looking at his hands as though he were faintly irritated by them.

“I’m so glad you’re feeling better now,” I said again and took my leave.

And that is the last conversation they have.

Man, what a way to break your heart. This is clearly the first time in decades that Stevens Sr. has spoken to his son so frankly, acknowledging that they are father and son, and — of course — Stevens cannot process it. It does not compute to him. And yes, I am writing about him like he’s a robot, even though his narration through the entire book proves the exact opposite: he is a real man with a heart and desires, but he’s been trained to value emotional restraint, in the name of “professionalism,” above all else.

So that exchange is heartbreaking, but it’s clear there was no other way for it to go. Stevens isn’t being cruel; it’s easy to hear the nervous, awkward tone of the laughter. He has no idea what his father means or how to respond to him. And even if he could give some reply, what would it be? “Oh yes, you’ve been an excellent father, I dare say Lord Darlington values me as an indispensable butler”?  That would be even worse than laughing nervously and backing out of the room.

The other significant occasion when Stevens is asked point-blank about his feelings and desires as a person, is also a tragic moment. In one of their private nightly conferences (to allow the butler and housekeeper to catch up), Miss Kenton pointedly wonders aloud what else he might wish for in life. Stevens considers this, finally answering: “As far as I am concerned, Miss Kenton, my vocation will not be fulfilled until I have done all I can to see his lordship through the great tasks he has set himself.” Miss Kenton, as you can imagine, was disheartened.

But despite all the signs of stunted (or nonexistent) emotional development and zero capacity for a personal life, Stevens tells us directly that he has a heart — when it breaks.  At the much-anticipated reunion with Miss Kenton takes place, Stevens’ hope that she will return to Darlington Hall to become housekeeper again (the extent of his fantasy is professional, as ever) is dashed. Miss Kenton (who is actually Mrs. Benn, but in his reminiscing he always refers to her by the name by which he knew her) has returned to her husband, whom she has left on a few occasions before.

As they wait at the bus stop for her to leave, Stevens dares to ask, out of concern, if her husband mistreats her.  She says no — and as was ever her matter-of-fact, assertive style, she tells him that she didn’t love her husband when she first married him, though she’s grown to love him now.

“But that doesn’t mean to say, of course, there aren’t occasions when you think to yourself: ‘What a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life.’ And you get to thinking about a different life, a better life you might have had. For instance, I get to thinking about a life I may have had with you, Mr. Stevens. And I suppose that’s when I get angry over some trivial little thing and leave. But each time I do so, I realize before long — my rightful place is with my husband. After all, there’s no turning back the clock now. One can’t be forever dwelling on what might have been. One should realize one has as good as most, perhaps better, and be grateful.”

I do not think I responded immediately, for it took me a moment or two to fully digest these words of Miss Kenton. Moreover, as you might appreciate, their implications were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed — why should I not admit it? — at that moment, my heart was breaking.

But despite this, he says nothing to acknowledge what she had just suggested. Instead — and perhaps this was the kindest response, after all — he tells her she is quite right in that one can’t turn back the clock, and one is best off being grateful for what one has, and enjoying retirement. He asks her to do all she can to be happy. (Though the line about how she mustn’t let “foolish ideas” disrupt her happiness, must have been a blow.)

All in all, the book is an awfully sad one. But the final paragraphs offer a little comfort, a bit of hope, as Stevens is listening to a group of strangers laughing and engaging in that ever-elusive banter:

Perhaps it is indeed time I began to look at this whole matter of bantering more enthusiastically. After all, when one thinks about it , it is not such a foolish thing to indulge in — particularly if it is the case that in bantering lies the key to human warmth.

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