Ishiguro, Kazuo: The Remains of the Day

We were informed by our host that he often reads books by prizewinning authors. It was for this reason that he had acquired “ The Remains of the Day”, by the Nobel Prizewinner (2017) Kazuo Ishiguro.

While this was a credible explanation for his choice no one was fooled.

The host had originally nominated “The Unbearable Lightness of Being” by Milan Kundera but had forgotten that he had previously nominated this book in 2015 when it had been discussed and reviewed by the Group!

His embarrassment led him to reflect on the cause of this memory lapse and he concluded that like Stevens, the butler and narrator of “ The Remains of the Day”, his forgetfulness was age-related.

The appropriateness of his choice became apparent as we read the novel.

It was perhaps some conciliation to the host that the only member to spot the not-so-deliberate mistake was our youngest member.

Our host provided a brief overview of the Kazuo Ishiguro’s family background and literary career. Born in Nagasaki, Japan on 8th November 1954 his family moved to the UK in 1960. Ishiguro attended the University of Kent in 1974 and graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) in English and Philosophy in 1978 and in 1980 he gained a Master of Arts in creative writing from the University of East Anglia. He became a British citizen in 1983 and he and his wife and daughter live in London.

Ishiguro’s writings have been hugely successful. He has written eight works of fiction and his books have been translated into over 50 languages. Some, including “The Remains of the Day” have been made into lucrative films.

He also writes screenplays and song lyrics. They are successful too. Our host played us a snatch of Ishiguro’s friend and jazz artist Tracey Kent, singing his melancholy song ‘Bullet Train’ :

Tokyo to Nagoya
Nagoya to Berlin
Sometime I feel I lose track
Of just which hemisphere we’re in….

He has received many awards for his work, including the Man Booker prize in 1989 for “The Remains of the Day”, the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2017 and most recently, in 2018, he was Knighted for his services to Literature.

There was general agreement that this is a beautifully crafted novel. To those who had not read any of Ishiguro’s work it was a great surprise. They had not anticipated such sophisticated use of language from a Japanese author, not realising that he had been raised and educated in Britain.

The novel impressively establishes the character of Stevens, the butler and narrator of the story. His stiff manner of speech exposes Stevens’s limitations as he struggles to find the language to deal with emotion, to converse with his peers or to adjust to the need to engage with the new American owner of Darlington Hall with a much less formal relationship, and especially the “banter”.  Thereafter, Stevens becomes a student of “banter”, taking every opportunity to hone his skills, often without success.

The Group considered the novel “technically brilliant”.

It manages to present an unpromising tale about the life of a man who lived exclusively in the service of others in an interesting and compelling way.

Stevens was the butler in a distinguished English country house, Darlington Hall. Lord Darlington to whom Stevens had devoted his long life of service had died and Mr Farraday, a jovial American who is the new owner of the Hall encourages Stevens to make use of his vintage car to take a short motoring holiday to the West Country.

As this journey unfolds Stevens describes his understanding of the role of the butler in a stately home and he identifies the essential characteristics required of those butlers who aspire to be regarded as a  “great” butler.

Much is made of “dignity”, devotion and unquestioning loyalty all exemplified through vignettes drawn from life at Darlington Hall.

The story reveals the fragility of Stevens’s circumstances.  His need to “inhabit” his professional role requires him to set aside any thoughts of questioning what he is told by Lord Darlington. The dismissal of the Jewish housemaids at Darlington Hall who were well liked and who performed their duties to a good standard illustrates the absolute authority exercised by Lord Darlington.

As the journey progresses, more and more about Lord Darlington’s involvement in political maneuverings in the lead up to the Second World War is related. His attempt to broker rapprochement through engaging with Joachim von Ribbentrop, the German Foreign Minister and Ambassador to Great Britain is referred to as is his post war troubles with his reputation ruined through a failed libel action. These reflections cause Stevens to adopt an increasingly protective/defensive attitude towards Lord Darlington, “He wasn’t a bad man at all”

Stevens is unable to deal with emotion. This disability manifests itself in his relationship with Miss Kenton who tries to elicit a reciprocal  response to her affection, and also in his account of his relationship with his father and in particular his troubling behavior at the time of his father’s death.

The motoring holiday draws to a close with Stevens facing up to reality. His reflections enable him to recognize his mistakes and to ponder, “what might have been” . However he continues to show the irrepressible spirit upon which his self worth is dependent. He continues to rationalize and excuse his actions. Finally, he plans to find ways of improving his “bantering” skills in order to commit to a new way of life embracing the changes needed to enable him to satisfy his new American master.

While most of the group found themselves feeling a bit sorry for Stevens as the victim of the anachronistic social system, molded by his upbringing and the culture of the day, one member suggested that he was dishonest and manipulative. He questioned Stevens’s sexuality and considered him devious in allowing the villagers to believe that he was an upper class gentleman.

These comments apart the novel was unanimously admired, both for its technical excellence but also as a cameo on growing old and the expression of quintessential ‘Englishness’.

Reference was made to the film of ”Remains of the Day” and to the portrayal of the English butler in other well known works; Jeeves, as gentleman’s gentleman to Wooster, Hudson in Upstairs, Downstairs and Downton Abbey all portraying life “below stairs”.

It was remarked that interest in this is a peculiarly English fascination linked to what made the country “great” (a superiority complex born of the fact that Great Britain is the only country undefeated in Europe).

It was also suggested that the virtues of unwavering loyalty and dedication to his master extolled by Stevens were still alive and kicking and could be seen in the behavior of Civil Servants today. We were reliably informed that no senior Civil Servant voted for Brexit but that their professional duty was to set aside their personal views and to work towards delivering the best outcome.

There followed a discussion on the failure of our politicians to seek to establish “common purpose” on such an important matter. One of our group, who has occasion to visit China in the course of his work, explained the contrasting singularity of purpose in China, where, for example, there are weekly Party meetings in the university departments that must be attended.

It was suggested that the novel is not so much about “ what the butler saw” but what the butler did not see or was unable to see until it was too late.

Stevens’ reflections resulted in his having to confront things he had done or said and with hindsight had regretted or was embarrassed about.

We sympathized with him, recognizing that most of us would admit to having these feelings from time to time.

In Stevens’ case his reflections attack the ideas upon which he has built his life. They test his ability to keep a lid on his emotions and to retain the “dignity” with which he has tried to live his life.

The novel succeeds in exposing the man behind the butler in a clever and powerful way. It struck a chord with many members of the group and this added greatly to their enjoyment. It provoked unanimous approval.

Our host was congratulated on his choice of novel and for being able to remember that an important theme of the “Remains of the Day” is the effect of age on memory.