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"Books are the plane, and the train, and the road. They are the destination, and the journey. They are home."
- Anna Quindlen

Review: The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day - Kazuo Ishiguro

I am not familiar with regret, perhaps because I am still rather young. Perhaps regret is something that creeps up on you as you age, as what had once been an infinite number of possible paths in front of you slowly solidify into one unchangeable road at your back. It's not that I haven't made bad decisions, but I still feel I have time to course correct. And I love the life I'm living now, despite all the bumpy roads and bad shortcuts I took to get here.

Still, my greatest fear is that I will regret, that I will become an old woman who feels as if she has wasted her life. Sometimes I fear that this is the fate of all of us, that in the end regret is integral to the human condition. I think of the end of The Last Unicorn, where the unicorn laments,

"I have been mortal, and some part of me is mortal yet. I am full of tears and hunger and the fear of death, though I cannot weep, and I want nothing, and I cannot die. I am not like the others now, for no unicorn was ever born who could regret, but I do. I regret."

In a way, I saw my future in The Remains of the Day. And I mourned for that person I may become. That person that, to one extent or another, we may all become.

We open in the countryside of England in the 1950's, as our narrator, Stevens, describes what led him to take a motoring trip to the West Country. Stevens is an old man who has devoted his life to being a consummate butler at Darlington Hall. Only now, the world seems to have no further need of consummate butlers. Stevens's former employer, Lord Darlington, has died, and the estate has been sold to a young American, Faraday. For a lark, Faraday enjoys running the place like a proper English manor, continuing to employ Stevens, a housekeeper, and a couple of maids. But Stevens finds that what he once managed with a staff of 30 is impossible with four, and he is falling short of his own lofty standards. So when he receives a letter from Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper, he immediately begins to wonder if she'd be interested in coming back and working at Darlington again. He resolves to go visit her at her home in the West Country to discuss the possibility.

Stevens is a rambling, obsessive old codger, telling story after story about what it means to be a truly "great butler". This has been the primary preoccupation of his life, precluding romantic attachments, personal aspirations, or any sort of social life. However, he's modest about his own achievements in that regard, telling us that the nearest he ever came to achieving the status of a "great butler" was when he let his father die alone, upstairs, while he unflappably served tea to some important guests.

In this anecdote and others, it quickly becomes clear how resolutely Stevens has been deluding himself all his life. He is not the "great butler" he aspires toward, nor is he the unfeeling monster his actions make him out to be, but rather he is a desperately lonely old man trying to convince himself that his life and his vocation have had any meaning at all. He's terrified to admit to himself that they have not, and that any chance he had of forging a purposeful life has long ago slipped away.

This book is masterfully written. Ishiguro's skill in consistently having Stevens say one thing, mean another, but clearly be deeply repressing a third is nothing short of awe-inspiring. Throughout, Stevens's tone is chatty, if a bit punctilious. But there are so many thoughts he refuses to express, and even below that, so much raw, screaming emotion that he will not even let himself feel, and yet it's all there in the narrative, clear as crystal. I am in awe.

A truly great butler, Stevens remarks, never appears outside of his professional dress and demeanor - except when completely alone, and even then it's a dubious idea. Someone could barge in and see you in your jammies, after all, and then where would your self-respect be? ("This guy takes English uptightness to an insane new level," I noted after reading that section.) So the reader gets the impression that Stevens has never let himself even think an unprofessional thought, much less feel an unbutlerlike emotion. He seems genuinely unaware of the veritable heap of Freudian defense mechanisms he's piled up against the specter of his true feelings: Denial, repression, delusions of grandeur, reaction formation, sublimation...

And so he focuses on the details. If only, he tells himself, he had mastered the art of bantering. Interacting with others on a human level is a skill he never thought would be important, but he intuits now that this "bantering" is what allows people to enjoy each others' company, and would have served him well in his career. It's not just that he finds small talk difficult, though, it's that he literally has no idea how to behave genuinely. He can't "be himself" with others because he may not have developed a self at all. Just a shell of a "great butler" who lives to serve, in perfect self-denial.

And so here he is, motoring out to the West Country to talk to Miss Kenton (whom he was NEVER in love with), to try to convince her to come back to Darlington Hall (which is STILL a grand and respectable house) and work for Mr Faraday (who did NOT sweep in and nab the place for a song after Lord Darlington was exposed as a Nazi sympathizer and died in shame).

And after all is said and done, here he sits at dusk, left with the remains of the day and nothing left to say or do, nothing that can be changed or redone.


At first I thought this book was going to be sad because here is this man who has devoted his life to being the consummate butler, and now the world has moved on and he has become something of a joke and a relic.

But instead, it's about this man who has devoted his life to being the consummate butler at the expense of any happiness or love he might have had, and who is now having to confront all the regrets of his life when it is far too late to change anything. Which is so infinitely more tragic.

And also, the world has moved on. And he has become something of a joke and a relic.

That, too.


August 16, 2013