Monday, 17 December 2012

The Remains of the Day, by K. Ishiguro

How many times have I not heard a friend talk passionately about the film version of The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro - how many times have I not had to listen patiently to the emotional torment this said friend had to go through after watching the film, and thinking about it over and over again?  

Of course, I have not watched the film version.  But I was curious enough to read the book and see for myself whether it would leave such a mark on me as well...

The novel is written in a diary form so that we follow Mr. Stevens (junior) across his first ever motor journey across some of the picturesque parts of the UK, peppered with flashbacks from his long experience  as a butler (not a man-servant).


Reading this book is a delight as far as the language is concerned.  Beautifully structured sentences, words that depict the exact point the author wants to make, really make me devour its contents within a day.  There is also this pride of an old-school butler that attracts my attention:  what with the various TV series dealing with grand families and their personnel, I'm slightly nostalgic about this by-gone era, like anyone else... I soon realise that Mr. Stevens also a very proud Englishman is and does not hesitate to find the reason for his country's and its countryside superiority:

(as I) viewed the land before me I distinctly felt that rare, yet unmistakable feeling - the feeling that one is in the presence of greatness. We call this land of ours Great Britain...
Reading this book I think I got under Mr. Stevens' skin, which was a major shock as I could almost feel his repulsion for sentimentalities, pursuing instead his duties with the "stiff lip" of a thorough-bred Englishman. True, I'm not British, I'm a "continental", so indeed 
"as a rule unable to control themselves in moments of strong emotion, and are thus unable to maintain a professional demeanour other than in the least challenging of situations"

But, I wondered, surely that can't be the meaning of his life.  He can't just move on putting aside all other parts of life, only to continue his pursuit of being a great butler.  I'm on the one hand mesmerised at the old-fashioned school of regarding his a vocation rather than a job, but on the other I'm at a loss when I can't find any other facet in his entire life.

Even now that I've finished the book, the character of Mr. Stevens remains puzzling:  either he's blinded by his own ignorance or he's fully devoted to his vocation and wishes to live the remains of his days perfectioning it.  But I can't really make out how someone sees his employer as his mentor, his guide to life, the person to trust blindly for any decisions, including those Mr. Stevens (apparently) is contrary to.  

I also cannot justify someone who sees his duty to serve others as paramount to the point of neglecting a death in the family, or sending away a woman who's evidently more than just a "colleague" in the house.  What's the point, when faced after many years with this woman revealing her feelings for him, to tell us that his heart was breaking? It only takes two minutes for Mr. Stevens to regain his composure and get on with his life.  As he's said in the beginning, his motto in life is "dignity in keeping with his position".  A chance encounter with a pensioner butler provides him further with a motive to cease looking back and look forward, move ahead - with being a great butler... 

So in the end, there is a bitter-sweet feeling about this book.  I have pondered in my thoughts for  a couple of days now, but I've decided I'll stick to my viewpoint that life is definitely more important than anything else, however fulfilling...



Read for the Japanese literature challenge 

7 comments:

  1. And that is why this book is interesting to me, the old time relationship between employer and employee, when "loyalty" has its own meaning. We could never understand this feeling, and yet I believe people like Mr. Stevens could feel the absolute proud of their services.

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    1. I agree with you on the point of loyalty, what I found sad, though, is that this relationship proved to be rather to the detriment of Mr. Stevens' private life...

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    2. I haven't read your review, but I will be back! I just bought a copy this weekend. Hopefully I'll get to it in 2013.

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  2. You've inspired me to read this again! It is interesting that we feel nostalgic for this period of history when in reality I'm not sure I'd do well in sacrificing so much of my own life to serve someone else. It is hard to imagine.

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    1. Fully agree with you - I put it down to human nature to romanticise about things we know won't happen...

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  3. I've only read his Never Let Me Go which seems to be very different... I always thought this one would be really slow so I didn't read it but I'm sure it's worth picking up!

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    1. Actually, he deliberately changed his writing style (which is highly commendable!) which could entice you to compare the two...

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