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The Remains of the Day
9.17.2002 by Julian, every Tuesday.

Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is terribly, terribly sad. It’s the sort of book capable of reducing any warm-hearted human being to tears. Fortunately I’m a tight-assed Brit and so am incapable of emotion, much like Mr. Stevens, the protagonist of the book, thus I am spared any such embarrassing displays.

Stevens is the consummate English butler — impeccably polite, intensely loyal, and utterly emotionally repressed. He performs his duties with a religious devotion, forever striving to achieve “dignity,” a quality he believes necessary to be a truly great butler. As he puts it, great butlers “wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear his suit: he will not let ruffians or circumstance tear it off him in the public gaze; he will discard it when, and only when, he wills to do so, and this will invariably be when he is entirely alone. It is, as I say, a matter of ‘dignity’.”

The story is told in first-person from Stevens’s perspective, and this is where its genius lies. Ishiguro manages to tell a heart-wrenching tale of love and loss through a narrator who refuses to express any emotion whatsoever. We learn about Stevens’s true passions indirectly, by reading-between-the-lines.

We quickly learn not to believe everything Stevens says. He goes out of his way to justify his behaviour and that of others: he insists that he is going to visit Miss. Kenton, the ex-housekeeper, for purely “professional” reasons; he claims he reads sentimental romance novels in order to improve his vocabulary. He is the classic unreliable narrator, and this is often frustrating. You feel like screaming, “Shut up about the crockery, just admit you’re in love with her!” But at the same time you feel so sorry for him.

Emotional repression is linked with political repression. It becomes clear that Stevens’s boss, Lord Darlington, was mixed up with the Nazis during the Second World War, but when Stevens is called upon to take a stance against Darlington, he remains loyal, insisting that it is not his place to speak out against his lord. Darlington is something of a father-figure to Stevens, and in one agonizing scene, Stevens serves tea to Darlington and his friends while his real father lies dying.

The novel is written as a series of rambling flashbacks, but they are written masterfully. Ishiguro effortlessly segues between past and present and near-past as Stevens’s memories of his long career flow into one another, an underlying momentum carries you through it all. The writing is restrained and understated to an extreme, but it never drags.

The Remains of the Day is a truly great book. It won the Booker Prize in 1989, and in my opinion it was well deserved.

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