The Remains of the Day
Vintage Int’l, 1989
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is, as the Amazon product page calls it, “universally acclaimed”. It won the Booker prize the year of its release, and no less a pedigree than Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson graced the screen in its film adaptation. I personally received recommendations for this book from people that both know me well and whom I greatly respect for their taste in literature.
Imagine my surprise, and the depth of my self-doubt and questioning of my own aesthetic inventory, when I read this book and really, really despised it.
At its core, The Remains of the Day is a story of a quirky, socially impaired butler as he takes a well-deserved vacation through the English countryside to see a female coworker from his past. As he makes his way on this solitary road trip, we are served his musings and stories of life history between the Wars as experienced by him, a butler in the house of an influential British gentleman.
The problems with the book begin at the level its very structure. This narrative device–in which the story unfolds in memories leading to the present–is one which has been successfully executed by many authors to great effect. But here, it is fairly pointless; the framing serves no narrative or thematic purpose and makes little sense for how the protagonist’s recollections unfold.
Not only are his recollections all (conveniently) chronological, but his stories are entirely disconnected from what’s going on around him on the road trip. It is not the case that he sees a bird and thinks, “that reminds of the time I saw a similar bird at my employer’s house,” for example. Further, there’s no reason why it would take six days for him to think of and share with us the story of his former employer’s ruin and disrepute at the onset of WWII.
It would be one thing to have fairly arbitrary framing and structure within which compelling and riveting characters or plot happen. But alas, this is not to be. The main character feels like a caricature of a type–the socially-awkward, romantically oblivious man bounded by the constraints of “duty”–yet not even after spending hundreds in his head does he feel any more like a real human.
I think he’s supposed to be endearing to us and somewhat tragic, and yet he is none of these things. This single dimension character does not grow, does not learn, and does not reflect. He is so over-the-top in all his weaknesses and tropes, I began wondering if Ishiguro was actually trying (unsuccessfully) to write the kind of novel that takes us into the thought processes of someone on the autism spectrum.
Regarding plot, I found many of the historical details fascinating. I enjoyed how the political tension leading to Hitler’s rise and his co-opting of the English elite to that end was unspooled and pieced together through fragments offered in the butler’s recollections of characters around him. (Yet once again, it is incredibly irritating that even with far less information than the main character himself, we always feel that we know more than he does and understand his circumstances better than him.)
Yet do not confuse this for an historical novel. No, the story lingering in the background of the road trip, the memories, and the history is this butler’s–what word should we call it?–“relationship” with a female coworker of his from his past. What the novel attempts to do is build the tension between these two, seeing how she has loved our butler for years and he hasn’t yet seen it, how they missed and hurt each other over and over again with time and circumstance never being on their side. And only now, at the end of their lives, they just may be able to love each other once he sees her again at the end of this road trip.
Even much lesser novels are able to successfully lay the groundwork for this. In this, however, I feel Ishiguro fails entirely. The book’s final “reveal” that she has loved him throughout their life together sounds more like dysfunction on her part than wistful romance of what could be. The supposed romantic “tension” here is absurd because there is no reason why any other human would want to be with this man.
He’s the kind of man a woman loves, not for any positive qualities he posses, but for the blank slate he offers upon which she can project her own hopes and dreams; and then in a moment of clarity she realizes she’s being silly and falling into bad emotional patterns she did in her 20s and then moves on to better and healthier patterns, realizing she actually don’t like this guy much at all.
At my most charitable, I suppose the book is meant to be a witness to the loss of innocence and sense of propriety and “dignity” (a word/theme brought up with little subtlety throughout) as England moved into its post-empire, post-war self. It tries to vividly portray the anemia that stuffy platitudes of “duty” and piety have in the face of hard-nosed realism.
The butler maintaining his poise at the expense of love is meant to parallel England’s lost glory through its policy of appeasement with Hitler. It wants us to see the naivete of the “old ways” and mourn the savagery of realism and “growing up” to human nature on the world stage.
These are beautiful, profound ideas–ideas that could be of great use to us today–and yet, the book, its narrator, its structure, its language, and its “romance” fail to make this hit home. Perhaps it is all the more frustrating then, that many of the raw materials for such a compelling book are found within these pages. Unfortunately, though, it is not the book we have before us.