What I love About Kazuo Ishiguro’s ‘The Remains of the Day’ (No Spoilers!)

I first read an Ishiguro book back in class 11. I didn’t know what to expect, and that’s always a good thing: it gives me a clean slate unfogged by other’s opinions.

At that point, I was struggling to get back into the habit of reading again. I’d just recovered from a severe bout of depression that had lasted several years. I was in therapy. I was feeling better, and impatient: I couldn’t wait to let fiction transport me to a new world. I needed a book that would be capable of doing this not in a dictatorial I-am-a-text-and-you-are-my-slave way, which is what I feel about a lot of literary fiction, but in a gentle, welcoming manner. I didn’t need a text that would be my master: I needed a text that would be my friend.

In The Remains of the Day, that is exactly what I found.

There were so many things I liked about the book that it doesn’t seem worth noting all of them. Instead, in this post I’ll tell you about 6 things I liked.

#1 The voice of the narrator

The Remains of the Day features one narrator, the butler Mr Stevens– a consistent reliable voice that starts out as self-consciously self-important, pedantic, slightly neurotic and almost incapable of showing human emotion. He is a little bit of a caricature, in fact, funny to everyone but himself.

As the book progresses, his voice slowly starts cracking, literally and metaphorically, to reveal something so much deeper and more startling that the power of it takes your breath away. There is something very Prufrockian about this guy. There’s that same hesitancy, the same painful consciousness of his own failings, the same obsessive self-examination. And yet, Stevens would never be as impractical as Prufrock seems to be, and Prufrock would never be as egotistical as him. The common point between the two is the sense of pathos you feel when their human shields- the face they use to meet the faces they meet– fall away to reveal their inner lives, with all their fears laid out bare.

The journey of that dry, factual, mechanical voice, apparently incapable of understanding humour and certainly incapable of executing it, towards becoming human, will break your heart into tiny little itty bitty pieces. And you will love it.

Anthony Hopkins as Mr Stevens in the movie adaptation of the Remains of the Day 1993
Anthony Hopkins as Mr Stevens in the 1993 movie adaptation

#2 The historical setting

The setting of the book switches between the years preceding the Second World War, recounted through flashbacks, and the mid 1950s (July 1956, to be exact), in Darlington Hall, a large (fictional) aristocratic mansion.

At the time, luckily, I’d been watching Downton Abbey, which gave me a perfect template for Darlington Hall. When combined with my love of Agatha Christie, this made the world of the novel very familiar for me. I’m sure there are other works of art that explore the crumbling world of 20th century aristocrats in the 1950s (which are your favourites? Tell me in the comments!), but it was Christie’s touching depiction that coloured my response to the book and made it that much more emotional. Ishiguro had captured the individual tragedy of that moment of enormous social shift perfectly, just as he had shown us how the turbulence of Europe before the war could affect one man in one house in one part of England.

#3 The lucidity of the prose

This is the point at which I would rant about how irritatingly complex literary prose (and academic writing) tends to be, but I’m too tired. Suffice it to say that despite writing in the voice of a stuffy, very proper character born more than a hundred years ago, Ishiguro manages to make the narrative crystal clear and with almost no convoluted long-ass sentences. Which means YOU, NEEDLESSLY COMPLICATED ACADEMIC WRITER, CAN TOO. Good writing does NOT need to be an unapproachable wall of words one has to scale over to get to the meaning on the other side. Ugh.

Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton in the movie adaptation of the Remains of the Day
Emma Thompson as Miss Kenton in the 1993 movie adaptation

#4 The sensitive characterizations

There are only two main characters in the book, Stevens, and Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper of Darlington Hall. All the others serve as foils to Stevens and in some way, bring out aspects of his characters by contrasting them with their own.

I love Stevens, and I liked him right from the beginning, but I know that for a lot of people he can be a hard character to like. What they do like about him is usually located in his relationship with Miss Kenton.

This woman, let me tell you, is badass. She isn’t afraid to stand up for what she thinks is right, and she’s not someone who is afraid to move on. I absolutely love her strength and honesty, and by pairing her with Stevens, for whom loyalty and dedication to service trumps everything, the novel seems to say that this isn’t a story in which one person is perfectly good and the other one is perfectly, unfeelingly evil. On the contrary, they are two of the most principled characters in fiction. It’s just that both of them refuse to budge from these values that clash head-on about halfway through the novel.

The characters are built so realistically that at no point in the book did I think there would be any other conclusion. The inevitability of their fate was written in their characters long before they reached the end.

#5 The fact that this was a British-Japanese author writing about the most British British period via the most British narrative voice ever

Ishiguro was born in Japan, but his family moved to Britain when he was 5. In a lot of ways, I suppose he is more British than Japanese, at least in terms of the culture he grew up in. But I find it very comforting that someone who is not originally of British descent could write about something that, at first glance, seems wholly alien to him.

For a few years now, I have been trying to find the courage to do something I did very easily when I was younger: enter the heads of characters very different from me through my imagination. When we believe in identity politics, the guilt that comes with writing an experience that is not ours can cause real moral dilemmas.

Of course, as a person of Japanese descent writing in the voice of a British man, Ishiguro wasn’t co-opting the voice of an individual or social group at the weaker end of any colonial (or otherwise hierarchical) power dynamic. That, I think, is the crucial point to remember when you’re stepping out of the boundaries created by your identity; don’t do it at the expense of someone else’s voice.

Still, it’s nice to know that I have the permission to explore different experiences as a writer if I want to, and it’s even nicer to have a guide that can show me how to go about it (a whole bunch of information collection and verification is part of it, as Ishiguro mentions here.)

Kazuo Ishiguro WInner 2017 Nobel Prize for Literature
Kazuo Ishiguro. Image Courtesy: Sky News.

#6 The lack of a resolution, and the beauty I found in that

The book does not have a ‘happy ending’: in fact, it doesn’t really have an ending at all. It leaves us wanting more, wanting better, for the two characters we have seen so much of in the book, and gives us none of this. And yet it is the only ending that would have befitted the book. It will keep you up at night and make you cry for days, but you will never, ever forget it: just like, six years later, I haven’t, and every time I read it again the sadness and satisfaction hits me afresh.

The Remains of the Day won the Man Booker Prize in 1989. It was adapted into a film in 1993 by Merchant Ivory Productions, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, which was then nominated for 8 Oscars.

But what this book gave to me goes so much beyond what any award can symbolize.

Congratulations on the Nobel, Mr Ishiguro. Thank you for saving me, and bringing me back to my favourite part of myself, when nothing else could.

Have you read a novel by Kazuo Ishiguro? If you have, which is your favourite? Would you like to, if you haven’t? Which one do you want to start with?

Tell me in the comments!

See you again very soon.

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