The Remains of the Day

I remember the acting being top-notch in the film version of Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day. So seeing it on the bookstore shelves, I thought it would be a nice story to settle down with one night, especially as I’ve a fondness for the pre-war British era. I agree with the promo copy on the back, “The novel rests firmly on the narrative sophistication and flawless control of tone…” A butler is the narrating protagonist with no personal life, and it is through Ishiguro’s excellent manipulation of diction and memory that through the butler’s words we gain a more complete picture of the man Stevens than he has of himself. Stevens is more butler than human, consistently rejecting any attempts at familiarity and placing all is efforts toward his profession. Naturally this leaves him alone at the end of his life, and the novel closes with his sitting on a pier at the end of a rare vacation at the end of the day. He has doubts about the integrity of the man he served, so that he is even denied the comfort of a knowing he contributed to the world. True to form, with a stiff upper lip, Stevens decides to work harder at bantering with his new American employer—both quite foreign to him—and the novel closes on neither a dismal or hopeful note. Rather, it affirms that life goes on, and one goes on with it as one ages and times change. Life is still life, and for all the flaws a character has or the “might have beens,” the life one has is the most precious one to try to live.
This being said, and excellent movie notwithstanding, this was not an inspired or great book. It was competently written with great attention to structure, tone and resolution. However, it felt predictable. I found Steven’s tone more wearing in its digressions than interesting. Perhaps it is merely a simple story of a stodgy butler past his prime, and not much more can be done with it. Perhaps his character, even as you watch it turn away from what it most wants without realizing it, lacks appeal. All he really seems to lack is the ability to change—is that what makes characters interesting? Perhaps the best way to explain is this: the book is exactly like its protagonist. That is a great compliment to the telling of it, while explaining its limitations are those of narrowness, singular viewpoint, and inflexibility. Fortunately for the novel, the tragedy of being left behind by the world was not a fate it shared.

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