The 2017 laureate for the Nobel prize in literature is none other than the British author of Japanese descent, Kazuo Ishiguro. Despite my fascination with Japanese literature (I know he’s technically not considered part of the Japanese literary world but still..) I have to admit that I had only read his short story collection, Nocturnes, about 4 to 5 years ago. As soon as Dolce Bellezza proposed a read-along of two of his novels, I knew I had to participate. The Remains of the Day is the only novel of his that I own in English (my mum being a fan of Ishiguro’s writing, we own everything of his that’s been translated into Greek) so I opted for that.
For a long time now, I have been very intimidated by this novel. Although very highly praised by some, others have described it as slow, boring and overly wordy. I had made an attempt to read it a few years ago but I never got past page 2; that’s probably because what I needed at that moment was a fast-paced story that didn’t require much chewing over. This novel, however, is everything but that, since it makes you ponder about the issues raised in it for days after reaching the last page.
The story is narrated from the point of view of Stevens, a butler, who works in Darlington Hall, which, after WWII, came to the possession of an American gentleman. Stevens’s new employer advises him to go for a short trip around England since he hasn’t had vacation for a very long time, and, despite his initial hesitation, Stevens warms up to the idea and that’s how the story begins.
Each chapter is narrated from a different town from Stevens’s journey, but more than describing his actual trip and experiences, the butler goes through a trip down memory lane and ends up relating to the reader his story and life with his previous employer and the circumstances surrounding his current position. Prominent figure in his ruminations on the past is his father as well as Miss Kenton who also used to work at Darlington Hall before she got married.
Nostalgia seeps through the narrative in every sentence. Stevens’s language is as formal and rigid as any proper English gentleman’s should be (or used to be) in an effort to hide and cast away his true feelings, but this apathy and indifference while narrating very crucial events in his life is exactly what gives away the extent to which he cared and how deeply he felt about them. This happens to be one of the characteristics of Japanese literature as well, and although Ishiguro is considered part of the British literary production, it appears to me like this part of his heritage permeates his writing, willingly or not. What appears as an inherently British narrative has, in reality, such an affinity to the Japanese culture and way of thinking.
Some of the questions posed and issues raised throughout the novel are those of dignity and which are the qualities that make a butler ‘great’, questions which are ardently connected with Stevens’s past and the choices he had to make as a person and as a butler as well. Ultimately, The Remains of the Day is a novel about the past and how it continually haunts us, shaping our future in ways we could never imagine. It is a novel about regret, regret for the choices that weren’t made and regret for the words left unsaid. It is a novel about duty and loyalty and the lengths an individual can go in order to fulfil them.
Have you read this novel or are you intimidated by it like I used to be?