Inder's Reviews > The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
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Apr 13, 2008

it was amazing
bookshelves: 1001-books, 20th-century, fiction, england, read-2010, alltimefaves
Recommended to Inder by: Trisha

What a subtly brilliant novel. Not a word misplaced.

Weeks after finishing it, I am finally finding the words to review this wonderful novel without spoiling any elements of the plot (Ishiguro makes this difficult, as his novels tend to be full of twists and turns).

Ishiguro takes us inside the mind of Mr. Stevens, one of the last "true" English butlers, a man deeply dedicated to his work and craft: his is a "life of service." Stevens is a complex character. Above all, he is committed to his work as a "gentleman's gentleman." This role is more than a job - it defines him. He is absorbed in its nuances. This is his calling, and he strives to excel at it. His job is to operate in the background: if his actions remain invisible, then, and only then, does he feel that he has succeeded.

Stevens is cold, aloof, and emotionally distant. But this is, at least in part, a reflection of his dedication to his calling. Thus, where other reviewers see this as a purely negative quality, I, for one could not help but admire Stevens' steadfastness, loyalty, and work-ethic. And I could not help but relate to his pleasure in a job done well. I know from my own work that there can be profound pleasure in working very hard, in the background, in order to create the illusion of smooth-running ease.

But of course, under this superficial ease and gentility, life is full of turmoil and real suffering. In the distance, a war is raging. Stevens' absorption in his work, his stoicism and his loyalty, all take a heavy toll. This does mean that these are worthless values, but rather, serves as a reminder that idealism (of all different varieties) has a price.

And there is always regret. Stevens looks back on his life and wonders, rightly perhaps, if his steadfast loyalty was misplaced. The poignancy of this moment, the wondering how things might have been - something I believe we all experience at some point in our lives - is captured here so beautifully by Ishiguro. Several passages were so beautiful, I literally found myself gasping for air while reading them.

It's easy to say - too easy, I believe - that Stevens' character is painfully in denial, that he is emotionally stunted, that he is unable to relate to others, and has no imagination. That is all true. But don't we all cripple ourselves in one way or another? Our best qualities - our steadfastness and loyalty, our dislike of risk - may in the end destroy our happiness. Stevens' character has many idiosyncrasies, but his self-doubt is profoundly universal. None of us is so self-aware, or so deft in human relationships, that we can escape regret entirely.

But: However unbelievably, hope survives.

Absolutely heart-wrenching. This makes it onto a short list of books that made me cry on public transportation.

(An aside: It has come to my attention that almost all of my favorite contemporary novels are retrospectives of old men. Gilead, The History of Love, and now The Remains of the Day. What can I say? I love a great first person narrative, big on character and revelation, low on actual plot (subtle plot, I like to think). I'm not sure where the old man fixation comes in - please feel free to recommend some good old woman retrospectives.)
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Quotes Inder Liked

Kazuo Ishiguro
“But what is the sense in forever speculating what might have happened had such and such a moment turned out differently? One could presumably drive oneself to distraction in this way. In any case, while it is all very well to talk of 'turning points', one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one's life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one's relationship with Miss Kenton; an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.”
Kazuo Ishiguro, The Remains of the Day

Reading Progress

April 13, 2008 – Shelved
April 24, 2008 – Shelved as: 1001-books
August 17, 2008 – Shelved as: 20th-century
August 17, 2008 – Shelved as: fiction
August 17, 2008 – Shelved as: england
February 22, 2010 – Started Reading
February 23, 2010 –
page 77
31.43% "This book is flying by."
February 25, 2010 –
page 206
February 25, 2010 – Shelved as: read-2010
February 25, 2010 – Finished Reading
August 11, 2011 – Shelved as: alltimefaves

Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Linda (new)

Linda Have you already read Housekeeping? The other female-centered novel that sprang to mind is Charms for the Easy Life by Kaye Gibbons.

Inder I loved Housekeeping too, but I wouldn't have classified it as an "old woman retrospective" because the narrator isn't looking back over her life in that way. Still, totally awesome book! I will also look into Kaye Gibbons ...

Many of my favorite memoirs are just non-fictional old woman retrospectives, obviously.

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