Sunday, December 3, 2017

The Remains of the Day by Kazu Ishiguro

I took this book slow, a chapter a day, leisurely reading a 'real' book in the evening by lamplight. I had an older, somewhat yellowed copy of the book and stopped to make notes as I read. I had not read Remains of the Day since its publication, for my original, hardbound copy was sacrificed in downsizing with one of our many moves.

I recalled I liked the book enough to be eager to see the movie version, which involved obtaining a babysitter and driving a half hour to a city large enough to have 'artsy' films. I had vivid memories of the movie with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson.

In 1956, Mr. Stevens, butler for Mr. Farraday the new owner of Darlington Hall, takes his one ever vacation, to see the former head maid, Miss Kent, now Mrs. Benn. She is newly single, and nostalgic, had written him a letter.

Stevens has been disconcerted by his new American master, who seems to want him to 'banter' in a friendly, lighthearted exchange. He has been thinking too much of the old days and of the changes that WWII brought to Britain.

Before many miles have passed he is in Terra Nova, as unfamiliar with the landscape as he is with the denizens of this new land. Mr. Steven's journey brings him in contact with working class folk and farmers, the great democratic populace outside of the rare atmosphere of Darlington Hall's lords and titled men, his 'betters'.

Mr. Steven's trip is also a journey into another area as unfamiliar as Salisbury or Cornwall-- his own soul.

A butler must have dignity: this has been his core belief and mantra, and those butlers--like his own father--who have stood for dignity have been his role models. To be great comes at a cost. Stevens served Lord Darlington, host to movers and shakers of the British Empire in the days after The Great War. Spotless, perfect silverware could mean the rise or fall of the country, the brokering of a deal or its failure. Stevens' quest for dignity and perfection, believing he is part of something bigger, justified his renouncement of the personal even when his father is dying, even when a woman's heart is there for the asking.

Appearances are everything, and yet Darlington Hall is submersed in deception for Lord Darlington is the dupe of political extremists and Nazi sympathizers. Stevens can not condemn his former employer, justifying his essential moral goodness and making apologies for his errors in judgement. And yet--and yet--he also dissembles, unable to admit to strangers his attachment to a man now held in universal disdain.

Mr. Farraday's Ford breaks down and Stevens is left wading through muddy fields in the gloaming, remembering Lord Darlington's fall from grace and later admission of wrong doing, and how Miss Kent had admonished Stevens for being unable to face his own feelings. Stevens is welcomed to spend the night with simple farmers and their neighbors, one of whom is an ardent Socialist arguing for more power to the people. Lord Darlington had believed that democracy was "something for a by-gone era" and that strong leadership--like in Italy and Germany--would bring the social changes society needed.

It is a rainy day when Mr. Stevens arrives at the rendezvous with Miss Kent. She had not married for love, but Stevens finds his heart is breaking to learn it is too late to turn back the clock.

How does we live the remainder of our life after learning we have based our life on a sham? When we realize our choices betrayed our true dignity? For Stevens, it means not looking back but enjoying the waning days. And learning to banter.

I marvel at the structure of this novel, the measured language, the complexity of character. I am so glad my book club chose to read Remains of the Day