Friday, August 7, 2015

Book Review: The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

On the one hand, it's embarrassing it took me so long to read this book. I received this as a college graduation gift from two of my professors. On the other hand, for more than 10 years, it was lost inside a very badly labelled box that otherwise only contained things destined for permanent storage. But once I found it, I still didn't read it. Partly out of guilt. Partly, no one else was reading it anymore so I wasn't reading or hearing great things about it. Partly, it kept getting superseded by newer, hotter books. Thankfully, one of my challenges has "A book at the bottom of your to-read list" as one of the categories. I don't know if this is the book I own that I've not read that is THE oldest, but it's from May 1995, so it's got to be pretty close. And thank god I have that category! This is one of the best books I've read in a long time.

The note in the front from my professor notes I should pay attention to the language, so I made a point from the very beginning to read it slowly. And given the exacting and perfect language, that is the right way to read this novel. In fact, I'm not sure I've ever read a novel where the main character's voice was more particular and strong. No other character in all of literature could read these same sentences and have them ring true. They belong to Stevens, the butler of Darlington Hall, and no one else.

The whole book takes place over just a few days. It is after WWII and Lord Darlington has died, and the house has been sold--complete with proper English butler--to an American. The new owner encourages Stevens to take a vacation (while he himself is abroad), even offering to pay his gas for Stevens to get out and see the countryside. Stevens immediately knows what he's going to do. The Hall has been understaffed and after reading a letter from the old housekeeper, Miss Kenton, who has left her husband, he drives off to see her and offer her her old job back. It takes him four days to drive to her, during which he takes in the country and meets locals. It takes a while for the reader to figure out that Stevens isn't an entirely reliable narrator. For example, while he is serving immediately after his father's death (seriously, just a few minutes later), he reports that several guests ask if he is okay, and upon answering that he is fine, one guest notes, but you appear to be crying. And at other times he reports things such as that he happened to be walking by Miss Kenton's room when she opens the door and asks why he is stomping around back and forth in front of her door, giving a very different impression of his actions than he reports.

Stevens is obsessed with dignity, and thinking back on his life, on his father's life (also a butler), on Lord Darlington's mistakes as a German sympathizer in the 1920s and 30s, on his relationship with Miss Kenton, most of the novel is internal, but it flies by (even when reading slowly to savor the language.) It is intense, emotional, heartbreaking, and yes, dignified. I loved this book. The writing is deceptively simple but masterfully crafted, with not a word that isn't needed. I feel I could read it multiple times and get more out of it each time. It is beautiful and stunning. A masterpiece.

I was given this book as a gift.

No comments: