I’m currently re-watching my favourite TV programme Downton Abbey, meaning that right now I’m pretty obsessed with any books or films that chronicle the upstairs-downstairs dynamic of a twentieth-century great house. The Remains of the Day, Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning novel, fulfils this perfectly. Stevens, the long-serving butler of Darlington Hall, begins the novel by ruminating on the absorbing and complex question of what makes a great butler. His answer is ‘dignity’ – the ability to preserve one’s innate professionalism regardless of emotional demands; a quality that arguably ensures his status as a ‘great butler’ but serves to stunt his own personal life.
I really enjoyed this book (I even gave it a rare five star review on Goodreads!) and I was especially impressed by Stevens’ first person narrative. The language, reactions and phrasing all seem so authentic to a typical butler, and his character is so fully realised that he appears to simply glide off the page. The language is so carefully crafted that it is a genuine pleasure to read, and I also liked the way the narrative slowly reveals the truth about Stevens’ much-valued employer; a slow-burn of a read but one that it is possible to devour in a matter of hours.
Although the reviewers waxed lyrical about Ishiguro’s evocation of a bygone world – and I too enjoyed his depiction of the stringent hierarchy pre-Second World War – I was most struck by his elegiac and poignant account of a man whose personal life and emotional growth has been sacrificed to his own exacting professional standards and to a way of life that has been irrevocably altered. His true self is invariably and tragically masked under the severe façade of dignity, which ensures that his infrequent outbursts of emotion are stark and powerful when they occur. I was honestly startled by Stevens’ statement that his ‘heart was breaking’ at one point in the novel, so uncharacteristic does it seem of his stoic veneer. I’m still trying to work out the implications of the novel’s message and struggling to find any criticism amidst the heaps of praise – but, suffice to say, The Remains of the Day is excellent and you should all read it.
Image credit: The Remains of the Day, 1993