May 5, 2008

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

I finished Kazuo Ishiguro's Booker Prize winning novel, The Remains of the Day on Saturday and needed a day or two to think about it. 

On the surface it is a wonderfully subtle comedy of manners, but what is so brilliant about Ishiguro's prose is that what appears on the surface, to be nothing but the amusingly miopic recollections of an iconic English butler, is in fact, a tragedy unfolding in slow motion. This novel is, as Salmon Rushdie put it, "a story both beautiful and cruel" about a man who suspects he has wasted his life but cannot truly acknowledge this waste and so he cannot redeem it. He is cauterized and this cauterization dooms him. 

I'm not qualified to say anything new about The Remains of the Day - it's long been hailed by scholars and critics as a modern classic for good reason (and the fact that it won the Booker Prize really does speak for itself). That said, I was impressed by one thing that I feel is especially worth mentioning from a craft perspective. That is the subtlety and respect with which Ishiguro portrays his narrator and protagonist, the butler, Stevens. 

In lesser hands, Stevens could have been a ridiculous figure, with his seemingly hollow obsessions, such as with his "staff plans" (a brilliant device on Ishiguro's part), the superiority of a particular silver polish, and his somewhat horrifying understanding of the nature "dignity". His blind faith in his employer, Lord Darlington's, judgement could frustrate as much as his inability to emote in even the most extreme situations (as with his father's death). It is a testimony to Ishiguro's sensitivity as a writer that all of these qualities, qualities that could so easily have read as farcical, should instead break your heart slowly. There is an intense vulnerability in Stevens that is entirely implied through repeated actions (such as his obsessive rereading of Miss Kenton's letter) and Ishiguro's 'quoting' of certain words and phrases that are outside of Stevens' comfort zone ('bantering' and 'having one on' among them). All of these work to create a narrator/protagonist who prides himself on being an inscrutable professional (something he largely succeeds in, if he is to be believed). But he is also a man who constantly and subtly betrays an astonishing depth of pain and bewilderment in private moments. Of course, Stevens would be horrified to hear that.

The Remains of the Day is simply excellent, as excellent as anyone who has ever told me that I absolutely must read it, insisted it would be. And so I'm going to hop in line with all of those people and say, "you absolutely must read it - it's absolutely excellent." You won't be sorry if you do (though you may be a little melancholy for a day or two after).
 

3 comments:

Audie said...

I haven't read this one, it struck as too Bronte sisters for my taste (not my favorites), but I will have to go get it at Half Price now... :)

Madeleine said...

I'd check it out at the library for sure - that way you're not out a couple of bucks in case you think I'm out to lunch :-). It definitely has the "British Novel Of Quality" thing about it, but it's much lower key than the Brontes, more internal and funnier in a sad sort of way...
By the way, I like what you had to say about the de Lint you just finished (I am, of course, blanking on the title). I'll have to check it out....

Audie said...

I am totally biased when it comes to de Lint. I LOVE him, but The Little Country is a really good book. It isn't the best though (in my opinion), my all time favorite is still Some Place To Be Flying. :)
I love that there is someone to talk about books with! YAY!