The Remains of the day, Kazuo Ishiguro.
Recommended by Cathy Busfield. I’ve known of Cathy for years, as she is now married to a sometime colleague of mine from Windsor, Ronan Busfield. Somehow though, we never met in those days, when they were courting: it was only when we performed together at a concert in Aylesbury in November 2013 that we finally met. A few weeks later, she speculatively sent her CV to York House, and was shown around by the Head, wandering through my lesson. “What do you know of Cathy?”, came the email later, and my reply was along the lines of “I don’t really know her, but if she can tame Ronan Busfield, a class of children would be a breeze!”. She started teaching at York House the following September, and we quickly struck up a cherished friendship. Cathy is an inspirational teacher, and I have seen first hand her ability to enthuse groups of children into reading, so I had no hesitation in asking her for a recommendation.
I was thrilled when she suggested The Remains of the Day. This is definitely one of the books on the list that has been on my to-read list for some time now. Public interest in Kazuo Ishiguro has clearly been heightened following his recent Nobel award, and I heard a lovely interview with him around that time on Radio 4. He struck me immediately as an extremely humble man, with a deep sense of justice.
I found The Remains of the day a most peculiar, yet hugely affecting novel. Set within the artificial construct of journal entries, ostensibly spanning a holiday to the west country; what we are really treated to are the musings of a 1950s butler, reminiscing on the events of the interwar years. I have watched the film, but so many years ago that I remembered absolutely nothing of it before embarking on the book, so there was no fear of the plot being spoilt before I started.
Stevens, the butler, is a man obsessed with dignity and his role as butler. His journal entries, addressed directly to the reader, twist and turn around events from the 1930s, veering from anecdotes about famous visitors to the “downstairs” relationship with Miss Kenton, the housekeeper. It is Miss Kenton that he is making the trip to see, having received a letter from her. Ishiguro’s prose is masterful – allowing the reader to see the blindingly obvious facts that Stevens refuses to see, that by pursuing his idealistic conformity to the ideals of the perfect butler he is missing out on the love laid bare to him in the most blatant way possible at the time. Miss Kenton goads him, gets upset by him, and eventually flounces away from the house to marry, yet even in his journal recollections 20 years later Stevens explains these all away, hiding in rambling descriptions of meetings between his former employer Lord Darlington and various important gentlemen.
It is easy to think of Ishiguro’s feat of describing this English reserve as extraordinary, coming as it does from the pen of a man born in Japan to Japanese parents. Let us not forget however that he moved to Guildford aged 5, and went through the English school and University system, never returning to Japan in the next 30 years. This novel is just as much a product of excellent research (part of which apparently included reading P.G.Wodehouse, so there is a link here to another book on the list!) and a brilliant mind as it would be if a modern white, native English writer were to pen it, as unless they were from the upper reaches of the aristocracy they would have had as much exposure to the world of the 1930s country house as Ishiguro did.
To me, what is more remarkable is the description of Stevens’ pursuit of DIGNITY – this is the thing that obsesses him, although he is engaged in the process of learning to “banter” with his new American employer. I find the parallels between Stevens’ view of dignity and my own views on, say, social media rather intriguing. I have always struggled with people’s use of Facebook or Twitter to express emotions other than happiness; it is hard to see raw or bitter emotion portrayed on a screen, although I know that some people need to vent in this way. For others, it is hard to portray one’s life as anything other than ideal, even if the walls are crashing down around them. In times of trauma, simple statements of fact seem to be enough, whereas as soon as there is something positive to report, gushing phrases emanate, photos proliferate, emojis are scattered like confetti.
Is this “Britishness”? Is this Stevens’ dignity? Is it a good or a bad thing? I know that I only like to publicise things of which I’m proud or about which I am happy – let’s face it, this entire project could be construed as a large-scale self-glorification – “aren’t I wonderful, look at all these books I’ve read, these runs I’ve done, etc etc etc”.
So perhaps I might allow The Remains of the Day to remind me of this – never to let things get in the way of happiness. I have found a calm and happy place in recent years – one wishes Stevens could have managed this too.