Sunday, October 19, 2014

REVIEW: Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the DayThe Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
My rating: 5 of 5 stars
Original Publication Year: 1988
Genre(s): Literary Fiction, Historical
Series: NA
Format: eBook borrowed from Library
Narrated by: NA
 “For a great many people, the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day. Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day. After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services. What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy. And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.”
If I’m honest about it, I have always been a bit skeptical of literary fiction.  Sure, I’ve read and really enjoyed a number of books that could be placed in this “genre” but that has not stopped me of being a little ornery and irritated by the classification as a whole.  I think it’s this impression that it is somehow better or higher quality than books of another persuasion and that those that read these books exclusively are more intelligent or at least more intellectual.  This could be its own post, but I mention it briefly here to say that I think this book has made me realize that I need to drop the attitude.  Because Kazuo Ishiguro is a literary writer and while this is only the second of his books that I have read both have been very “literary” and both of them have completely blown me away. 

This book is not about “nothing” which is a frequently lobbed criticism of literary fic but
it is a quiet introspective examination of one man’s life. I can’t say that it swept me away and in fact right after putting the book down I gave it four out of five stars. But now, a month or so later I think I will be changing that to a five because it has stuck with me and upon further reflection I become further aware of all the themes and ideas Ishiguro managed to convey in the excessively formal, repressed and somewhat unreliable narration of a mid-century British butler.

The book is structured as a travel journal of sorts, written by the consummate butler, known as Stevens, of a “Grand House” in 1950’s England. He writes as if his words are addressed to other professionals such as himself and while he mentions his travels he is really reflecting on his life. In a way he is having the world’s most civilized mid-life or really three quarters life crisis. The voice is formal in the extreme, distinctive and never wavers. The reader must almost literally read between the lines to see the huge ocean of emotion underlying the simple and often misleading account. Stevens would like his audience to believe certain things about him and his career and his life but truly most of what he is saying on the surface is codswallop, sort of. It is such a complex portrayal, expressing a man’s unwavering beliefs about himself, his life and the world and his unwilling subconscious that realizes he may have been incredibly and completely wrong about it all and coming to terms with that. For example, Stevens is constantly defending his long-time noble employer because he himself feels betrayed by having served a man who in the end was very mistaken in his endeavors (see the quote above with the flash of honesty).

There are so many touches that serve to further illuminate the narrator. His own father was a butler tried and true and I found the scenes between father and son extremely disturbing and sad. There is also a humorous and continual throughline regarding the art of bantering. Stevens is concerned because his new American employer interacts with him in a bantering way and seems to expect bantering back from Stevens. This is so outside of the persona that Stevens has made for himself but to he feels compelled to be the best he can be for his employer so he endeavors to cultivate some witticisms. While the two times he tries to exercise his wit in the book, what he says is quite clever and funny, the response he gets is bemusement because his manner of delivery is so practiced, formal and cold. He seems completely unaware of what he must do differently.

And all of my babbling is just the tip of the ice berg. The writing is beautiful and completely mesmerizing. It portrays England as it approaches and then narrowly survives World War II and, most importantly for Stevens, begins to move into a modern world where butlers and huge household staffs will no longer be needed. It ranges in scope from one man’s life to the momentous changing of the world. There is also some romance, repressed and tortuous as it is.

Final Verdict: This has one of the most distinctive voices in any book I have ever read and manages to convey so much food for thought in a compact and mesmerizing narrative.  Highly Recommend!

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