My rating: 5 of 5 stars
It is difficult to discuss this novel without talking about at least some of the characters and plot in detail so I will warn you now – there are mild spoilers in this review.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s bestseller from 1989 has undoubtedly suffered from now being a book which came before Julian Fellowes’ Downton Abbey. I’m fairly certain the book was one of several major influences on Fellowes as he began to construct his epic TV series, but unfortunately the light doesn’t shine both ways. Back in the 90s this was a superb reflection of a bygone era which audiences still hungered for. Now, who could want anything lesser after gorging on Downton?
Taken at face value, Ishiguro’s novel certainly is lesser. Seen as a gentle reminiscence of a bygone era, the narrator – Mr Stevens – comes over as arrogant and foolish. As ‘road trip’ of the Cornish countryside, it reeks of that ‘Brexit-fever regain-control’ kind of nostalgia for the great English countryside and, by implication, the great English character – which is itself a myth.
But ‘The Remains of the Day’ is much deeper than this; cleverly so, for there is no doubt that Ishiguro has carefully planned out the structure and themes of the novel. Indeed, considering that most of the story is told in gentle first-person flashback and, in many ways, nothing really happens even at the very end, it is a remarkable thing of beauty and the ending, in its own way, does actually shock.
Part of this is, maybe, because of my age. I doubt a young person can truly understand the depth of the tragedy which plays out in the novel. I would imagine it would have seemed rather melodramatic to my younger self – a little too self-indulgent even. But when you have lived, and can see the times where your life took one turn when it could have taken another, where you have missed opportunities or had them taken away from you by another – then you can understand the place Mr Stevens, slowly and inexorably, finds himself arriving. Most of us, of a certain age, can sympathise with this. Only some come to the realisation that they’ve made a terrible mistake and wasted their lives – usually too late. Stevens, tragically, doesn’t even quite manage to do that; which leaves the reader all but screaming at the pages.
For me, the saddest aspect of the story is that Mr Stevens is so bound up in his work, his rules, his ethics of honour and loyalty (we never do get to find out his first name) that he has absolutely no self-awareness. As he takes his holiday and can reflect for the first time in years, he gradually comes to piece together at least parts of his life though, as I just said, one suspects he never really gets to understand it all. Some parts he is clearly still grasping at in the dark. Again, I’ve lived long enough to have met many like this, so convinced of their path, their principles, that they take directions that are clear to see, for those close by, will end in great sadness in years to come. Such people, I know now, are best left to discover for themselves their own tragedy. They rarely, if ever, change course through advice or attempts at intervention. Stevens lives in an era where no one even tries.
And so, for all his pomposity, arrogance and general ignorance of others – gently spoken as they are – I couldn’t help find myself feeling deeply for Stevens; more so than for Miss Kenton, the woman he clear should have declared love for, who suffers her own life decisions because of his inabilities and inaction as well as her own failings. He is, at heart, a man who tried to act honourably, loyally and with humility. He couldn’t see the effect he had on others and it is only in the ‘remains of the day’ that it comes to him – murkily – and, by then, it is far too late. In this sense, far from being a watered-down Downton, wallowing in nostalgia for a past that never really existed even when it did, Ishiguro’s novel is as tragically real-life as anything I’ve ever read.
Social Entrepreneur, educationalist, bestselling author and journalist, D K Powell is the author of the bestselling collection of literary short stories “The Old Man on the Beach“. His first book, ‘Sonali’ is a photo-memoir journal of life in Bangladesh and has been highly praised by the Bangladeshi diaspora worldwide. Students learning the Bengali language have also valued the English/Bengali translations on every page. Listen to his life story in interview with the BBC here.
D K Powell is available to speak at events (see his TEDx talk here) and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org. Alternatively, he is available for one-to-one mentoring and runs a course on the psychology of writing.