Title: The Remains of the Day (1989)
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
Genre: Historical Fiction, British Literature
Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ½
These impetuous instances plague me. I’m sure you know exactly which ones I’m talking about:
You know, the ones where you’re doing what you do so well, but then something happens, and you feel yourself, split. You become two: the part that you are and the part composed of your past that you could have been.
Though I’m not an arbitrator of regret nor am I inclined to suspend myself into a vacuum of silly hypothetical(s )of “could’ve been or would’ve been”, I, like you, sometimes find myself sitting in a daze of utter emptiness and unawareness, unable to bring closure to my self-evident dissonance. The high-powered tempest of inexplicability and eroding waves of dissatisfaction continue to besiege, and I, like many others, cannot come to terms why. What is this feeling? What is this force that sits at the core of my existence, shaking me, and slowly, breaking me?
“But that doesn’t mean to say, of course, there aren’t occasions now and then – extremely desolate occasions – when you think to yourself: ‘What a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life.” And you get to thinking about a different life, a better life you might have had. ‘”
This feeling is captured by many words but best described by one; it is an epidemic that hits with an incomprehensible fervor, again and again, until one is left to wallow in perhaps the biggest existential chapter of their lives. This feeling is disillusionment–
–and this feeling is sublimely perforated in the pages of Kazuo Ishiguro’s acclaimed novel The Remains of the Day.
Within these pages, get ready to meet yourself. Get ready to meet me. Get ready to meet probably every person you know and you don’t know through the novel’s unreliably reliable narrator, Mr. Stevens–who just happens to be a butler.
Mr. Stevens is an uncannily dignified butler during the early 20th century in England, at the esteemed Darlington hall. The novel trails Mr. Stevens as he takes a trip through the English countryside, after receiving a letter a former colleague, along with his monologues and dialogues about his life-both from the past and the present. He spends half of his time narrating about the ideals of butlerhood and the other half, about the virtues relating to it. Aside from his recitations about butlerhood and his experiences, he also revels in good ol’ Britain’s Glory, the Art (with a very capital A, mind you) of Serving, and other nuances of his career. Mr. Stevens provides us with great discourse and dialect about the talent and passion required to be successful in this trade. Perhaps after the first 30 or so pages, one can find themselves questioning whether this is a manual for aspiring butlers from a Jeeves-rip off or an actual novel about something more.
“A butler of any quality must be seen to inhabit his role, utterly and fully; he cannot be seen casting it aside one moment simply to don it again the next as though it were nothing more than a pantomime costume.”
Underneath the deceiving sheath of what the novel appears to be, turns out to be an extremely empathetic experience, tailored distinctly from the very pantomime costume that Mr. Stevens ignorantly adorns. Therefore, if anyone is left wondering: what could I have possibly found in this, as estranged as possible, character that I make the claim of universal resonation? Well, that is simply embedded in the fact that somewhere along the way, something happens. The splendor of Mr. Stevens words begins to rust, the definitive virtues he holds to be absolute devolve into fable, and the very wall he constructed to keep himself in — and us out — begins to break, crumble, and eventually, we face each other as if looking in a broken mirror, in the most awkward of standoffs. Mr. Stevens ceases to be The Butler and becomes something far more fickle; he becomes an ordinarily feeling, wanting, longing, despairing human being.
“In any case, while it is all very well to talk of ‘turning points’, one can surely only recognize such moments in retrospect. Naturally, when one looks back to such instances today, they may indeed take the appearance of being crucial, precious moments in one’s life; but of course, at the time, this was not the impression one had. Rather, it was as though one had available a never-ending number of days, months, years in which to sort out the vagaries of one’s relationship…;an infinite number of further opportunities in which to remedy the effect of this or that misunderstanding. There was surely nothing to indicate at the time that such evidently small incidents would render whole dreams forever irredeemable.”
Mr. Stevens, and by extension the heart of this book, is *shockingly* not about butlers. It is about illusions and the amplified effect of such said illusions to the point that it inverts itself into disillusionment of oneself and their surroundings. It is about charades, a game that is universally played by the masses to construct themselves into some preconceived and conditioned projection and play out the projection to the best of their ability, unflinching to the little voice that speaks out with a soft tremble again and again. It is about un-fulfillment. It is about ignorance. It is about missed opportunities. It is about regret. It is about reality. It is about dreams. It is about conflict. It is about love. It is about loss. It is about catharsis. It is about emptiness. It is about you. And it is about me.
“And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really – one has to ask oneself – what dignity is there in that?”
Disillusionment, thus is an artifice, created solely by us, for us; a mere conduit for our own repressed wants which we justify through our ignorance and defend by our growing dissonance. As we continue to live, this feeling unearths itself more. This is what Mr. Stevens reveals: As he lived his life on stage, always to serve, always for others, he forgot one very important thing: himself. Along with himself he left the moments of yesterday in yesterday, never to return tangibly, but only to remind him of “what could have been” and more importantly, “what could never be”.
These instances, these inexplicable instances where we find ourselves losing shape, slipping like fine-grain through the cracks of our fingers and like Mr. Stevens, we are left with the hard-hitting reality. But not all is lost. We have lost ourselves, but not permanently. The past is permanent, but the present is happening, and the future is yet to come. And like Mr. Stevens, there is much to be looked forward to in Remains of the Day.