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Fiction

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

The Remains of the Day is the story of Stevens, an aging butler who worked for Darlington Hall – back in the glory days of mansion staff with butlers and maids. Darlington Hall now has a new American owner, Mr. Faraday, who suggested that Steven should take his car for a drive in the West country of South England. The chapters are divided as per Steven’s journey that takes him deep into the countryside and into his past…. His most important stop will be to see Miss Kenton, who has recently divorced, if she would like to come back and work in Darlington hall as they are a little shorthanded.

Stevens reminiscences about his time serving Lord Darlington over the years on the good old days before and after WWII and also his relationship with Miss Kenton, then housemaid. He also ruminates on issues of dignity and what makes a butler truly great.  Unfortunately, as Stevens revisits his past, doubts about the respectability of his former employer begin to creep into his mind, and the possible hidden messages of love lost due to his dignity, Stevens must finally evaluate  take stock of what he has made of his life and if his traditional values are valid in today’s world.

Now I have to admit that the last two books of Kazuo Ishiguro Nocturnes and Never let me go have annoyed me. There are mostly long sentences, convoluted passages, it didn’t hold my interest for long. Yet it is the same long sentences and the same techniques that brought the nuances of elegiac and past memory of butler Steven come to live.

Where do I start? This is one of the novel I sigh at the end with contentment and awe knowing that it is a masterpiece. A novel that you put down and there hung many deep implications that makes my mind thinking about it again and again. I’m trying to think when is the last time a novel had did this to me, perhaps In the country of men by Hisham Matar  is one.

The English Landscape at its finest – …. Possess a quality that the landscapes of other nations, however more superficially dramatic, inevitably fail to possess. It is, I believe, a quality that will mark out the English landscape to any objective observer as the most deeply satisfying in the world, and this quality is probably best summed up by the term ‘greatness’ . … We call this land of ours Great Britain, and there may be those who believe this a somewhat immodest practice.

And yet what precisely is this ‘greatness’? Just where, or in what, does it lie? I am quite aware it would take a far wiser head than mine to answer such a question, but if I were to hazard a guess, I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart. What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it. In comparison, the sorts of sights offered in such places as Africa an America, though undoubtedly very exciting, would, I am sure, strike the objective viewer as inferior on account of their unseemly demonstrativeness. – page 29 

‘Dignity’ has to do crucially with a butler’s ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits. Lesser butlers will abandon their professional being for the private one at the least provocation. … the great butlers are great by virtue of their of their ability to inhabit their professional role and inhabit it to the utmost; they will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing. They wear their professionalism as a decent gentleman will wear their suit:… he will discard it when, and only when, he wills to do so, and this was invariably be when he is entirely alone. It is, as I say, a matter of ‘dignity’. – page 44

The novel was subtle and gentle, in a true gentleman and English way, slowly building to a conclusion that is heart breaking.  The words are few but every word is significant. The selected memories of Steven each and every one of them showcase an important social commentary about modern Britain. It is about the corrosion of traditional value of integrity, loyalty and dignity. It is about the ruling class and the working class and whether it is foolhardy to think the majority knows what is good for the country. It is about putting duty above self and to come to the part when Steven has to fulfil his duty while his father is breathing his last, speaks volume about Steven’s work ethics. Unfortunately it was his unerring deference to his higher principles that he lost his opportunity to find his own happiness.

In an almost all-male casts talking about masculine topics and old values, you would think this book is dry. In contrary it was an engrossing read. I relish in the meanings for things that are left unsaid. I feel my heart sigh on the longing and loss in the last few chapters.

I am continuously surprise that people are surprised Kazuo Ishiguro would embody a British soul and writes something so ‘English’. I feel I need to vehemently defend him just because someone carries a Japanese name doesn’t make him less a ‘British’ than someone who has a White man’s name. In all fairness, Ishiguro grew up in England and studied in grammar school and became a British citizen. He is as British as he can get. Moreover, the values that he amplified in the novel, which is ‘integrity’, ‘dignity’ and duty above self are values that are very similar to the Japanese.

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 me, there is little choice other than to leave our face, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub od 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 is it enough that the likes of you and me at least try to make a small contribution count for something true and worthy? – page 256

…bantering lies the key to human warmth. – page 258

I could spend days thinking about this novel in different ways and every other way that I see it, it all brings great insight to me. Due to my upbringing, I operate an innate honour code. I do my job in integrity and always work more than I’m paid for. I do not covet nor attempt to steal my friend’s boyfriend nor I could bring myself to do apple polishing at work for personal gain but I often wonder if I have bended my rules in life would I be in a better position than I am in now? Perhaps this is the same question (not literally!) that Steven asked himself and my take is that at the end he decided to live life a little and not take it all too seriously.

This is without a doubt Kazuo Ishiguro’s best work ever and is the best Man Booker Prize read ever for me. It’s a joy being able to finish a book that is much talked about and ended up loving it. With this book, I put Ishiguro up on my favourite authors’ pedestral and a contention for my favourite book of the year. I have been looking for a writer who writes about ‘dignity’ for a long time and if I need to pin down a book that is the epitome of British custom and its respected way, this is the book. And I question if an adoption of some of these traditional values wouldn’t do a bit of good for the society now that has lost its way.

‘Today’s world is too foul a place for fine and noble instincts.” – page 234

Rating: 

What would you recommend trying next?  A Pale View of Hills, Unconsoled or When We Were Orphans?

Paperback. Publisher:Faber & Faber (Secret & Lies series), 2011; Length: 258 pages; Setting: West Country, South England.Source: Reading Battle Library. Finished reading at: 17th March 2012.

Other views:

Matt@A Guys’s Moleskine notebook:  Cleverly put together, the novel reads a dizzying dance and an emotional journey down memory lane.

Steph and tony investigate:  The topics addressed may not be as “sexy” and controversial, but this novel is so much richer and far more thoughtful, and ultimately more human.  Unquestioningly it deserved the Booker the year it was published, because not only is it one of the best Booker winners I’ve had the pleasure of reading, it’s also simply one of the best books I’ve ever read.

Bookie Mee: As the basic story is not one that is close to my heart, it probably won’t end up as my favorite book of all time. (Maybe it will maybe it won’t. Only time will tell.) But as a novel, it is amazingly accomplished.

My other reviews of the same author: Nocturnes and Never let me go

About the writer (Souce: Wikipedia):

Kazuo Ishiguro OBE (Japanese: カズオ・イシグロ (Kazuo Ishiguro) or 石黒 一雄 (Ishiguro Kazuo); born 8 November 1954) is a Japanese–British novelist. He was born in Nagasaki, Japan, and his family moved to England in 1960. Ishiguro obtained his Bachelor’s degree from University of Kent in 1978 and his Master’s from the University of East Anglia’s creative writing course in 1980. He became a British citizen in 1982. Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki on 8 November 1954, the son of Shizuo Ishiguro, a physical oceanographer, and his wife Shizuko. In 1960 his family, including his two sisters, moved to Guildford, Surrey so that his father could begin research at the National Institute of Oceanography. He attended Stoughton Primary School and then Woking County Grammar School in Surrey. After finishing school he took a ‘gap year’ and travelled through America and Canada, whilst writing a journal and sending demo tapes to record companies.

In 1974 he began at the University of Kent, Canterbury, and he graduated in 1978 with a Bachelor of Arts (honours) in English and Philosophy. After spending a year writing fiction, he resumed his studies at the University of East Anglia where he studied with Malcolm Bradbury and Angela Carter, and gained a Master of Arts in Creative Writing in 1980

Ishiguro is one of the most celebrated contemporary fiction authors in the English-speaking world, having received four Man Booker Prize nominations, and winning the 1989 prize for his novel The Remains of the Day. In 2008, The Times ranked Ishiguro 32nd on their list of “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945″.

Awards

  • 1982: Winifred Holtby Memorial Prize for A Pale View of Hills
  • 1983: Published in the Granta Best Young British Novelists issue
  • 1986: Whitbread Prize for An Artist of the Floating World
  • 1989: Booker Prize for The Remains of the Day
  • 1993: Published in the Granta Best Young British Novelists issue
  • 1995: OBE
  • 1998: Chevalier de l’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres
  • 2005: ‘Time magazine names Never Let Me Go on its list of the 100 greatest English language novels since the magazine formed in 1923.
  • 2008: The Times named Ishiguro among “The 50 greatest British writers since 1945″.

I love the covers of the books in Faber’s Secrets and lies series.

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About JoV

A bookaholic that went out of control.... I eat, sleep and breathe books.

Discussion

29 thoughts on “The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

  1. I never read the book but the 1993 movie was just heartbreaking. As was the book and movie for Never Let Me Go. I never heard anyone cast doubt upon the author’s ability to “embody a British soul” but people are so touchy these days about requiring a match between the ethnicity of the author and the main protagonist. I don’t see how any ONE author can represent his or her race or ethnicity any more or less than any other; even a little thought should yield the insight that it is writing skill that counts! As for me, I feel inclined to avoid Ishiguro like the plague in any event not because of what his background is but because his writing, albeit quite wonderful, is such a downer! :–)

    Posted by rhapsodyinbooks | March 25, 2012, 12:41 am
    • Jill,
      Oh I must see the movie then. I tend to agree with you that Ishiguro’s writing is not one that is easy to follow, I don’t blame you! but you are right to say that ethnicity has no bearing and I hope to see more of other ethnicity writing about stories that is alien to their own.

      Posted by JoV | March 26, 2012, 8:46 am
  2. I have seen the movie of this and liked it a lot

    Posted by Mel u | March 25, 2012, 4:09 am
  3. I so want to read A Fine Balance, if it comes in kindle I will buy it when it becomes available out side the UK

    Posted by Mel u | March 25, 2012, 4:12 am
  4. Hello Jov,
    I read Remains of the Day in 2004, and at first reading I didn’t know what to make of it, because of its slow pace the lack of any actual action. A later reading at a more mature age helped me see its beauty and understand the soul of the story.
    I do not know why so many people raise their eyebrows at the mixing of ethnicity in literature. Stevens is a Brit through and through, and he is also a human being. what part of this range of emotions would be incomprehensible to another human being, me for instance, an Indian, or Ishiguro, a British-Japanese?
    Lovely to see this review of a favorite book.

    http://riversihaveknown.wordpress.com/

    Posted by Amritorupa Kanjilal | March 25, 2012, 7:12 am
    • Amrit,
      I agree with what you said. It’s a book for mature audience. I suppose people are surprised that Kazuo Ishiguro carries a Japanese name yet something thoroughly British. Thanks for dropping by!

      Posted by JoV | March 26, 2012, 10:17 am
  5. Like you, I loved this book. I’m not normally keen on slow books, but this book was so well written and there is so much happening between the lines! I also very much enjoyed Never Let Me Go, but that is very different from this book. When We Were Orphans was also great, but again, totally different and a bit weird.

    Posted by Leeswammes | March 25, 2012, 8:52 am
  6. I loved this, but then I love all of Ishiguro’s work. I recently finished ‘The Unconsoled’, and it is completely different to anything else he’s written, a real Kafkaesque monster of a book. Unfortunately, my review won’t tell you much as it’s just as strange as the book – one thing I can tell you is that there’s no such thing as a free lunch with Ishiguro…

    http://tonysreadinglist.blogspot.com.au/2012/03/dinner-for-two-at-fusion-lit-bistro.html

    Posted by Tony | March 25, 2012, 12:27 pm
  7. I loved Remains of the Day too. It’s my favorite of the Ishiguro books I’ve read so far. I love the way Ishiguro builds up the narrative of how Stevens’s old boss so that you gradually realize something’s wrong there, and then you get what it is. It’s so elegantly done.

    Posted by Jenny | March 25, 2012, 3:51 pm
    • Jenny,
      Elegance is the word. It is so elegant. I was too caught up with Stevens’ feeling that I more or less ‘ignore’ what Lord Darlington did in his lifetime. Sensible or foolish, depending on who’s looking at it. Thanks for dropping by!

      Posted by JoV | March 26, 2012, 10:49 am
  8. This is not an author I have read before, but your review made this book sound like a must read for me! It is definitely going on my tbr list. On a side note I do have the screen adaptation of Never Let Me Go recorded on my Sky planner, hoping to get round to it very soon.

    Posted by jessicabookworm | March 25, 2012, 5:04 pm
    • Jessica,
      Ishiguro is a literary household name. May be a bit slow for your liking but this one particularly tick all the boxes for being a British classic. Hope you give it a go!

      Posted by JoV | March 26, 2012, 10:33 am
  9. pale view of hills my favourite by him this is a close second though ,I struggle with the unconsoled I found that very long and to much at times he let his long sentences go there lol ,all the best stu

    Posted by winstonsdad | March 26, 2012, 5:46 pm
  10. I have to give this one another go. I read it YEARS ago and I didn’t like it too much back then.

    Posted by Ti | March 26, 2012, 6:07 pm
  11. Hi Jo, I liked this book and thought the movie was very good as well.

    Posted by Diane@BibliophileBytheSea | March 27, 2012, 10:46 am
  12. Glad you loved this one so much Jo! I think Ishiguro is one of my favorite authors. I mean his books are not really on my top list of all time (I’ve read this, never let me go, and when we were orphans), but overall they get pretty good scores. Most authors even struggle to get one good score for me ;), so I’m happy to keep reading his books.

    Posted by mee | March 27, 2012, 12:59 pm
    • Mee,
      He is a weird one though. I am very impressed with this book but not for his other books and I feel a bit apprehensive if I were to read his other books and hating it all over again. :)

      Posted by JoV | March 27, 2012, 1:32 pm
  13. Jo – glad you loved this so much. I haven’t read it but have seen the film and loved the dignity and elegance of Stevens (beautifully played by Anthony Hopkins). I have read a good part of When We Were Orphans and remember the writing being crisp and elegant and very appealing. Having said that I didn’t finish it so I must revisit it again soon. I’m interested in the whole British/Japanese style and agree with you around being careful of our expectations about an author solely based on their surname. Hope you find another of his books to like too 0:)

    Posted by Tracey | March 31, 2012, 9:17 pm
    • Tracey,
      I am glad you love it. I really must watch the movie too! Very divided views on Where We Were Orphans, I’ll give it a go in the future. Thanks for dropping by Tracey!

      Posted by JoV | April 2, 2012, 10:29 am

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Ratings Defined

0 = Abandon the book after first chapter

1 = Waste of paper, we will see what the environmentalist say about this!

2 = Skip it, read the book if you have got nothing better to do

2.5 = An average book, easily forgettable.

3 = A good read.

3.5 = A good entertaining read, a page-turner

4 = So glad that I read the book, a book with substance and invaluable for future reference

4.5 = So glad that I read the book, would pester everyone to read it, invaluable, I would want to own it and wouldn't mind a second read (something that I seldom do)

5 = The book is so good that I feel like I am on scale 4 and 4.5, and more, it blew me away and lingers on my head for weeks!

Books Read

JoV's bookshelf: read
Hold Tight
The Fault in Our Stars
The Everything Store: Jeff Bezos and the Age of Amazon
The Thief
Mockingjay
Catching Fire
A Tale for the Time Being
Into the Darkest Corner
The Liars' Gospel
Goat Mountain
Strange Weather In Tokyo
Strange Shores
And the Mountains Echoed
Ten White Geese
One Step Too Far
The Innocents
The General: The ordinary man who became one of the bravest prisoners in Guantanamo
White Dog Fell from the Sky
A Virtual Love
The Fall of the Stone City


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Reading, after a certain age, diverts the mind too much from its creative pursuits. Any man who reads too much and uses his own brain too little falls into lazy habits of thinking. - Albert Einstein (1879 - 1955)

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