Written By Nguyen Manh Quoc Trung
The Remains of the Day, by British novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, is a book that has left a lasting impression on me, exactly because most of the topics written in it are those I am not familiar with. Indeed, the topic of memory always captured my interest, but this is the third novel of Kazuo Ishiguro that I have read, and reading his works sometimes feels like watching a film, each event and each character keeps unfolding and moving one after another smoothly using only literary words. Reading Ishiguro’s novels is the same as imagining a moving picture inside your head, where even the most lifeless and inanimate subjects like a cassette tape or the countryside scenery have their own unique characters and roles in the story, becoming “individuals” that can make the readers think no less than flesh-and-blood characters.
The Remains of the Day tells the story of Stevens, an aging butler, and his journey through the English countryside to visit an old work colleague, the whole trip being a backdrop for his reminiscence of events that happened in Darlington Hall, where he had worked as head butler for the past thirty years. Each sentence in the novel is written in a voice filled with politeness and courtesy, revealing such a gentlemanly essence that only a butler trained in a manner of utmost nobility and had become a truly dignified individual can have. At the same time, however, Stevens’ manner of storytelling also lingers on a very personal sense of humor, with smart and occasionally witty little jokes that, when uttered, can make the opposite person smile while still upholding the respectful and courteous demeanor of a loyal servant.
Truly so, in the novel there is a whole chapter discussing Steven’ own opinions about what it means to be a “proper” butler, and what traits, values, and personal qualities are necessary for an individual in the service industry to be seen as having an outstanding level of integrity and self-respect. At this point, I have to mention Ishiguro’s Never Let Me Go, a novel in which its science-fiction setting gives ample opportunities to discuss the humanity and human behavior of characters who are people but not yet human. If in Never Let Me Go, Kazuo Ishiguro writes very candidly about adolescence and childhood nostalgia through the eyes of both a child and an adult, then The Remains of The Day, a book that was published for the first time in 1989, features an excellent and in-depth depiction of a man with both a behavior of great decency and a rather philosophical way of making sense of the world and what happens around him.
Despite his age, the way Steven talks and acts, although might strike others around him as somewhat cold and cautious, has a very unique charm, making the novel a page-turner and the readers eager to find out how he will react to the unfolding events. Most characters in Kazuo Ishiguro’s novels are rather distinctive in such ways; not only can they stand on their own feet to create their own idiosyncratic features, they also act as a mirror for others to look at and reflect on. As a person who strongly dislikes the way some authors use their characters in the story only as a tool to express their own personal views on things, it is of my humble opinion that the characters in The Remains of the Day and Never Let Me Go are some of the most “human” characters in all of the novels I have read until now. The human-to-human interaction in The Remains of the Day feels very natural and completely unrestrained, with the use of first-person narrative sounding so intimate that sometimes I feel that it is Steven himself that had written the novel, instead of an author with almost zero background in the service industry, as Ishiguro himself had confessed. Because of its distinctive writing style, reading The Remains of the Day will require a great deal of knowledge of the English language from readers, especially formal English, and I am very curious as to whether the novel’s translation into other languages can really capture the exact essence of the original.
On the way to visit his old colleague, Stevens was reminded of many episodes in his life, with topics ranging from the nature of dignity, loyalty, and decency, to politics, class, love, and relationships. But the most important and most noticeable theme of The Remains of the Day, and one that is featured in many other novels of Ishiguro, is still memory, and in particular how to approach memory and how memories of the past can change the person of the present. The whole structure of the novel is built on Stevens’ recollection of his many years working as a butler in a single mansion, and although the readers get access to his memories through his own words, those are the memories that are very fragmented and subjective in nature, creating a past so patched-up that even Stevens himself wondered if he could be considered a reliable narrator. The readers therefore get to experience not only the stories on his work as a butler, but also his life firsthand, and the man he has now become.
Stevens drove his car up the English countryside but at the same time underwent a trip back to the past, to the source of his personal virtues, to the memories and the people that have profoundly influenced his life. Stevens, who has been raised as and has always worked as a butler, always prioritized dignity, with devotion and loyalty to his master invariably placed at the forefront, to the point that all personal feelings, if not helpful to the job at hand, were all removed. It was only after he had stepped inside his master’s car, gripped tightly the steering wheel, and slowly moved through the quiet English countryside, alone with the endless greeneries, that the mask of a famously loyal and dedicated butler cracked, allowing the incessant stream of recollections to flood the mind. It would be of no exaggeration to say that the first roadtrip that Stevens had undertaken in his life, one that he had to take forever to consider back and forth before finally deciding to depart, was actually a journey both to find and to rediscover his sense of self through the endless nooks and crannies of memory, hidden inside the vast but now empty rooms of Darlington Hall. “What is the point of worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took?” Stevens wondered, when looking back at his whole life dedicated to services of the highest standard. “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 in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.” (*)
Kazuo Ishiguro himself has said that both the character of Stevens and the mansion he worked at are a metaphor of a bygone world, a world filled with symbolism and nostalgia that those who have never known or visited England often imagine what it would be like to live in an old English mansion in the English countryside, or how an old English butler would talk and act. “The Remains of the Day is primarily a book about two things: it’s about the fear of emotion, and it’s also about politically being a butler,” he shaired in an interview (**). “Because I think, in a way, most of us politically are butlers. We do our jobs, we serve some corporation, or a cause, or maybe a country. But most of us, we just do our individual jobs, we offer up our little contributions to somebody upstairs and we hope it’s going to be used well, and we take our pride from doing our little jobs to the best of our ability.” And this I wholeheartedly agree. Perhaps the reason why Stevens, an aging butler, a symbol of the noble life that is reserved for only the likes of Lords and Ladies, can be so relatable, is perhaps because each and everyone of us is also a butler, and is also in service for someone else. Perhaps we are all trapped in our own Darlington Hall somewhere, with rooms so large they are suffocating, trying to hide our true feelings on the way to find the past.
(*) Ishiguro, K. (1990). The Remains of The Day. Vintage Books. Page 177