“The Remains of the Day” by Kazuo Ishiguro
(First publication: 1989 / This edition: Faber and Faber Limited 2010)
Taken during my coffee during brunch before a road trip with friends to Ayutthaya
You’ve got to enjoy yourself. The evening’s the best part of the day.
You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.
That’s how I look at it.
Ask anybody, they’ll all tell you.
The evening’s the best part of the day. (p.256)
I bought this book the same time I bought Ishiguro’s “Never Let Me Go”. I was actually more interested in this one, but then ended up reading the other first. Having read his “Never Let Me Go” and “Nocturnes”—a collection of short stories that had me lying on my bed depressed for a few hours—I expected this one to put me in a melancholic mood as well. Fortunately, it wasn’t as sad as I had prepared myself for. Though it is a much “less depressing” novel, I’m still left with a bit of a “heavy” feeling.
The story is about an aging butler of a household that was once the most reputable, Darlington Hall. One summer in the 1950’s, he takes a little road trip to see his old colleague and friend, Miss Kenton. During his trip, he recalls memories from 30-something years ago when Miss Kenton was still a housemaid at Darlington Hall, and by doing so, he reflects and analyzes his life and what has become of it.
It took me a while to get into it—I kept drifting off during the first few pages, unsure of what was happening. But as I became more familiar with the narrator (the butler), I began to empathize with him. With the eras and traditions changing (after war, lesser staff, new employer, etc), and his “importance” is not as high as it used to be, he starts having doubts about his purpose in life. To hear about how he was determined to run the household with so much “dignity” and how he was so loyal to his previous and current employers—you come to understand that though he might question his life and decisions as he grew old, he is still proud and happy to know that he had done the best he could offer. It’s about the effort you put into life (no matter what position/status you are in) and how it gives you satisfaction—or not. That caused me to feel some “heaviness”, because…you wouldn’t really know if you are satisfied with your life and all that you’ve done until you’ve passed that much time and can only look back, right?
I feel like I was actually reading “Downton Abbey” (the TV show), with Mr. Carson (the butler of Downton Abbey) as the narrator. Miss Kenton from the story would be Mrs. Hughes (housekeeper). The novel’s butler’s most memorable moments were when England still had lot of those houses owned by Lords and Dukes, and operated with plenty of staff—butler, under-butler, footmen, housemaids, etc. The only reference I had to relate it to was “Downton Abbey”, and I think it was helpful—to picture everything and have that prior understanding of what those big houses were like back in the day.
And…can I just say that I really didn’t expect this from a Japanese person? I remember back when I hadn’t read any of Ishiguro’s work before, I asked my friends which Japanese author they would recommend more: Haruki Murakami or Kazuo Ishiguro. They said that they’re too different, because Kazuo Ishiguro’s not really Japanese; that he lived in England. I didn’t really know what they meant. And when I was searching for this book in Kinokuniya, I actually went to the “Asian Literature” section (where Haruki Murakami is also placed) and wasn’t able to find him. I found him in the “normal” fiction shelves, along with Austen and Dickens and whatnot. I just read about him on Wikipedia and read that he grew up and has spent most of his life in England—he’s not very “Japanese” at all. I was intrigued because reading this novel, he goes so in depth into that whole “Lords” and “butlers” cultures and traditions England used to have. I feel that he had all the vibes, personalities, and etiquette so on point.
I would recommend this book. It’s more comparable to “Nocturnes” than “Never Let Me Go”, I think. “Never Let Me Go”—while more captivating—is like, “sadness shoved into your face and consumes you”, while “Nocturnes” and “The Remains of the Day” are more like: “It really depends on how you want to take it—you might not feel anything or you might actually feel depressed. I won’t force the sadness onto you.”
It’s a nice read and makes you re-examine your thoughts and perspectives. I learned a lot more about old English ways and traditions. Since the narrator often talks about those times during and surround World War II, I also learned a bit more about history and politics as well.
Would recommend it 🙂
Here are some of my favorite lines from the book:
I wonder if it wouldn’t have been better if the Almightly had created us all as—well—as sort of plants. You know, firmly embedded in the soil. Then none of this rot about wars and boundaries would have come up in the first place. (p.112)
Today’s world is too foul a place for fine and noble instincts. (p.234)
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 think about a different life, a better life you might have had. […] There’s no turning back the clock now. One can’t be forever dwelling on what might have have been. One should realize one has as good as most, perhaps better, and be grateful. (p.251)
Don’t keep looking back all the time, you’re bound to get depressed. (p.256)
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 in our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished? (p.256)
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 me at least try to make a 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. (p.256)