The Remains of the Day is Ishiguro’s third novel, and probably remains his most famous. Many people I know rate it as one of the best books they have read and two acquaintances consider it their favourite book. When I reviewed An Artist of the Floating World a few years back, I remarked on the similarity between it and The Remains of the Day, saying:
Although at first glance the two may seem different, the changes in setting and preoccupation are largely superficial. In fact, the storytelling is nearly identical. However, there is enough to distinguish them: while An Artist of the Floating World is about an individual on the losing side of a political battle addressing his place in his country’s (and his profession’s) past, The Remains of the Day considers an internal and more moral struggle.
In scouring the web for this post I was pleased to stumble upon an interview for the Paris Review in which Ishiguro says something very similar:
I looked at An Artist of the Floating World and thought, This is quite satisfactory in terms of exploring this theme about the wasted life in terms of career, but what about in your personal life? When you’re young, you think everything is to do with your career. Eventually you realize that your career is only a part of it. And I was feeling that. I wanted to write the whole thing again.
What I’m saying is I’ve written the same book three times. I just somehow got away with it.
So what explains The Remains of the Day’s runaway success and An Artist of the Floating World’s relative obscurity?
The story itself is seemingly a modest one. Stevens, an ageing butler, has been instructed to take a holiday by his new American employer, Mr. Farraday, and is on a tour of the West Country for a week. He has an ulterior motive: to recruit Miss Kenton, a housekeeper with whom he used to work, back to Darlington Hall. However, there is much greater complexity to the story as Stevens reflects back on his time serving the old master of the house, Lord Darlington. Stevens has strong opinions over the proper conduct of butlers, and allowed his life to be dictated by his job to a point where he prevented a relationship with Miss Kenton from even starting. Moreover, Darlington was a significant figure between the two World Wars, believed the Germans were treated too harshly by the Treaty of Versailles, and became a Nazi sympathiser. Stevens, whose notions of himself are entirely bound up in his role, is trying to reconcile his ideals of serving a great figure with that great figure’s diminished reputation. It’s a fascinating tale.
But the real strength of the book isn’t the story; it’s Ishiguro’s control of voice. Stevens is utterly convincing and the character is sustained superbly. As readers, we are completely aware of the political and historical significance of Lord Darlington’s conduct, and at times shocked by the things he condones, yet Stevens’ unwillingness to view the man in a poor light is never frustrating or implausible. Ishiguro renders it in a believable way. The Remains of the Day is, to my mind, an almost perfect novel and earns the high esteem in which it is held.
It’s curious, therefore, that Ishiguro followed this work with The Unconsoled which I found almost incomprehensible. Ishiguro explains this as a reaction to comments at the time:
If there was a criticism of my work during the first three books, perhaps it was that it wasn’t brave enough. […] There was a review of The Remains of the Day in The New Yorker that appeared to be a glowing review right up until the end. Then it said: the trouble with this is that everything works like clockwork.
The Unconsoled, which was intended to follow the “grammar of dreams” (events unfolding with little explanation, connection, or logic), definitely does not work like clockwork. So maybe it’s a success in that respect, and it seems to have encouraged Ishiguro to be a little bolder and a little more experimental in subsequent works. But I think I prefer clockwork, and to my mind, The Remains of the Day and An Artist of the Floating World remain Ishiguro’s best works.