The Remains of the Day — Kazuo Ishiguro

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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.

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6 Responses to The Remains of the Day — Kazuo Ishiguro

  1. justjase79 says:

    Though I haven’t read An Artist of the Floating World, and I did enjoy The Remains of the Day, overall, I think Ishiguro is someone I just don’t really get. I didn’t like Never Let Me Go and his first book, A Pale View of Hills, I found utterly painful!

    • I agree that he’s very mixed. He’s a writer I want to like (and will happily read anything he produces) but there are only two works I consider great and they’re basically the same book.

      A Pale View of Hills I think tried too hard to be clever, particularly for a first novel. It’s one woman’s story told through her talking about another person, and has the atom bomb hovering over the book without mentioning it. Those are a lot of constraints. When We Were Orphans is great until near the end where it gets weird.

      I’m glad to see I’m not alone in thinking Never Let Me Go doesn’t quite work! I’ll be dealing with that in more depth soon, but the gist is that I don’t buy into the premise (given your response to the Atwood, I’m guessing your objections are different). What did you dislike about Never Let Me Go?

      • justjase79 says:

        I don’t think I have an objective reason. The story and characters just didn’t grab me. That being said, I’d be willing to give it another chance if I ever find the time.

  2. This is an awful thing to say but I thought the film they made of Remains of the Day, starring Emma Thompson, was excellent. Do you think I would gain much from reading the book as well?

    • First of all, thank you for reading! And for commenting 🙂

      Having not seen the film, I’m in no position to judge whether liking it is awful. Although if that comment comes just from it being a film adaptation, there’s nothing awful about that! I like a bunch of film adaptations (some more than the books).

      As to whether you’d gain much from reading the book, that’s tricky to answer because it comes down to personal taste. I liked the book for its development of character and voice, and for Ishiguro’s control over the unfolding of the narrative.

      I read your post about films spoiling the reading experience and I don’t think you’ll have a Gone Girl moment with it – the “twist” (really gradual revelation) is not the most interesting bit of the book. I’d be interested to know what you think having seen the film first if you do end up reading it 🙂

      • It is a very good film, I just feel guilty for watching it and not reading the book. I think I’ll give the book a go since what you’re saying sounds interesting! It may be in a little while’s time but I’ll let you know what I think!

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