Born in Nagasaki, Japan, Kazuo Ishiguro moved with his family to the UK in 1960 when he was just five years old. Regarded as one of the foremost novelists writing in the English language, he has been nominated on four separate occasions between 1985 and 2005 for the Man Booker Prize, winning it in 1989 for The Remains of the Day.
His third published novel, The Remains of the Day is Ishiguro’s first set away from his native Japan and is regarded as one of the most important British post-war novels. It became the author’s first to be adapted for the screen and, directed by the master of early 20th century costume dramas, James Ivory (Heat and Dust, A Room with a View, Howards End), the film starred Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. It was nominated for eight Oscars, but lost out primarily to Spielberg’s Schindler’s List.
It is 1950s England and the post war years have finally confirmed the demise of the British Empire and the ‘old ways’. Mr Stevens, butler of the aristocracy and Lord Darlington, is motoring to the West country in his new (American) employer’s vehicle, ostensibly to see former housekeeper Miss Kenton (now Mrs Benn). He is hoping that he can persuade her to return to Darlington Hall, which is now being run on a skeleton staff.
As he drives through the English countryside, Butler looks back on his life and the glory years between the two world wars.
Darlington Hall may have been the centre of English society as Lord Darlington entertained socialites and politicians alike, but Stevens reminisces primarily about the art of service, dignity, loyalty and position. The fact that Darlington was at the centre of appeasement politics of the day towards Germany and that the German Ambassador, Joachim von Ribbentrop, was a regular visitor is almost secondary to Stevens’ memories. That his employer was labelled a traitor by the British media in the post war years barely gets a mention.
Dignity, above all else, is the defining of a great butler according to Stevens. It is this that determines both the inner and outer man. Even in his own personal recollections of himself, Stevens cannot break this mould, guilty as he is of pompousness in thought as well as action.
It is Miss Kenton who comes close to breaking down the barriers. But personal feelings and emotions have become anathema to the man who is driven by professionalism and loyalty to his employer. The new housekeeper is driven to distraction by the emotional distance of the butler – even after years working together, few cracks appear in the man’s patina.
There is little doubt that Miss Kenton falls in love with Stevens – in spite of their cold, professional sparring. What is more open to question in the novel is his feelings towards her. Stevens remembers, with pride, the death of his father not interfering with a key social event at Darlington: so his true thoughts towards the housekeeper are readily kept in check (or hidden deeply in the recesses of his emotions).
As he drives closer to the appointment with the now married Mrs Benn, the memories crowd the ageing butler, resulting in Stevens musing over lost opportunities: his dignity and loyalty preventing any personal connection between the two.
In Stevens, Ishiguro has created one of the most tragic figures in modern literature, a man who tried so hard to do what he believed to be the right thing. Yet everything turned out so wrong and he finally has to admit “my heart was breaking”.
Ishiguro’s beautifully subtle novel is a meditation on loss and regret, a sad and humorous love story, an elegy for an England of old.