Title: The Remains of the Day
Author: Kazuo Ishiguro
# of Pages: 245
Favorite Line: 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.
The novel's narrator, Stevens, is a perfect English butler who tries to give his narrow existence form and meaning through the self-effacing, almost mystical practice of his profession. In a career that spans the second World War, Stevens is oblivious of the real life that goes on around him -- oblivious, for instance, of the fact that his aristocrat employer is a Nazi sympathizer. Still, there are even larger matters at stake in this heartbreaking, pitch-perfect novel -- namely, Stevens' own ability to allow some bit of life-affirming love into his tightly repressed existence.
I thoroughly enjoyed Ishiguro's more recent novel, Never Let Me Go, which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize (The Remains of the Day won it in 1989). It was one of the few audiobooks I've ever listened to, and I think it was one of the few books I could really enjoy in that format. It has very simple prose and was easy to follow along with in the car.
The Remains of the Day is much the same. Ishiguro packs a punch into this short, easy to read narrative (much like Hilary Mantel did in Fludd). Stevens, the narrator, is every bit the "stiff upper lipped" English butler that one would expect. His evolution, from the first page of the book to the last one, is so subtle, and yet so transformative, that one can only marvel that it happened at all, and try to pinpoint when his thinking changed.
Stevens is not a very likeable character. Most of the characters in the book are not. He is so repressed and so emotionally unavailable that it is almost funny. There are priceless moments when he tries to make a witticism, fails, and then spends a great deal of time analyzing why his joke went flat, and then commenting on the difficulties of "bantering" with another person. Sad and painful for him, I'm sure, but so fascinating. What would it be like to go through life so completely unable to connect with anyone? One of the saddest passages of the book to me took place in Stevens' butler's pantry, when the housekeeper comes inside to see what sort of book he is reading and he is very upset that she sees him reading a romance. The man's loneliness tears through every page.
Ishiguro's writing style is neat and unsentimental. He brilliantly writes from the point of view of a repressed old man. And the simple, unassuming redemption that occurs at the end... wonderful.
The Remains of the Day reminds me of Fludd in the starkness of its prose and its sense of satisfaction one gets at the end. I would highly recommend both books to anyone with an interest in 1950s England.