Wednesday, August 28, 2013

Book Review: The Remains of the Day

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro

Summary (Courtesy of Goodreads): In 1956, Stevens, a long-serving butler at Darlington Hall, decides to take a motoring trip through the West Country. The six-day excursion becomes a journey into the past of Stevens and England, a past that takes in fascism, two world wars and an unrealised love between the butler and his housekeeper. Ishiguro’s dazzling novel is a sad and humorous love story, a meditation on the condition of modern man, and an elegy for England at a time of acute change.

So, quick tangent before I start here. When we moved I left behind the most awesome book club. I was really sad about this, because, if you haven't noticed yet, I LOVE talking about books. Especially with other intelligent people who think deeply about what they read. So anyway, I had an amazing group of roommates from back in my college days, and we'd been throwing around the idea of doing a long distance book club together. We've all spread across the country, so it's a bit difficult coordinating across all four time zones, but the recent loss of my old book club finally galvanized me. I rounded up the troops and we had our first "meeting" two weeks ago (we use Google hangout, isn't technology amazing?). If you haven't guessed yet, this is the book we chose to read for our first go, and it was so good to discuss this one with someone else. This is a book that needs discussion to be really understood.

So I'll start by saying that this is a slow read. If you're looking for an engaging plot with lots of action, this is not the book for you. Several chapters in and I was still wondering why people liked this book so much, because I was honestly a bit bored. But really, just stick with it, because with a little digging, there is some gold to find in this one. The book is narrated in first person by Stevens, an old-school butler (think Carson, but possibly even more straight-laced than that), and the voice is so spot on it's hard to believe Ishiguro wasn't a butler himself during this era. It took me about half-way through the book before I realized that there was so much more going on behind the words that Stevens was actually saying. When I figured out that whole other layer, the love story and the emotions and everything going on behind the controlled and passionless narration, that's when this book really opened up.

A recurring theme in this book was the concept of "dignity" and what it meant to have dignity. Stevens recounts a story about another legendary butler working for his master in India. One evening, before dinner, this butler discovered a tiger underneath the dining table, borrowed his master's gun, shot and killed the tiger, and served dinner in the usual manner as if nothing had happened. That was Steven's grand idea of dignity: complete control and mastery even in the most surprising and upsetting circumstances.

I've been thinking a lot about this concept of "dignity," especially when my sister (who is part of the book club, because she was one of my awesome roommates back in the day) commented to me about how she could use some more of this "dignity" as a mother. Doesn't that sound like a good goal? Let nothing ruffle you. Just let the toddler tantrums and diarrhea diapers and everything else just roll off, and serve dinner like there was never a tiger under the table. It does feel like a worthy virtue to pursue, doesn't it?

But while Stevens spends so much time extolling this virtue, the very life he leads seem to indicate some kind of emptiness about it. Like somewhere along the line he was so concerned about being dignified that he forgot to be human. He forgot to recognize his own emotions. He forgot to have relationships. Because those things, emotions and relationships, they are messy things. Very, very often, they are undignified things. But they are also essentially human things, and a life without them offers very little else to fill their place.

I stumbled across this post here shortly after our book club discussion, written by a feminist Christian writer whose stuff I really like. In case you don't click on that link (you really should go read her words, not mine), she writes about just this topic of "dignity," and how she has come to learn that God is not found so much in the dignified moments as in the undignified ones. She writes about how it is much easier to find God in the messy moments, the weak moments, the hard and painful moments, the scruff and scrubby and oh so very undignified moments (she has a lot more to say about the topic, you should go read the post). And I think that is true for most things in life, motherhood included. Dignity is nice, but real life happens in the undignified moments. That's what made this book such a tragedy. Here Stevens is, at the end of his career, reflecting on the "dignity" he attained, and wondering just why life feels so empty.

There is so much more I could say about this book, so many other rich topics for discussion and reflection (especially the commentary of British society as a whole-- like the summary above says, this book really is an elegy to the former Great Britain), but this will have to suffice for now. I recommend this to anyone with a solid appreciation for the monolith that is the British butler, and patient enough to wade through the slow pace. You will be richly rewarded.

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