Kazuo Ishiguro's 'Remains of the Day'
Even before I started writing seriously, I was a voracious reader. My Mom tells a story of my realization of my ability to read while on a trip along the highway, in which I read out the signs and storefronts we passed, to my parents great annoyance.
I’ve been a reader my whole life since, particularly in fiction. And while I love writing essays and blog posts, my true aspiration is to be a novelist. I’ve been working on a book for about a year now, still polishing it before querying it out.
During this process of writing this, I’ve been referring back to favorite novels of mine over the past year, analyzing and pulling parts I liked, and seeing how they could apply to my work. Of course, this reference point becomes updated as new books come out, as I read more, and my backlog only grows. I’ve also been working towards a reading goal of 50 books this year. (I’m a little behind, as of today.)
In addition to feeding my love of fiction, this is to help work down my infinite Amazon ‘Books’ wishlist, and of course to improve my craft. To help analyze the books I’m reading, I’ve decided to write up little reviews. That way, I can get my thoughts on the books down closer to my reaction, and it also provides a more formalistic method for my deconstruction of novels.
I figured some of you might be interested in these as well.
I’m not planning on doing this for every book I read, but if this turns out to be something you guys are interested in, I’d love to hear your feedback. If there’s a book on my list you think I should read next, or one that should be added, let me know. I generally read and buy books by whim, so I’m open to suggestions.
Anyways, with that out of the way let’s talk about Kazuo Ishiguro’s ’Remains of the Day’.
I first became aware of Kazuo Ishiguro’s work in 2015, upon the release of 'The Buried Giant’. I had heard the name before, but wasn’t at all familiar with his work. A few months after the release of that book, I purchased it, devoured it, and quickly sought out more of his writing. (This dialogue between Ishiguro and Neil Gaiman is particularly good)
Something about ’The Buried Giant’ really stuck with me, a work I’ve written about in an essay called, “Rain”.
As is far too common for me, I bought a few more of his works. It wasn’t until just recently that I got around to reading them, starting with ’Remains of the Day’.
Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki, but moved to Britain when he was five years old, where he’s lived ever since. He was raised in a Japanese speaking household, but is quick to acknowledge that his writing is not like that of contemporary Japanese writers. He set his first two books in Japan, despite not returning to the country of his birth until 1989, when 'Remains of the Day’ was released.
Both of the books of his I’ve read, ’Giant’ & ’Remains’, have been set in Britain. While ’Giant’ is set in an almost timeless Dark-Ages Britain, ’Remains’ takes place in the years after World War II, with the protagonist Mr. Stevens reminiscing over his life as a butler before the war, particularly with regards to his relationship with his former employer, Lord Darlington, and the housekeeper of the home, a Miss Kenton.
Of course, with a limited sample size I can’t say if this is true for all of his work, but the books of his I’ve read both deal heavily with the thoughts and memories of their protagonists.
In the case of 'Remains of the Day', it’s Mr. Stevens thinking back over the history of his employment under Lord Darlington, whose fall from grace may or may not have been precipitated by his attempts to reconcile with post-WWI Germany. He waxes on moments he might have misread or misinterpreted, and often the only hint that something is amiss are the comments of those experiencing Stevens and Darlington.
Ishiguro is a master of subtlety, and as I mentioned in my essay “Rain”, his work has a lingering, haunting feel about it. Stylistically, it’s excellent, remaining wholly committed to Stevens point of view. This is reflected across the language choices used by Ishiguro, the way the interactions are done, even the construction of the story relates to Stevens precise butler’s mannerisms.
This is what I most admire about his writing. Not only does it have a subtle effect that sticks with you, but everything in both books of his I’ve read work towards the same goal. The perspective of the story is so closely knit to the story itself to become indistinguishable from one another. He writes in the way that memories are held, moving from half-remembered moments to intensely layered and detailed dioramas, moments frozen in time like a photograph. Stevens effortlessly flows between a story from his past and a description of the events currently taking place seamlessly, much like the narrative builds out in 'My Struggle' by Knausgård.
The narrative here is broken up into different days of his journey to meet with former coworker Miss Kenton, segueing between his travel log and reminiscing with no delay. Ishiguro makes his transitions seamless and easy, often having them take place without my noticing for several pages. It’s easy to forget this is a book at all, feeling as much like sitting down to hear a story from your old friend.
In fact, it seems that Ishiguro feels most comfortable when writing about a memory, choosing to tell several of the major plot points through this lens of reminiscing, in both timelines. This stands in contrast to Knausgård’s writing, where a memory serves as a divergency, a miniature essay he became reminded of, but not quite so far as a writer like Rachel Cusk, whose work is all told from the protagonist’s immediate filtering.
The narrative here is quick, and I found myself reading the book in a few sittings. While not all characters are rendered with such depth (like Steven’s new employer Farraday, who gets little definition) the star players here (Stevens, Kenton, Darlington, especially) are so well defined you’ll feel able to fill in the blanks where Stevens doesn’t espouse his thoughts. Stevens especially, whom you might not always be able to empathize with his actions, is presented so earnestly to be almost naturally sympathetic.
It’s a slow paced novel, but the drama kept me turning pages. It’s not particularly long either, so the end of the book sort of crept up on me. I won’t spoil it, but I felt that it rounded out the story nicely. If anything, too nicely.
If you can appreciate slower, character driven literary novels, perhaps you’ll enjoy 'Remains' as much as I did. I look forward to reading more by Ishiguro, and refining his “Author’s Tropes” list further.