This is my kind of novel. The deliberate development of the protagonist by an author with a sure hand. A broader social or historic theme serving as backdrop to the more intimate story. A resolution that answers just enough while leaving the rest to a more enlightened reader than the one who began—even if it’s his second or third read over a span of ten or twenty years.
Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day won The Booker Prize back when it meant something. It spins the tale of a man, Mr. Stevens, who has devoted his life to serving as long-time butler to a nobleman, Lord Darlington, whose English house, Darlington Hall, Stevens keeps in order; and after the Lord’s demise, to a Mr. John Farraday, an American gentleman. Over the course of a solitary week-long excursion in Mr. Farraday’s Ford—a rather more noble Ford than the ones most of us drove back when, though it does break down at one point—Stevens casts his mind back over his life as the ranking member of a household with a dozen or more on staff, including his erstwhile second-in-command, Miss Kenton, and his own aging and fading father.
The drive takes place in 1956, long after the Second World War has been won. The story he tells concerns not just his own life, and as best he can tell it the matter of his relationship over all the years with Miss Kenton—which seems to us to have been badly misplayed—but the story of how Lord Darlington’s involvement in the run-up to that war nearly cost his countrymen dearly. The history of British appeasement, and the nobility and conservative views behind it, are set off against our protagonist’s own actions in his private life: Stevens is as clueless and reticent as the nobility’s power brokers were back when. And he’s perfectly comfortable with—in that he won’t even speak against—the nobles’ notion that democracy should take a back seat lest the whole nation go to hell in a handbasket:
“Look at Germany and Italy, Stevens. See what strong leadership can do if it’s allowed to act. None of this universal suffrage nonsense there. If your house is on fire, you don’t call the household into the drawing room and debate the various options for escape for an hour, do you? It may have been very well once, but the world’s a complicated place now. The man in the street can’t be expected to know enough about politics, economics, world commerce and what have you. And why should he? In fact, you made a very good reply last night, Stevens. How did you put it? Something to the effect that it was not in your realm? Well, why should it be?”
In this way and others, echoes of the more intimate story of Stevens—who won’t, and indeed can’t, think for himself on personal issues or anything other than his work—resonate in the broader story. Opportunities are overlooked and timings misplayed, again and again, and not just by Stevens. The character of Miss Kenton serves also to further consideration of all these issues, particularly when Stevens stops to see her near the end of his journey.
A masterful job of storytelling it is, and not just for fun, but for keeps.
Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 2017, and his latest novel is Klara and the Sun.
Matthew Geyer is the author of two novels, Strays (2008) and Atlantic View (2020). .