Kazuo Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is one of the most English novels I’ve ever read, but it is not unapologetically English (for that wouldn’t be English at all). Rather, there are so many suppressed emotions, quiet sit-downs, and “I’m not a racist, but…”s that I felt an awkward swelling in my breast. And as we all know, vague shame at one’s own emotion is the most English feeling of all.
Archaic Englishness is presented in opposition to a modern Americanness, its characteristic notions of rank and reserve set honestly against post-war values of democracy and labour politics, its imperial monuments seen in an awful new light. Brilliantly, this central dynamic is never intrusive; this is partly due to Ishiguro’s superb narrator, Mr Stevens. An ageing butler to the once-great Darlington Hall, Stevens is a man in the twilight of his days. He is an unreliable narrator, but he does not, for the most part, lie—he is rather trying to justify certain absences and failures so as to maintain his own delusions. He is an unconsciously but desperately unhappy man.
The novel follows Stevens on a vacation of sorts. His new master, an American named Farraday, has lent Stevens his car after suggesting he take some time to see the English countryside. Stevens plans to visit Miss Keaton, a woman with whom he once worked at Darlington Hall, to see if she would consider re-joining the staff. This, Stevens insists, is his only motive.
The bulk of the narrative is made up of Stevens’ memories, through which the reader gains a spectator’s viewpoint. Stevens, for his part, is endearing but never especially convincing—we pity him, but we are not swayed by his attempts to justify some of his more oblivious or unsavoury actions, which tend to mark movement in the novel-wide oscillation between comic and tragic. When Stevens tells us how he’s been reading racy romance novels so as to better understand the “banter” of his new American master, our wry grins are doubled by the contemporary resurgence of the term. However, when he attempts to justify certain services to the Nazi-sympathising Lord Darlington, or when he attempts to express his personal feelings towards Miss Keaton, Stevens’ self-delusion swiftly turns tragic.
But then comic and tragic are terms perhaps too theatrical in their implications; the emotional drama of The Remains of the Day is always understated, suppressed, and swept to one side. In a remarkably English critique of English practise, Ishiguro writes with incredible subtlety, creating convincing wide-angle worlds occupied by characters of incredible detail and nuance. The drama is personal, human, and crushing, but this isn’t a high-drama blockbuster—the sadness you feel will be quiet, heavy, and affecting.