I'm a big fan of Kazuo Ishiguro's novel Never Let Me Go because it is a masterpiece of subtlety. It seems at first to be little more than a English boarding school story, a little stuffy, a little boring, in which nothing much happens. By the time you realize--spoiler alert--that the boarding school is actually a facility of clones who are destined for organ harvesting, you are not sure that you have not known it all along; the realization has become too mixed up with the dull stuff of petty life.
The Remains of the Day is a bit like that. By the time you realize that Lord Darlington, the beloved master of the butler narrator, Mr. Stevens was--spoiler alert--a Nazi sympathizer, it is impossible to pinpoint where you first knew it, and if you're like me, you spend a little time shuffling back through the prior pages to figure out when you missed the "big reveal." But, like Never Let Me Go, it's not there--or, in a way, it was always there. Yet there is a vast difference between the two. In Never Let Me Go, the big reveal never comes because the information has, in a sense, always been part of the clones' lives, and no one ever thinks to draw attention to it until a well-meaning schoolteacher voices her pity. In The Remains of the Day, Lord Darlington's poor choice of friends is consistently and thoroughly repressed by Mr. Stevens, who chooses to see his late master as the paragon of English nobility and gentleness.
The story, as Mr. Stevens would tell it, is one of a world that has disappeared. When the novel opens, Darlington House has been purchased by a louche American and most of the staff, save Mr. Stevens and an odd housemaid, have drifted away. Mr. Stevens' spirited attempts to serve his new master are the source of some deft Wodehouseian humor revolving around the butler's inability to respond to his new master's jokes:
For it well may be that in in America, it is all a part of what is considered good professional service that an employee provide entertaining banter. In fact, I remember Mr Simpson, the landlord of the Ploughman's Arms, saying once that were he an American bartender, he would not be chatting to us in that friendly, but ever-courteous manner of his, but instead would be assaulting us with crude references to our vices and failings, calling us drunks and all manner of such names, in his attempt to fulfil the role expected of him by his customers. And I recall also some years ago, Mr Rayne, who travelled to America as valet to Sir Reginald Mauvis, remarking that a taxi driver in New York regularly addressed his fare in a manner which if repeated in London would end in some sort of fracas, if not in the fellow being frogmarched to the nearest police station.
Though Mr. Stevens' game attempts to humor his employer, he clearly longs for his heyday in the service of Lord Darlington. But he is too much in his own head to banter, always coming up with some obscure witticism much too late. He is too much in his own head in general, and cannot see that he has mistaken the kind of story he is in: the forgotten world of dignity and honor he longs for never existed, and while much of his regard for his old employer is well deserved, his inability to accept the enormous error of Darlington's judgment evokes the reader's frustration and, ultimately, pity.
The plot of the novel, which consists principally of reminiscences, involves Stevens taking a rare holiday to the West Country to pay a visit to Miss Kenton, a former housemaid whom he imagines he might be able to coax back into service at Darlington House. Over the course of the road trip, he extent of Stevens' repression becomes clear: he has engaged in willful self-deception for decades, not only about Lord Darlington, but about other things: his relationship with his father and the barely concealed love Miss Kenton has harbored for him. We can see, as Mr. Stevens cannot let himself see, the theme of self-negation that runs through his reminiscing, from the moment in which he (spoiler alert, again) declines to attend to his father's deathbed in order to promptly a serve a houseguest, and the moment in which Miss Kenton practically begs him to admit that he loves her to prevent her from marrying another man. Here's how that ends:
As I approached Miss Kenton's door, I saw from the light seeping around its edges that she was still within. And that was the moment, I am now sure, that has remained so persistently lodged in my memory--that moment as I paused in the dimness of the corridor, the tray in my hands, an ever-growing conviction mounting within me that just a few yards away, on the other side of that door, Miss Kenton was at that moment crying. As I recall, there was no evidence to account for this conviction--I had certainly not heard any sounds of crying--and yet I remember being quite certain that were I to knock and enter, I would discover her in tears. I do not know how long I remained standing there; at the time it seemed a significant period, but in reality, I suspect, it was only a matter of seconds. For, of course, I was required to hurry upstairs to serve some of the most distinguished gentlemen of the land and I cannot imagine I would have delayed unduly.
It is impossible to say whether Stevens heard the crying, and repressed it, or whether he simply repressed the knowledge that she would be crying because he would not let himself respond to her plea. The knowledge that the "most distinguished gentlemen of the land" were busy upstairs working out a failed policy of appeasement offers little sympathy. For what, in the end, was all this self-denial for? He says, in the passage I quoted at the beginning of this review, that a good butler only removes the costume of his profession when he is "entirely alone"; here is a man that cannot discard the polite fiction of his service because it has long since replaced anything resembling a breathing man.
Never Let Me Go refuses, somewhat frustratingly, to imagine that its tortured souls have any recourse. We are brought into sympathy with its protagonists because we recognize how little control we have over our own existence as well. But The Remains of the Day is infinitely more frustrating--and affecting--because we cannot reach through the pages and throttle the man within it, or compel him to fashion a life worth living on his own terms. The title of the book suggests that, for all the ways in which we foil our own ambitions, and punish ourselves for wanting and dreaming, there is time left to fix our mistakes. That's a lovely thought and this is a great book.