A LIFE OF LOST OPPORTUNITIES
I picked this book up at Nymeth’s recommendation, and I’m so glad I did. This is a gem of a book, a masterpiece by a very gifted writer.
Stevens, a longtime butler of Darlington Hall, has been given some time off by his new American employer Mr. Farraday. Stevens uses this opportunity to make a cross-country motoring trip to meet Miss Kenton, a friend and former housekeeper at Darlington Hall. During his journey, he reminisces about his master and the company he used to keep and emphasizes the qualities a great butler possesses.
The first thing that strikes you about the book is the stiff, formal voice of the narrator. Indeed, for a while, you feel as if you are reading some official memo about butlering, instead of a man’s reminiscences about his life. This throws a lot of light on the sort of person Stevens is: highly controlled. The emotional restraint that Stevens shows is alarming; he’s methodical and accurate, but more mechanical than human. This restraint pervades all his relationships, that with his father and especially with Miss Kenton. For example, when his father lies dying, he doesn’t spend time by his side but goes his professional duties as if nothing was wrong. Stevens considers such restraint a symbol of dignity, something he believes is a hallmark of a “great” butler, but frankly, his emotional immaturity shocked me. He never pursues his relationship with Miss Kenton, causing her to ultimately leave in despair.
Stevens is also an unreliable narrator, and he presents events as he chooses to see them, not as they actually were. He is blind to a number of things, notably the faults of his employer. He strongly defends Lord Darlington’s policy of appeasement of Nazis, and dismisses allegations of anti-Semitism as “absurd” and “insignificant. There is a distinctly feudal air to his belief that the employer knows better than him, and it is not his position to question his actions. It is a theme repeated time and again, that it is more dignified for a person to know his place and not try to rise above it.
One is simply accepting an inescapable truth: that the likes of you and I will never be in a position to comprehend the great affairs of today's world, and our best course will always be to put our trust in an employer we judge to be wise and honourable, and to devote our energies to the task of serving him to the best of our ability.
The only butlers I’ve encountered before are Beach and Jeeves in Wodehousian literature. The Remains of the Day presented a totally different perspective. The English stiff upper lip is famous and revered, but Ishiguro shows us how restraint can prevent a person from discovering his abilities and exploring his emotions. There is certain stuffiness in the manners of the Englishmen, as much in the bourgeois as in the aristocracy. Ishiguro explores every character thoroughly, in the process, creating a picture of a decaying upper class hanging on to its illusions of grandeur, and the people who help maintain the illusion. At the end of the book, I was left feeling sorry for Stevens, when he ponders about his life and all he has missed.
I gave my best to Lord Darlington. I gave him the very best I had to give, and now - well - I find I do not have a great deal more left to give…
For a great many people, the evening is the most enjoyable part of the day. Perhaps, then, there is something to his advice that I should cease looking back so, much, that I should adopt a more positive outlook and try to make the best of what remains of my day. After all, what can we ever gain in forever looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives have not turned out quite as we might have wished?