The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro, is probably the most subtle character study I’ve encountered. This is a book that makes winning the Booker Prize and the Nobel Prize in Literature look almost easy, which is how you know it must’ve been achingly difficult to write. Every sentence is like a brushstroke, so purposeful and restrained. If you skim a paragraph, you might miss some crucial bit of subtext about the character’s inner life.
That’s not to say it’s a difficult book to read. You don’t need an English degree to understand that the story is about more than just a traditional English butler driving through the countryside reflecting on his past. You realize at once that this is a man who is afraid of being honest with himself. Unlike some classics, you can put minimal effort into understanding the story and still come away having learned something, or apply more effort and delve to deeper layers. It invites you to dig—to be complicit in discovery—rather than forcing you to fight for every scrap of knowledge.
In other words, this book is much more than merely complex.
This was my second time reading The Remains of the Day. On my first readthrough, I was struck by how unexpectedly tense it is, almost like a thriller. I thought that this tension came from the narrator’s childlike naïveté: when his car dies because he forgets to put petrol in the tank or water in the radiator, I worried about him making bigger mistakes with graver consequences.
I still think that’s a source of pressure, but the bulk of the tension comes from everything that is not said. The scenes are taut, somehow quiet, even on the written page, so that you find yourself straining to pick up on background noise.
Another reason this book propels readers along is its narrative rhythm (something that I also touched on in my last post). Humorous moments are followed by and contrasted with heartbreaking ones, like a sequence that you might call the novel’s major action set piece.
A weeklong conference is being held at the estate where the butler works. Going into it, readers understand that this is a turning point in the narrator’s life, and not only in a good way, despite what he says. Readers recognize, also, that the narrator’s father is sliding downhill fast, though the narrator is in denial of this. The man’s health is declining, and he probably also has a touch of dementia.
We desperately want the narrator to care for his father and abandon the duties that he sees as so important. He doesn’t, which creates a slide into tragedy and makes him sympathetic, despite his snobbishness and parental neglect.
At the same time, the character has been tasked with explaining about the birds and the bees to the son of one of the attending aristocrats. This makes for some truly hilarious misunderstandings plunked down in the middle of the heartache.
Part of the reason the narrator is so compelling is that, though he isn’t stupid, we as readers understand him so much better than he understands himself. We grasp immediately that he is terrified to acknowledge any strong emotion. When he falls in love with another character, for example, he deceives himself into thinking that he’s only spending time with her for professional reasons. The story is told in first person, but whenever he experiences these emotions, he never acknowledges them. We must pick up on them from how other characters react in his presence.
At first, I thought the narrator’s arc would carry him from delusion to self-understanding. Yet every time he takes a step toward understanding, he seems to take two steps back, throwing up his hands to protect himself from the world. Even at the end, when it seems like he’s willing to acknowledge his regrets about the way he lived his life, he still insists to the reader that living in the service of a great man (even one who did more harm than good) was its own reward.
There’s so much more I’d like to talk about. So many things I got out of this book on my second readthrough that I didn’t catch on my first. I’m sure I’ll notice even more on any future reads. But none of those themes or artfully subtle literary strategies are really what make this book great.
The reason it deserves its place as a classic is how it makes readers reflect on their own lives. Ishiguro wants us all to think about the ways we use our years, and what we hope to do with the time we have left. I see myself in the character’s social stiffness and the way he constantly overthinks every interaction. I often wish I was more lighthearted and able to express myself vocally in unfamiliar company.
And this book gives me hope for myself. Although the story is extremely melancholy, it also insists that the end of life can be the best part, and we all have a choice of what to do with the time that remains in our days.