Delicate masterpiece: Reading Kazuo Ishiguro’s “The Remains of the Day.”

remains of the day book

The 1993 Merchant-Ivory film Remains of the Day, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, is my favorite movie of all time. About two years ago I wrote a blog, one of my personal favorites, about how it came to be so. You might be surprised that with as many times as I’ve seen the film, I had never read the highly-regarded novel it was based on, by Japanese-born British author Kazuo Ishiguro. I finally rectified that. Not long ago I found a used paperback copy of the book, and last night I finished reading it. It was an absolutely magical experience and reminded me of why I love books so much in the first place. And, far from sparking a comparison in my head (which might otherwise seem inevitable) about which was “better,” the movie or the book, I discovered that the two media complement each other in unexpected and fascinating ways. Ishiguro’s The Remains of the Day is a wonderfully delicate masterpiece and one that everybody should read.

The novel, which is really not very long, opens at Darlington Hall, a stately old English manor home, in July 1956. The narrative is the first-person story of Stevens–his first name is never revealed–who has for decades been the head butler at Darlington Hall. The estate, now unprofitable, has been purchased by Mr. Faraday, an American millionaire. As Farraday prepares to go out of town he tells Stevens he can take the car and go on a trip for a few days if he likes. Stevens seizes the opportunity to travel to the West Country of England to look up a former employee, Miss Kenton (now Mrs. Benn), who wrote Stevens a letter containing what he believes to be cryptic clues that she may want to return to her old employment after nearly 20 years away. The book follows Stevens on his six-day trip, during which he reminisces about the old days at Darlington Hall before World War II, and especially his relationship with Miss Kenton–who he seems to have fallen in love with, though neither of them expressed their feelings for each other.

The 1993 film version of The Remains of the Day is overall a pretty faithful adaptation of the book. Anthony Hopkins portrays Stevens, in one of his most memorable roles.

The structure of the novel is masterful. The chapters are organized around Stevens’s trip through the country, exposing us to various sleepy little villages in the English countryside and their citizens, from whom Stevens–who has spent most of his adult life at Darlington Hall–feels quite aloof. The tour is a springboard for his free-floating memories of his lifetime of service to Lord Darlington, who turns out in later years to be a Nazi sympathizer. Stevens’s preoccupation is the concept of “dignity” which he believes is the key to being a good butler. The narrative consumes numerous pages if Stevens’s thought processes as he tries to define what “dignity” is, studded with examples from his own life. As it turns out (spoilers, obviously) it is this exact concept of “dignity” that’s what prevented Stevens from acting on his feelings for Miss Kenton. The central conflict of the novel is thus Stevens’s troubled relationship with this concept: he wants to embrace it and perfect it to be good at his job and thus validate his self-worth, but the same concept ultimately costs him his happiness. He only realizes this at the end, as Miss Kenton/Mrs. Benn declines to return to employment at Darlington Hall.

One of the book’s fascinating elements, something that’s not even attempted in the movie, is that Stevens is an “unreliable narrator.” Early on he mentions that mistakes are being made in the operation and service at Darlington Hall, which he chalks up to a bad “staff plan”; this is in fact the reason he seeks out Miss Kenton. One of his reminiscences involves his father, who briefly worked at Darlington Hall in the early 1920s, but who began making mistakes due to increasing age and infirmity and eventually had a stroke on the job. Only later in the book do we, the readers, begin to realize that the mistakes Stevens says are now (1956) happening at Darlington Hall are being made by him–what happened to his father is now happening to him, and he refuses to acknowledge it. Stevens’s blind devotion to Lord Darlington, whom the reader soon realizes is a gullible fool, is explained quite rationally–except the reality is different. Indeed Stevens’s whole vision of his own life appears to be quite skewed from what it really was. The way Ishiguro writes these subtle clues is wonderful and fascinating. A lesser writer would have beaten us over the head with them. Here, it’s understated.

dyrham park

Dyrham Park, a stately English manor, is similar to the kind of estate the fictional Darlington Hall is supposed to be in the novel. This location was used as Darlington Hall in the film version.

This is, I think, the chief difference between the novel and the movie. The film version is much more literal: it shows what actually happens, and leaves the viewer to puzzle out what’s going on in the characters’ minds, especially Stevens. The novel shows us the story from a subjective viewpoint. The film also spends much more time on the Miss Kenton relationship than the book does. Certain things are also compressed: characters in the movie are composites, and the time frame is compressed; the movie deals principally with events in the late 1930s, while the time span of Stevens’ reminiscences in the book begins 15 years earlier. Both have a great richness to them, but the brilliance of the movie is that it captures the subtlety and the delicate fragility of Ishiguro’s story. I think I will love the movie version even more the next time I see it as a result of having read the book.

The Remains of the Day, published in 1989, is truly one of the great novels in the English language in the past three decades. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it. Great writing, fascinating characters and a beautiful setting all combine into a masterwork of storytelling. Books don’t get much better than this.

The header photo is by me, depicting the cover of the 1999 Faber & Faber paperback edition of The Remains of the Day.
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