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Monday, 20 July 2020

Review - Kazuo Ishiguro: The Remains of the Day


Kazuo Ishiguro
The Remains of the Day (5*)

What a delightful book this is, both funny and sad, a story of an obsessively fastidious butler and unrequited love. I saw the 1993 Anthony Hopkins / Emma Thompson film when it came out but suspect the book will leave a much stronger impression.

Mr. James Stevens, an ageing, nineteen-fifties, top class, old fashioned English butler, embarks on a solitary motoring trip to the West Country, giving space to reflect upon his role in personal and public events during his lifetime. He recalls gatherings of naïve Nazi sympathisers and anecdotes of “great” butlers who could deal with tigers in the dining room without alarming the guests.

The first-person narrative is highly formal in keeping with the character, but it flows easily with both hilarious and heartbreaking effect. In thinking about the question of ‘what is a “great” butler?’, it occurs to him there is a dimension he has not fully considered. The way he says it is typical of his voice throughout the novel:
“I have never in all these years thought of the matter in quite this way; but then it is perhaps in the nature of coming away on a trip such as this that one is prompted towards such surprising new perspectives on topics one imagined one had long ago thought through thoroughly. I have also, no doubt, been prompted to think along such lines by the small event that occurred an hour or so ago – which has, I admit, unsettled me somewhat.” (p123)
which leads to quirky diversions about the surprising new perspective and the recent and significant “small event” which begins when he runs out of petrol on a remote road.

Stevens is the most unreliable of unreliable narrators, unable to see he has spent a lifetime turning himself into a robot: stiff, formal, handling unexpected events with aplomb but taking little notice of personal social cues. One thinks of Sheldon Cooper in the The Big Bang Theory. You want to hand him an Asperger questionnaire.  

Gradually, the mask peels away. Woven into the fabric of his reminiscences is a touching story of unrequited love. Memories of Miss Kenton, a former housekeeper, flood back during the journey, the real purpose of which is to visit her in the unspoken hope she will return. It becomes clear she would have married him had he only been able to set aside his mechanistic self-deception. Instead she had married someone else and moved away over two decades earlier. He begins to see the different path his life might have taken.

At the end, after leaving Miss Kenton, he meets a jovial man on the seafront at Weymouth and tells him about his career.
“… look mate, … if you ask me, your attitude’s all wrong, see? Don’t keep looking back all the time, you’re bound to get depressed … you’ve got to keep looking forward. … You’ve got to enjoy yourself. The evening’s the best part of the day. You’ve done your day’s work. Now you can put your feet up and enjoy it.” (p256)
One hopes he can take the advice to be more positive and make the best of what remains of the 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?” (p256)
A warning for a memoir writer if ever there was one, although I believe my own motivation is celebration rather than regret.


Key to star ratings: 5*** wonderful and hope to read again, 5* wonderful, 4* enjoyed it a lot and would recommend, 3* enjoyable/interesting, 2* didn't enjoy, 1* gave up.

Previous book reviews 

41 comments:

  1. I loved this Tasker when I read it. There is something about a book written in the first person which, if it is well-written touches a nerve, and this did for me - I found it unbearably sad bur so very enjoyable.

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    1. I loved it too. I don't remember the considerable humour in the book being very evident at all in the film.

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  2. I did enjoy the film when it first came out. Perhaps I should now read the book.

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    1. I found the book a much better experience than the film.

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  3. The film is dreadfully depressing yet very worthy
    I love the music btw

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    1. I don't especially remember the film music but yes I did find the film depressing whereas the book isn't.

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  4. I saw the film when it came out and found it a depressing cautionary tale. We all compromise ourselves to a certain extent during a lifetime, but Stevens is an extreme and very sad example.

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    1. Yes it was and I suppose guess we do to a greater or lesser extent. I'm glad that I changed career when I did otherwise I might have found the film even more depressing, but as said above, the book has a humour in it that does not come across in the film.

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  5. I couldn't finish the book; I didn't like it and I felt nothing.

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    1. A pity, but everyone has books that just don't appeal. I'm trying to read Sons and Lovers at the moment and am finding it boring. That will be a 1* score if I give up, which looks likely.

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    2. I don't find it a pity at all, why should it be? I had no sympathy with the main character and found him to be a fool and the story line troubled me being about a very British subject and the Britishness of such importance to the message of the book written by Japanese Ishiguro albeit he may have grown up in England.

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    3. See my response to Graham Edwards below.

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    4. Am with you Tasker, I loved this book. I’ve liked most of the books of his I have read. Found The Buried Giant tough and gave up after 30 OS so pages. Perhaps I should try again.

      As for Rachel’s comments about “Japanese Ishiguro”, his family moved from japan to the UK when he was five! I don’t think spending the first five years of your life in a country merits you being seen as from that country. I speak from experience.

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    5. Yes, I acknowledged he grew up in England but he was of Japanese parentage and hardly brought up wholly in the traditions of British culture.

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    6. Thanks for an interesting discussion. He has said that his background gave him a different cultural perspective from his British contemporaries. To me the book finds humour in a certain kind of Britishness around an archetypical British character about which I probably knew no more than he did until he researched it. It is done extremely well and I don't find it troubling, although if one of us were to write in a similar way about another culture I suspect we would receive a lot of contempt.

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  6. I found the film desperately sad. Stevens was what we now call a dinosaur, even in his own time. So rigid, and so convinced of the superiority of his 'betters' in arranging world affairs. He never seems to have thought for himself, or even felt very much, until it's all too late and life has slipped away.

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    1. In the book he thinks quite a lot about how well he carries out his job, but you can see he is fooling himself. I suppose we all do at least some of the time, but the way it comes across so subtly in the book is wonderful writing.

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  7. This does sound like an interesting book. Thank you for the review. I just may have to give this a look.

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    1. I would say book definitely yes - it really is a delight - but not the film.

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  8. It sounds like a very good read, but I don't think I can handle "sad" very well right now. Thank you for the review.

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    1. It's the one I've enjoyed most out of those I've recently read. Bits are sad but I did not find that to be the overall tone - unlike with the film which I think played it for weepy.

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  9. His utter determination to remain a 'robot' is terribly sad: her tears at the end are heartbreaking

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    1. Interestingly, I don't recall her tears in the book. As it's written from his P.O.V. he wouldn't have seen them. What you do see is how much she talked about him to her daughter, and how amusing her tales must have been.

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  10. Sad film, all I can say is that Hopkins played the butler beautifully, his face was so inexpressive ;)

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    1. He did play it well, but havinig celebrity actors Hopkins and Thompson, put me off a little. The book is much better.

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  11. Tasker, I wonder if we readers can entirely distinguish between novel and film. A. Hopkins *played the butler so beautifully* as Thelma said. A great actor changes the way we read the text. Hard to think of George Smiley in Tinker Tailor without seeing Alec Guinness.

    I think Weaver of Grass gets to the heart of the novel's achievement: sad but enjoyable: a first-person narrative that touches a nerve. Ishiguro achieved this in his first novel, A Pale View of Hills, and in Artist in the Floating World which I think won the Booker.

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    1. My view is that the book is outstanding, the film is just good. In another comment I've said the film may have been played for weepiness.

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    2. I'm glad that my reading the book has come so late that I've pretty much forgotten the film.

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    3. "Remains of the Day"? I wish - it's nearly 22oo hrs here. The film AFTER having read the novel often, though not always, a disappointment. Nuances are lost.

      And when I have watched the film before having read the novel only rarely will I read the actual novel. And there is a good reason for it. Humans are visual beasts. So, once you have an image in your mind, on READING your imagination can't run freely.

      U

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    4. Sometimes the film images just float above the text of the book: I am thinking of two Visconti's films, The Leopard and Death In Venice. I still hear the echo of the Mahler soundtrack when I read the latter.
      A German film-maker said he wanted to be a novelist until he realised novels don't have any music! Was it Werner Herzog?

      In his L'Art du Roman, Milan Kundera said that the essence of a great roman cannot be translated on to the screen. Some novels are said to be unfilmable because the novelist set out to make language the leading character: Joyce's Ulysses though Stern made a brave attempt to put Stephen Dedalus and Molly Bloom on film.

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    5. Joseph Strick directed the 1967 film of Ulysses (on DVD) with Milo O'Shea as Leopold Bloom, Barbara Jefford as Molly Bloom and Glasgow-born Maurice Roeves as Stephen Dedalus.
      There was a 2003 film, Bloom, directed by Sean Walsh with Stephen Rea in the lead role.

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    6. After nearly 30 years the film has left barely any other impression than a vague memory of Anthony Hopkins as the butler. I would have been hard pressed to remember the story. I'm beginning to think the film was over-hyped because of the lovey actors. The novel is well worth reading.

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    7. It has flawless acting, a subtle script, and nice photography.
      A first-rate novel can make a good movie.
      There's a view that films are best made from second-rate novels or original scripts.

      I am reading Richard Brody's bio of Jean-Luc Goddard, *Everything Is Cinema*. Goddard was commissioned to adapt an obscure children's novel set in the aftermath of the Franco-Prussian War. He avoided classic novels and bestsellers, and liked original screenplays.

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  12. It's very many years since I read it and I can't, in all honesty, recall my emotions at the time but they could not have been negative or I would have remembered. Oddly I do recall the looking forward advice now that you've mentioned it - possibly because that's what I would have been thinking one should do. I almost certainly still have it in the 'loft library' so I might revisit it. I haven't seen the film.

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    1. My reference to Sheldon in The Big Bang Theory is because I felt Stevens in the book is much more of a delightfully comic character than in the film. I'm not as critical of him as, for example, Rachel, because I see him as a single-minded perfectionist rather than a fool. As Weave says, being in the first person you see it from his point of view through which he strives to justify himself. I can't see how that would work in a film, so they gave Mrs Kenton a more dynamic role.

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  13. You baby boomers destroyed your own children's future, and then laughed about it and blamed it on them. Do you realize that you are going to end up in a retirement home where you are going to get treated like total trash, and abused? Your children won't be able to help you, even if they wanted to. Karma's a bitch, you boomer scum.

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    1. Ignorant simplification. Get an education.

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    2. Hey Anonymous: I did not realise I was *boomer scum*. I was born into my historic time, just like you, though my parents and teachers taught us good manners, a lesson you never learned.

      There is an argument that my generation took too much out of this country: I know an art teacher who retired at 55, she doesn't get full teachers' pension but it's still a tidy sum plus she has her National Pension: many local government officials retired at 60, and their private pension funds are being topped up by folk who are working.
      In-work poverty is a serious problem in Britain, now that the unions are gone, and it will get worse because of lockdown.

      You won't get your National Pension at 65 as I did. Life will be hard. Is that why you are bitter? Organise, politically. Don't let governments away with walking all over you.

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    3. I said National Pension when I should have written State Pension.
      My younger sister, three years or so my junior, is not yet receiving her State Pension. She is still working hard at her job, at her home in London because of lockdown.

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  14. Sounds great. I shall have to get it from the library.

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