the remains of the day kazuo ishiguro book cover

Date read: 01-05-2020

Author: Kazuo Ishiguro

How strongly I recommend it: 7/10

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The Remains of the Day is written from a first-person narrative, of Stevens, an English butler. It is a story of Stevens living a life of professionalism, wondering what it’s like to a butler with “dignity”.

As a result, he denies his own emotions and desires and ends up rueing his wasted chances.

It’s a masterful story of regret and not doing what you’ve always wanted to do.

My notes

“And yet what precisely is this ‘greatness’? Just where, or in what, does it lie? I am quite aware it would take a far wiser head than mine to answer such a question, but if I were forced to hazard a guess, I would say that it is the very lack of obvious drama or spectacle that sets the beauty of our land apart.

What is pertinent is the calmness of that beauty, its sense of restraint. It is as though the land knows of its own beauty, of its own greatness, and feels no need to shout it.”

“As far as I’m concerned, Miss Kenton, my vocation will not be fulfilled until I have done all I can to see his lordship through the great tasks he has set himself. The day his lordship’s work is complete, the day he is able to rest on his laurels, content in the knowledge that he has done all anyone could ever reasonably ask of him, only on that day, Miss Kenton, will I be able to call myself, as you put it, a well-contented man.”

“Miss Kenton, let me suggest to you that you are hardly well placed to be passing judgments of such a high and mighty nature. The fact is: the world of today is a very complicated and treacherous place. There are many things you and I are simply not in a position to understand concerning, say, the nature of Jewry. Whereas his lordship, I might venture, is somewhat better placed to judge what is for the best.”

Other than maybe Mr Carlisle. He’s a first class doctor, but with all respect, he doesn’t get connections as such. It gets easy for us here to forget our responsibility as citizens. That’s why I work so hard at the campaigning.

Whether people agree or disagree — and I know there’s not one soul in this room now who’d agree with everything I say — at least I’ll get them thinking. At least I’ll remind them of their duty. This is a democratic country we’re living in. We fought for it. We’ve all got to play our part.”

“It really was quite dreadful. But you see, Stevens, Mr Spencer had a point to prove to Sir Leonard. In fact, if it’s any consolation, you did assist in demonstrating a very important point. Sir Leonard had been talking a lot of that old-fashioned nonsense. About the will of the people being the wisest arbitrator and so on. Would you believe it, Stevens?”

“Indeed, sir”.

“We’re really so slow in this country to recognize when a thing’s outmoded. Other great nations know full well that to meet the challenges of each new age means discarding old, sometimes well-loved methods. Not so here in Britain. There’s still so many talking like Sir Leonard last night.

That’s why Mr Spencer felt the need to demonstrate his point. And I tell you, Stevens, if the likes of Sir Leonard are made to wake up and think a little, then you can take it from me your ordeal last night was not in vain.”

Lord Darlington gave another sigh. “We’re always the last, Stevens. Always the last to be clinging on to outmoded systems. But sooner or later, we’ll need to face up to the facts. Democracy is something for a bygone era.

The world’s far too complicated a place now for universal suffrage and such like. For endless members of parliament debating things to a standstill. All fine a few years ago, perhaps, but in today’s world? What was it Mr Spencer said last night? He put it rather well.”

“I believe, sir, he compared the present parliamentary system to a committee of the mothers’ union attempting to organize a war campaign.”

“Exactly, Stevens. We are, quite frankly, behind the times in this country. And it’s imperative that all forward-looking people impress this on the likes of Sir Leonard.”

“Indeed, sir.”

“I ask you, Stevens. Here we are in the midst of a continuing crisis. I’ve seen it with my own eyes when I went north with Mr Whittaker. People are suffering. Ordinary, decent working people are suffering terribly. Germany and Italy have set their houses in order by acting. And so have the wretched Bolsheviks in their own way, one supposes.

Even President Roosevelt, look at him, he’s not afraid to take a few bold steps on behalf of his people. But look at us here, Stevens. Year after year goes by, and nothing gets better. All we do is argue and debate and procrastinate.

Any decent idea is amended to ineffectuality by the time it’s gone half-way through to the various committees it’s obliged to pass through. The few people qualified to know what’s what are talked to a standstill by ignorant people all around them. What do you make of it, Stevens?”

“The nation does seem to be in a regrettable condition, sir.”

“I’ll say. Look at Germany and Italy, Stevens. See what strong leadership can do if it’s allowed to act. None of this universal suffrage nonsense there. If your house is on fire, you don’t call the household into the drawing room and debate the various options for an escape for an hour, do you?

It may have been all very well once, but the world’s a complicated place now. The man in the street can’t be expected to know enough about politics, economics, world commerce and what have you. And why should he? In fact, you made a very good reply last night, Stevens. How did you put it? Something to the effect that it was not in your realm? Well, why should it be?”

“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? The hard reality is, surely, that for the likes of you and I, there is little choice other than to leave our fate, ultimately, in the hands of those great gentlemen at the hub of this world who employ our services.

What is the point in worrying oneself too much about what one could or could not have done to control the course one’s life took? Surely it is enough that the likes of you and I at least try to make our small contribution count for something true and worthy.

And if some of us are prepared to sacrifice much in life in order to pursue such aspirations, surely that is in itself, whatever the outcome, cause for pride and contentment.”

“But that doesn’t mean to say, of course, there aren’t occasions now and then — extremely desolate occasions — when you think to yourself: ‘What a terrible mistake I’ve made with my life.’ And you get to thinking about a different life, a better life you might have had. For instance, I get to thinking about a life I may have had with you, Mr. Stevens.

And I suppose that’s when I get angry about some trivial little thing and leave. But each time I do, I realize before long — my rightful place is with my husband. After all, there’s no turning back the clock now. One can’t be forever dwelling on what might have been. One should realize one has as good as most, perhaps better, and be grateful.”

‘Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man. He wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least.

As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really — one has to ask oneself — what dignity is there in that?’

“The fact is, of course,’ I said after a while, ‘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.”

“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.”