March 2012. The attendees of our book club’s book discussion voted for the book that we’ll be discussing on July 2012. The nominees were The Color Purple by Alice Walker, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee, and The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro. These three novels have a common denominator: they are winners of literary awards. I’ve been associated with such books by my friends; hence, I was selected to lead the discussion for the winning book. I’ve already read all three, so I voted for the book that I can barely recall, which is To Kill a Mockingbird.
Harper Lee’s only novel lost by one vote to The Remains of the Day. I was annoyed at first because it hasn’t been a year since I first read it, and I dreaded rereading it because the devastation that it wrought upon me is still fresh. It’s like salting a still open wound, and why would anyone do that unless he is a masochist?
Looking back, I am mighty glad that this book won. Rereading it is a bittersweet experience. In fact, it’s the first book that I ever reread. I even listened to it on audio, so going back and forth through it brought a somehow clearer perspective of what Ishiguro was trying to say. I felt that I had a better understanding of the decisions that Mr Stevens, the butler-protagonist, made that led him to waste his life for the sake of his career.
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. In comparison, the sorts of sights offered in such places as Africa and America, though undoubtedly very exciting, would, I am sure, strike the objective viewer as inferior on account of their unseemly demonstrativeness.
Mr Stevens, the head butler of Darlington Hall, goes on a motoring trip and muses over the key events of his life and his career. He is an uptight, precise, and dignified gentleman who aspires to be one of the great butlers of his generation. He turns over various thoughts on greatness and dignity, and he does so at length that he sometimes finds himself revising and reshaping his own opinions on the matter. For Mr Stevens, dignity is keeping the professional demeanor demanded from a butler at all times. This belief, which is challenged several times as the events from the past are revealed, is what ultimately led him to what he is at the latter stage of his life.
His beliefs on professional decorum are pushed beyond the end of the spectrum that he ends up hiding and not telling anyone at all what he truly feels. An example of this is the conference of March 1923 at Darlington Hall, an event that sought to alleviate the punishment of Germany as stipulated in the Treaty of Versailles. This, for me, is a critical moment in the novel. This is where the wavelength of the drama surges to one of its peaks. I would find it hard to understand if people are hardly moved by the events that took place during this event hosted by our protagonist’s employer, Lord Darlington. It is indisputable that Mr Stevens, like his father, is working hard to becoming the great butler of his own terms. We describe him as serious, hardworking, and dedicated. He is, in various aspects, a professional.
So when his dilemma of duty versus family started to swell, I could feel the devastation lapping again on the surface. I am amazed that the narrative did not display maudlin sentimentality and that is something inherent in an English butler, a person capable of great temperamental restraint.
It is also at this point where the musings on the greatness and dignity of a butler are synthesized. We may not easily approve of Mr Stevens’s choice of action during that night, but we have to understand that he will make that choice no matter what. He will pay for it in the end. He will make more similar choices which will ultimately resign him to the Darlington cage.
Besides, that is who he is: a person self-trained to strive for what he has set for himself upon starting his profession, taking upon himself the necessary strains and sacrifices. But are these real necessities? Is this not a case of misguided notions of greatness and dignity? Isn’t the late unveiling of this disillusionment an irreparable damage to everything that one has held so dear? Isn’t this, the undevelopment of your beliefs, too harsh a reality?
I cannot try to imagine the magnitude of Mr Stevens’s loss and regret without causing a little hurt in my heart. And I have only illustrated one example. There is still the matter with Miss Kenton, the head housekeeper whom he has loved all his life and yet, whom he never gave a single hint of what he felt. As the narration of Mr Stevens unravels, doubts about the character of his employer and his what-if’s regarding the turning points concerning Miss Kenton blight the illusion he built for himself.
And at the end of the day, at the late years of his life, what does he have? There we see all the sadness engulfing Mr Stevens as he finally admits that his heart is breaking. Oh Mr Stevens, why, why, why do you always have to pretend?
This novel filled with well-thought metaphors, nostalgic English rhetoric, delicate handling of giant themes, elegant pacing, subtle building of plot, and unforgettable characters, is an almost perfect one.