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The Remains of the Day, by Kazuo Ishiguro

July 28, 2013

There was a sound in the background like a distant sheep coughing gently on a mountainside.
–P.G. Wodehouse, “Jeeves in the Morning”

Coming to this novel in chronological reverse, having read first Never Let Me Go, the reader can’t help but think of the butler Stevens, who narrates this time around, as another defective human, like the clone in the later work.

It’s a small book. Stevens sets out on a road trip to meet Miss Kenton, a former colleague, and on the way ruminates over his career as an exceptionally dedicated butler in a grand English house. One question is whether the road trip really adds much to the story. There are some scenes along the way where he has further opportunities to interact with those outside of his daily milieu, and show his awkwardness.

The narrative is so minimalist that when reality intrudes (the efforts of Stevens’s master, Lord Darlington, to broker relations with Weimar, then Nazi Germany) it comes off as amateurish in a really embarrassing way. No effort is evident of any research into the actual history–a high schooler could have done as much.

In his entire dedication to his job, Stevens is following in the footsteps of his father and even misses out on his father’s death upstairs in the servants’ quarters because he is too busy with attending to his master and his guests. His father, though, wanted it that way.

Finally, is this supposed to be a criticism of the upper classes and how they treated their servants? That such complete devotion to the master buried any individual initiative? It is difficult to pull that from the story. Certainly Ishiguro is not writing a Dickensian invective against perceived injustice.

This is Jeeves without the humor, Beckett without the English wrung out through French.

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