Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Choosing Work Over Love

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
Reviewed by Diane K. M.
My rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Why did I wait so many years to read this book? It's beautiful. I loved it so much that I finished it in almost one sitting. I feel a bit like Mr. Stevens, sitting on the pier at the end of the story, wondering how his life could have been different. While Mr. Stevens is thinking of a lost love; I'm thinking of the bad books that could have been avoided if I had picked up Ishiguro instead.

The story is told by Mr. Stevens, a traditional English butler, who served under Lord Darlington for several decades. The narrative begins in 1956 with Stevens adjusting to a new master, who is an American gentleman. Stevens sets out on a car journey across England to meet with a former housekeeper, Miss Kenton. During the journey, Stevens reminisces about his pre-war experiences at Darlington Hall and his relationship with Miss Kenton. There are themes of dignity, the purpose of life, how time is spent, choosing work over love (or love over work), and what constitutes greatness. Everything is shared from Mr. Stevens' perspective, who relates his thoughts in a stream of consciousness, occasionally recounting conversations with others.

Let me pause here to discuss a theory I have, which is that there are two kinds of readers: those who like stream-of-consciousness narrative and those who don't. I am firmly in the former camp, but I've heard several readers say they loathe SOC. The structure of "Remains of the Day" reminded me of another book that I loved: Virginia Woolf's "To the Lighthouse." Both involved SOC narration, both stories take place over only a few days, and both had themes of lost time. 

I liked the movie version of "Remains of the Day," but the text moved me even more. I desperately wanted to shake Mr. Stevens and try to get him to wake up to his present life, instead of being so consumed by his profession. Of course, Miss Kenton tries to do this several times -- she brings him flowers, she teases him about a romance book he's reading, she tries to comfort him when his father dies -- but Stevens is so obsessed with being dignified and restraining his emotions that he can't break free.

Because this story is so well-known, I think I can get away with sharing a favorite passage toward the end of the book. Stevens is in a reflective mood after saying goodbye to Miss Kenton; he's sitting on the pier and is chatting with a stranger:

"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?"

My dear Mr. Stevens, I shall remember your story and will keep it on my bookshelf. I'm sure our paths will cross again.

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