The Remains of the Day
To us, then, the world was a wheel, revolving with these great houses at the hub, their mighty decisions emanating out to all else, rich and poor, who revolved around them. It was the aspiration of all those of us with professional ambition to work our way as close to this hub as we were each of us capable.
A deeply disturbing novel by the Nobel-Prize-winning Kazuo Ishiguro. Mr Stevens is a butler who devoted his life’s best years to serving Lord Darlington, a now-deceased grandee who found himself on the wrong side of history, sympathizing with the Nazis in the 1930s. With Darlington dead and his own health slowly failing, Stevens looks back on his life’s key events, and especially the gradual unwinding of his “good working relationship” with Miss Kenton, his life’s one true love. Much of the poignancy of the book comes from how easy it is to read between the lines: Stevens rarely admits to any emotion, but it is clear he is utterly devastated by the turn his life took.
What makes the book depressingly relevant is that almost anyone working today makes the same bargain as Stevens: we labor within large organizations, hoping that our small contributions will be to a worthwhile cause. But like Stevens, we don’t really know, and may find ourselves sorely disappointed in the end.
I discussed this book with the Extreme Reading club at Google, where the point above resonated with people very strongly. Some of the Extreme Readers saw a positive message in The Remains, a suggestion that if only Stevens had made his relationship with Miss Kenton work out, his life would not have been such a sad waste. But that is far from certain: Ishiguro shows only that some life choices lead to ruin, not that different choices can avoid it. After all, Miss Kenton herself chose a married life over her career, and that has not made her happy. In the book’s climax, she says,
‘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 over some trivial little thing and leave. But each time I do so, 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.'
It is in response to this that Stevens finally says, “Indeed—why should I not admit it?—at that moment, my heart was breaking.”
But the saddest passage of the book comes later, when he confides in an elderly stranger:
‘Since my new employer Mr Farraday arrived, I’ve tried very hard, very hard indeed, to provide the sort of service I would like him to have. I’ve tried and tried, but whatever I do I find I am far from reaching the standards I once set myself. More and more errors are appearing in my work. Quite trivial in themselves – at least so far. But they’re of the sort I would never have made before, and I know what they signify. Goodness knows, I’ve tried and tried, but it’s no use. I’ve given what I had to give. I gave it all to Lord Darlington.’
‘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 mention of dignity at the end here is critical: coming to grips with what dignity is occupies much of the book’s central sections.