Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Remains of the Day -- and meet Laura!

It's Wednesday. Book day! And I'm doing something a little bit different. Meet the woman responsible for today's book review: Laura!

Today's book selection came courtesy a blog post over on Casa del Hansen, a blog about "the life and times of Laura, Loren, and family." Laura is a university reference librarian and, of course, an avid reader, so I jumped at the chance to read something she recommended. But I was especially psyched because Laura and I have so much in common. She was an English major, she is obsessed with shoes and pumpkin lattes, she fully embraces her inner nerdiness, she loves PBS Masterpiece as much as I do, she is equally frustrated by her hair, and she loves making things in her free time (and looking for new ideas about what to make on pinterest).

Remember my post about how I never win anything? Well, I didn't win that book giveaway -- but I *did* win these adorable booties for L thanks to Laura!

She's going to be selling more of these, plus other fantastic products, in her brand new etsy shop opening up this month. L's feet are just a wee bit small for them right now (they are a 6-12 month size and L will hit 6 months on Thanksgiving Day!) but I know she will be a little doll in them when the time is right.

So now that you know a little bit more about the face behind this selection, let's get started with the review!

Remains of the Day is one of those books I have thought about reading for a really, really long time and just never got around to it. I knew it first as a movie, in part because of the reference to it at the very end of Waiting for Guffman when Corky St. Clair is showing off his various movie paraphernalia (side note: I spelled that word right on the first try, thankyouverymuch).  I searched high and low to find a clip of it online, but I can only find this one from the same scene.

Anyway, the book was written by Kazuo Ishiguro, and he won the Man Booker Prize for it back in 1989. It chronicles a week or so in the life of Stevens, a lifelong butler in the house of a distinguished English gentleman and, after his death, a wealthy American. Stevens has a week to himself -- something that has never happened before -- and as he travels the English countryside in the hopes of reconnecting with a former housekeeper from the same estate, he reminisces over his career in service.

It seems that Ishiguro has a penchant for writing about one's station in life. His most recent novel, Never Let Me Go, explores the idea of breeding people for specific purposes. The rigid class structure of traditional English society has many similarities, actually -- and the collapse of that structure during the early to mid-twentieth century has been the fodder for a fair number of books, perhaps most notably Brideshead Revisited (which spawned two beloved film versions that have been in my Netflix queue for ages). If you've never read any Waugh, Brideshead isn't necessarily representative of his other works, but it's probably the one that will stick around the longest and I'd highly recommend it as a way to learn more about the ultimate demise of the English lord. Remains is a variation on this same theme, though through the lens of a "downstairs" character rather than an "upstairs" one.

To be perfectly frank, nothing really happens in Remains of the Day. Stevens goes on a brief journey -- that's really about it as far as action is concerned, and each chapter begins with a brief account of his travels, but that's about it. Instead, the book is a character study, one told in the voice of that character, which leaves the reader to draw conclusions when and where appropriate. As he drives through the English countryside, Stevens' reveries about the past tend to focus on one particular question: did he achieve his lifelong goal to be a "great butler"?

Much of the book reminded me of a line from Singing in the Rain: "Dignity. Always dignity." Though of course we only have his word for it, after all, in every instance recounted by Stevens, he put his employer and the reputation of the estate above all else, forsaking personal comfort, relationships, and in some cases deeply held beliefs in order to do his duty in as dignified a manner as he could. Some of his memories about this are sweet and funny, such as his story about being discovered while reading a romance novel: "one straightforward way of [developing a professionally desirable good accent and command of language] is simply to read a few pages of a well-written book during odd spare moments one may have. This has been my own policy for some years...such works tend to be written in good English, with plenty of elegant dialogue of much practical value to me. A weightier book -- a scholarly study, say -- [...would be] more limited [in] use in the course of one's normal intercourse with ladies and gentlemen. I rarely had the time of the desire to read any of these romances cover to cover...however, I do not mind confessing today -- and I see nothing to be ashamed of in this -- that I did at times gain a sort of incidental enjoyment from these stories...Why should one not enjoy in a light-hearted sort of way stories of ladies and gentlemen who fall in love and express their feelings for each other, often in the most elegant phrases?" (121-22, Vintage International e-books edition). Equally funny: Stevens' attempts to practice witty sayings so that he might supply one or two to his employer during conversation in order to provide him with amusement. (It reminded me of this passage from Pride and Prejudice, in fact.)

But some of his memories are deeply painful, as when he recalls the night his father passed away while he had to attend to a very important meeting between his employer and several high-ranking dignitaries and could not be with him. The description of that evening is heart wrenching, as Stevens endeavors to be ever the consummate butler: "I proceeded to serve port to some other of the guests. There was a loud burst of laughter behind me...I felt something touch my elbow and turned to find Lord Darlington. 'Stevens, are you all right?' 'Yes, sir. Perfectly.' 'You look as though you're crying.' I laughed and taking out a handkerchief, quickly wiped my face. 'I'm very sorry, sir. The strains of a hard day'" (78). There are many times when Stevens' actions seem to fly in the face of reason and certainly to be against what we would consider better judgement. But fulfilling his duty as a butler was more important than anything else -- and that meant with the heavy cost of great personal sacrifice.

This is not to say that Stevens comes across as completely altruistic and selfless. In fact, one of the best scenes in the novel comes near the end where he allows a group of country bumpkins to believe that he is some sort of great gentleman himself, rather than the servant of one; you can picture him puffing up his chest with pride as he tells them about how he once met Winston Churchill when he came to "his" estate. And, of course, his constant pursuit of "great butler" status is not only for the glory of his employer but also for himself. For the most part, though, we sympathize with Stevens. Can we fault him for wanting to make a name and a place for himself in the world? Isn't that what we're all trying to do?

Above all else, this novel is a love story. Love in the form of duty to one's employer. Proud, patriotic love for a place. Nostalgic love for a way of life that is slipping away. And, yes, romantic love too. From early on, it's hard to miss the playful flirtation behind the interactions between Stevens and Ms. Kenton, the former housekeeper, and as the book goes on we start to see just how much their relationship affected their lives and their household. The final chapter of the novel, in which Stevens has several meaningful conversations both with loved ones and strangers, is so moving that it makes you want to go back and read it again -- and again. Or so it was for me, at least.

Remains of the Day is a slow, quiet, thoughtful novel -- but the drama is there in the details.

Final verdict: ***1/2

Also recommended:
Similar time period and topic, but from the "upstairs" perspective: Brideshead Revisited
A comic look at a butler whose pride and romantic inclinations get in the way of his duty to his employer: Twelfth Night
Movies and miniseries: Brideshead Revisited, Downton Abbey, Gosford Park, Upstairs Downstairs -- both versions


  1. Glad you enjoyed the book, Courtney - and I'm also excited to see L in the booties. Such a doll!

  2. I'm so glad to see this recommendation! I'm always looking for a new book. I haven't found one that grabbed my attention lately so last week I re-read Catcher in the Rye for the 100th time and this week started off with Sense and Sensibility.

    Thanks again!