Saturday, March 19, 2011

Between the Wars: The Remains of the Day

It's odd that I should read two books set in Engalnd between World Wars I and II back-to-back. It's an interesting period of history, because even looking back, World War II doesn't seem like a foregone conclusion. There were lots of points where it could have gone differently. Kazuo Ishiguro explores these in his terrific novel The Remains of the Day, and chooses a very interesting person as his narrator.

What must it be like to see your entire way of life crumble and change? That's the question facing his narrator, a butler in a large house. He was at the top of his field, and it was indeed considered a field as legitimate as plumbing or law or nursing. There was a lot to know, there was extensive training, there were trade publications and professional societies. Moreover, being a butler apparently wasn't something you did, it was something you were. Until you weren't.

The book is set in 1956, and the butler's employer for 30 years has been dead for about three, his home sold to an American who finds his formalities baffling. His new American employer invites him to take his car and go on vacation while he's away, and he decides to go visit Miss Kenton, the former housekeeper.

During his trip, he remembers many incidences, most of which were highlights of his career and bittersweet at the same time, for example, the night when his father died, which was the very night his employer hosted a large gathering of influential people from a variety of nations, with an eye to forming a coalition to change the conditions of the German surrender and stop punishing them so severely before there was real trouble.

Through these reminiscenses, we get the sense of how much he sacrificed for his career, how much it meant to him, and we feel for him that he lived long enough to see himself become obsolete. At the age of about 60 or so, he never married, had few personal joys, but all he can really say is that the silver was always polished. It started to make me feel sad and stressed out for him, but despite these serious themes, the book ends on a high note, a casual conversation from which the title comes.

It's actually a book of hope, it's very absorbing and well-written, there's humor in it along with the more serrious themes. I do believe Ishiguro is going to become a favorite of mine.