I didn’t expect to appreciate this one as much as I did. I started The Remains of the Day as an audiobook a few months ago while unpacking at a new apartment, and I realized it would require a bit more attention than I was able to give it then. It seemed fine, maybe a little wandering… but when I picked it back up again this year, I zoomed right through it.
The quick summary: Stevens, a butler at a great house in England, goes on a road trip and reflects on the years he spent faithfully serving Lord Darlington, who has some bad politics but Stevens is quite sure he meant well, probably.
My impression of this book before I read it: it’s supposed to be a profound, beautiful masterpiece, perhaps the book that ultimately earned Ishiguro the 2017 Nobel Prize. Which kind of turned it into homework in my head. (Turns out that something can be heartbreaking and important but also a really wonderful reading experience. See also The Hate U Give.)
My impression of this book after I read it: why does no one mention how funny this book is?
(Ok, I think, technically, people do. The New York Times review from 1989 said it’s a “beguiling comedy of errors that evolves almost magically into a profound and heart-rending study of personality, class and culture.” It’s just that the descriptions I’d seen before reading the book didn’t prepare me to laugh.)
I first laughed out loud when Stevens detailed his strategy for responding to his new American employer’s banter, then carried on as he got snobby about Mr. Neighbours, a butler he believes to be quite overpraised by valets and other people in service who just don’t know the qualities of a good butler. It’s all just so very British. The scenes in which Stevens attempts to discuss the “birds and the bees” with Lord Darlington’s 23-year-old godson are straight out of a sitcom and might feel out of place if they didn’t have a hint of tragedy, considering that Stevens’ choice of profession means that he probably won’t ever have that conversation with a child of his own, and also, for all we’ve been told, Stevens may or may not be all that versed in the “birds and the bees” himself. Not that he would tell us, classy fellow that he is.
Much has been written praising the more profound parts of the story, and I definitely agree—the book features beautiful prose, and I’m half-convinced that Ishiguro was secretly a butler for a while because he creates such a believably tragic character. But the moments of humor really jumped out at me as a big part of what makes this book so readable. It reminded me of S.J. Culver’s piece at The Awl (RIP 😔) that was published soon after Ishiguro’s Nobel Prize was announced. Drawing distinctions between intellectuals’ writers, writers’ writers, and readers’ writers, she congratulates Ishiguro for being the first readers’ writer to win the prize. It’s one of those necessary pieces that reminds me that I’m not a dumb person just because I like to read books I actually enjoy and not the ones I feel like I’m “supposed” to read.