"But then, I suppose, when with the benefit of hindsight one begins to search one's past for such 'turning points', one is apt to start seeing them everywhere."
I've had The Remains of the Day for the longest time for no good reason. I read Never Let Me Go when I was ooh, 17, because at college the other English class got to read it and I didn't think that was fair and, well, I wanted to read it too! So, I did, and it was awesome (I need to re-read it actually, but probably not see the film because bluergh Keira Knightley) and I bought The Remains of the Day and When We Were Orphans on the back of it. And... both remained unread for 6 years! The moral of this story? I'm a moron.
So, The Remains of the Day was added to my TBR Pile Challenge list, and last week I read it. Obviously. Hence this post. And actually, it was kind of awesome in a sort of dreamy, yearning, drowsy summery read kind of way. At the very beginning I was a little bit dubious as to what on earth I was reading, but as the story went on I was delighted with it because, it makes you work for what you get out of it. And I don't mean that you have to sweat over it or anything, because it's not at all difficult to read, but there's a certain amount of reading between the lines that needs to be done with The Remains of the Day so that you can fully appreciate it.
Intrigued? I know I am! Allow me to be slightly more... descriptive about plot and shit like that. So, the book's written through a first person narrator (NOT my favourite style of book, but I went with it) who is the butler of a big house that's seen better days, and the story follows his little holiday to the seaside, during which he reminisces about days gone by, and also about what it means to be a good butler. And, I know exactly how that sounds. It sounds kind of pretentious and crap, and like the kind of book that's perfect for the people who decide what wins the Booker Prize (which it did) but is not so much fun for the regular reader.
Only, it kind of is. Because Stevens, the butler, is such an intriguing and layered character, at times infuriating, but mostly just someone to feel kind of sorry for. I mean, he's got no discernable sense of humour, and he's an absolute stickler for service (he carried on working seconds after being told his father had died, and sent the doctor seeing to him to this rich man whose feet hurt) but all of that information's just completely surface. What he really thinks and feels and believes about things can only be guessed at, and apart from a few crucial points, is barely even hinted at in the book. It's tempting to think of Stevens just as some kind of robot-butler, devoid of emotions or thoughts of his own, but he makes it clear that, it is crucial to him to be professional at all times, except when he's alone with his thoughts. Thoughts that are, maddeningly, for the most part, out of the reach of the reader.
So this narration creates a constant intrigue for the reader which continues even after you've finished reading, because you're still thinking 'so how did he feel about the Jewish thing?' (oh yeah, there's a whole Nazi thing that went on in the past... that's all interesting because it reveals Stevens' tolerance for literally any views held by his employer) and 'but... didn't he love his father?' and all kinds of other things like that that the book hints at beautifully but never quite clears up for you. This is, of course, entirely in keeping with Stevens' character, and honestly, I wouldn't have this book any other way. It's strange how, reading between the lines can sometimes be even better than reading what's there.
Chief among the things you're unsure about Stevens is the way he feels about Miss Kenton, former housekeeper of his butlering residence and possible object of his desire. And I say possible because there is almost nothing to go on in regards to his feelings for her- he seems, at times, to have been incapable of understanding basic human emotions when talking to her, and yet his constant re-reading of her letter (essentially, we are led to believe, the main reason for his taking the trip in the present day narration) and the number of times he mentions her whilst also adding that nothing untoward happened between them just led me to believe he was desperately in love with her, whether he knew it or not. The line between his knowing it and not saying, and just not knowing is extremely blurred in the book, and you really have to choose which side of it you fall on. Or not- it's beautiful either way.
But- I don't mean to paint this as merely a romantic narrative, because it's not. It's about memory and it's reliability, about politics and ideals, about what it means to give your life entirely to service and to ignore your own urges, and what to do when you come to realise what that means about the rest of your life. It also happens to be beautifully written and have near-perfect characterisation, and, for once, seems like a perfectly deserving book for a big literary prize. Not at all pretentious and a tiny bit heartbreaking- what more could you want from a book?