Monday, May 28, 2012

Reflections: The Remains of the Day

This is a deceptively simple novel about the gradual change of an era in British society. Mr. Stevens is a Jeeves-like dignified butler who was under the employment of a renowned British aristocrat. The novel is set in the post Second World War time-period wherein Mr. Stevens is recording his thoughts on his present and past life. Mr. Stevens recounts his professional experiences as a butler in a passionate and dedicated fervor, and in a fitting contrast, he nonchalantly mentions a sliver of his personal life that he deems appropriate to share - even to himself. His life revolved around his role and service as a butler. His father was a butler as well, and an excellent one at that. He takes pride in the fact that he walked in the same shoes and trod the same path as his father - being unerringly loyal, unforgivably punctilious, and most admittedly stiff-upper lipped. He wore his mask well, earnestly maintaining his dignity and professional perfection. His unwavering professional sincerity cost him other opportunities and experiences that life promised to offer. This isn’t much of a story per se, but it is a true to life narration that touches the reader.

Mr. Stevens’s story of complete professional absorption can be related by many people. Several of us have, and continue to make quite a bit of personal sacrifices to remain true to our professions. One’s professional dignity and success often comes in the way of other meaningful paths that briefly pass by. But, a very high standard of self-imposed perfectionism tends to blind one from taking pleasure in the many simple (if trivial) and other rewarding joys and pursuits. It’s important to pause and smell the roses along the way. But Stevens was one to be only concerned with the proper tending of the rose-bush than to ever allow himself to enjoy even a whiff of it. And in the end, what remains is the bitter-sweet reminder of the glorious and dark days that are now mistily behind him. What he has surely gained are his priceless dignity and rueful wisdom.

Another parallel thread in this novel is the discussion on  the extent of significance, trust, and even subtle clout that used to be associated with being a traditional English butler. True to Jeeves’s hilarious caricature, the butler often steered the course of many important events in the house. They were privy to every kind of information, they astutely knew of  the intimate workings of the house and its inmates, and they possessed enough power to subtly make a few strategic decisions. The Lords relied and looked upon trustworthy, wise butlers as their benevolent oracles who could guide them and uphold their prestige at all times. Butlers literally used to be friends, guides, and philosophers to their employers. But what were the costs to such over-reliance? Butlers are not super-heroes by any measure. Did this image of unrealistic perfection and wisdom weigh down the life of several people who aspired to be like Mr. Stevens? Was the aspiration even worth it?

The writing beautifully conveys the innermost tone and attitude of Mr. Stevens. Through simple and realistic writing, Ishiguro brings to light the impeccable character of Mr. Stevens.This is an interesting, reflective read.