I watched the movie for the first time on the strength of its title. It has that touch of magic you want, some mysterious attraction behind words that lure you in: The Remains of the Day.
It could mean anything, but it sounded like a requiem, whatever is left after everything else has gone away. Life imparts that feeling, always going away but leaving time to do what you'd intended; the remainder will give you that much, at least. I wanted to find out what remained. By now I have watched the movie twenty times if I have watched it once. I am a fan.
Two instances led me from the movie to the book, which I was aware of but had guessed wrong about. I assumed the movie’s legendary producers, Merchant and Ivory, had mined the gems out of a minor story. That was incorrect: the book had done nearly all of the work.
The first signpost on the road to the novel popped up during a conversation that consisted largely of myself haranguing a friend, a government attorney, on what made the movie great. He took the chance to pass along a bit of wisdom he'd been given, that the book was excellent too, but different from the movie.
That turned out to be partially right. The book is better than just excellent, but the movie is a near-exact copy. Almost nothing is changed. The book gives you more, but not by a lot. It must be one of the best adaptations ever made and a semi-rare case where an author is happy with what changes were hacked and grafted into his art.
The second major moment on the way to picking up the book was when its author, Kazuo Ishiguro, was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. Several months afterward I walked into a bookstore in Ann Arbor, Michigan and Ishiguro’s books were set out on display on a table in front of the shop. I bought a copy. Why not—am I too good to try the man awarded a Nobel Prize for his craft?
I read the book in two sittings and came here to write this . . . . . review . . . . . this salute . . . . . this homage. I do not know what this is, but I am driven to write it.
The bare bones of the story lay out what a professional butler heard, saw, and indirectly participated in over the course of thirty years loyal service at the manor house of an English Lord Darlington. Odd—surely—and maybe on its face even a boring subject, but the timeline covers the period following World War I, with the rise of the Nazis in Germany, and finishes about ten years after the conclusion of World War II. Much of this happens right under the nose of the butler, Stevens, with him a wallflower to completely astonishing, century-shaping machinations.
The butler is a strange chap. One of the oddest I have ever encountered. He lived by a simple (and nebulous) credo that states a butler must, at all times, “Be possessed of a dignity in keeping with his position.”
This foggy maxim, under Steven’s interpretation, becomes an effective call both to an almost complete amorality, and the extreme suppression of any need to engage in a normal emotional interaction with human kind. As he makes clear to the housekeeper, Miss Kenton, his belief that a butler may only call his life well lived once he is certain he has effectively annihilated his own humanity in the service of his employer.
At one point, Stevens says it like this:
“My vocation will not be fulfilled until I have done all I can to see his lordship through the great tasks he has set himself. The day his lordship’s work is complete, the day he is able to rest on his laurels, content in the knowledge that he has done all anyone could ever reasonably ask of him, only on that day, Miss Kenton, will I be able to call myself, as you put it, a well-contented man."
Miss Kenton, often stunned by the fanatic zeal of Stevens, is a fine woman, and she finds herself in love with self-possessed chief butler and his well-ordered house. She mistakenly believes there is something to discover behind the outward mystery. And Stevens, if he had access to his own emotions, would have realized he was in love with Kenton, too. But he never could get there. It is one of the devastating narrative threads in the book.
Having as his only passion in life his profound belief in the butler's credo, Stevens leads the most unscratchably blank-slate-of-an-existence imaginable, learning nothing about human nature and truly getting to know no-one: not Miss Kenton, not his father, not Lord Darlington. It is the English emotional reserve, which Stevens is conscious of as a high virtue, taken to an almost absurd but completely believable extreme.
The more Stevens gets to care about someone, the further his emotions run and hide from him and, even more, the less he is able to discern what is happening or to evaluate what he sees and hears. He becomes almost an imbecile. Silent. Inarticulate. His belief becomes for him a perfect training ground for losing the forest from the trees, and an active process against cultivating the ability to think for oneself. He is the oddest of men.
Steven’s Lord and Master—Darlington—is a World War I veteran and an honorable man. Darlington lives his life by old-school English notions of honor and fair play and, in his own kind of malaise-by-personal-credo, is slowly duped over the course of the 1920s and 1930s by hungry, aggressive Germans working to convince him their severe punishment following World War I had been too harsh, and entitled them to some special considerations in rebuilding their country. In their willful ignorance and bliss-by-personal-code-of-honor, Stevens and his butler make the perfect pair.
What becomes important to the story is the fact that Darlington is slow-cooked into a fully finished Nazi Collaborator, believing all along he had merely been helping the German people get their economy back on its feet. At one point he dismisses two young, German-Jewish refugee women from his service at the request of his Nazi friends. He knew it was wrong and had a chance to stop the proceedings there but, like Stevens, he buried his hand in the sand and soldiered on. Stiff upper lip, and all that.
Stevens never thought what he was helping along would lead to war or genocide, but it does. He and his family’s good, old names are disgraced, and both he and Steven’s had every opportunity to see it coming. But their personal oaths got in the way.
“Tell me, Stevens, don’t you care at all?” Mr. Cardinal asks the Butler one night.
Cardinal is an intelligent young man, a warm friend to Stevens, and happens to be Lord Darlington’s God Son, the child of a now-deceased Army veteran Darlington had served with during the Great War of fourteen-to-eighteen.
“Good God, man, something very crucial is going on in this house. Aren’t you at all curious?” Cardinal asks the butler as he unsuccessfully tries to coax Stevens to set down his tray for a moment, and take a glass of bourbon with him. Cardinal is making a desperate attempt to explain the very decisive situation Stevens has been staring and listening to but somehow not seeing.
Cardinal was a working newspaperman and columnist in the 1930s as his godfather Darlington sped toward the abyss. He had been to Germany and knew exactly what was happening under Hitler's regime. He sees the war coming and is horrified by Darlington’s role in aiding the Nazis. Cardinal cannot fathom how Stevens, an awfully intelligent man who has witnessed everything his employer has been doing, cannot see it too.
Cardinal, being a patriotic Englishman, would serve his country’s military when World War II inevitably broke out and, as we find out later from an emotionally taciturn Stevens, was killed by the German army in Belgium. Does Stevens feel what should have been this deep personal bereavement? Cardinal was his friend, and a good lad grown into a sound young man. He did not deserve to die in that war. Maybe Stevens does feel it, but he is not capable of showing it, not like the rest of humanity would be.
“You care about his lordship. You care deeply, you just told me that,” Cardinal implores Stevens. “If you care about his lordship, shouldn’t you be concerned? At least a little curious? The British Prime Minister and the German Ambassador are brought together by your employer for secret talks in the night, and you’re not even curious?”
Stevens was not curious, at least not enough to betray his iron-clad credo for the life well lived. He is there to service his employer, not ask silly questions about war and death on an industrial scale. That was not his business.
The book’s final blow hits home when Stevens reunites for a single afternoon with the former Miss Kenton, known now as Mrs. Benn for some twenty odd years. She had left Darlington Hall and married after exhausting herself pursuing an epically oblivious Stevens. Their interactions were often excruciatingly painful, with Miss Kenton exhausting herself in the effort to get Stevens to act like something beyond professional butlering and housekeeping existed in the world as the basis for a relationship. A secret robot programmed to butler may have shown more humanity, just to keep suspicion down, than Stevens seemed capable of.
At one point, after Miss Kenton’s aunt had died, an aunt who had raised her up like a mother, Stevens consciously decides to offer her some emotional support. Miss Kenton, after all, had closed Steven’s father’s eyes after the man had died upstairs in Darlington Hall. Steven’s had not been able to go up to say farewell, you might have guessed, because the good lord was throwing a critically important gathering at the hall and Steven’s was in service. There is no time to say farewell to fathers under those circumstances. Miss Kenton had performed that deeply personal act of respect for the dead, and cried on his behalf. Stevens, for his part, never stopped working.
Was Stevens repressing profound emotions, or did he not really feel anything at all? Miss Kenton believed he was shoving everything down. The reader goes without benefit.
But in trying to show Miss Kenton he cared, Stevens actually ended up quibbling over small details he had noticed were being neglected by her housekeeping staff at Darlington, and criticizing her oversight. It was an epic, bewildering failure. Miss Kenton knew he had meant to console her, she could feel it, but even she was astonished at how completely he had destroyed his ability to interact like a normal human being.
The exchange ended this way, according to Stevens, who never quite figured out what went wrong:
“Miss Kenton looked away from me, and again an expression crossed her face as though she were trying to puzzle out something that had quite confused her. She did not look upset so much as very weary. Then she closed the sideboard, and said: ‘Please excuse me, Mr. Stevens,’ and left the room.”
Their last meeting happened on a rainy day near the sea at Weymouth, where Stevens had gone to see if Mrs. Benn might return to Darlington Hall. In all her letters to him the most he had managed to extract was that perhaps she wanted to work together again—not that she loved him, or wanted to be near him as a human being, never that, which is what she had meant. Stevens was so repressed he made Miss Kenton feel odd about expressing her human feelings, too.
During this last conversation Mrs. Benn admitted she had three times actually walked out on her husband—a boring but decent man who she had never really loved—while dreaming of a better life.
“For instance, I got to thinking about a life I may have had with you, Mr. Stevens. And I suppose that’s when I would get angry over some trivial little thing and leave. But each time I do so, I realize before long—my rightful place is with my husband. After all, there’s no turning back the clock now. One can’t be forever dwelling on what might have been.”
Stevens admits her bald-faced confession had momentarily struck him dumb. He sat for a few moments trying to take it all in. But in the end his credo, his training, the gray ashes that served for emotions, saved him. They always did. But for a passing moment he even admitted feeling something deeply.
“As you might appreciate, their implications [her words] were such as to provoke a certain degree of sorrow within me. Indeed—why should I not admit it?—at that moment my heart was breaking.”
Of course, instead of following up on that epiphany, the chance at real human companionship, he bid her a dignified farewell and put her on the bus home. He did it all like a gentleman, of course, oh it was most like a gentleman. Lord Darlington would have been proud.
The book does in the end decide to haunt you with the strong possibility that a reckoning of some kind is coming to Stevens after all these years. He has let on over the course of the story that he might know more than he is willing to say about mistakes that were made at Darlington Hall. He had not been as blind as he had made out.
“The fact is, of course, I gave my best to Lord Darlington. I gave him the very best I had to give, and now–well—I find I do not have a great deal more left to give.”
While sitting on a bench in front of the sea with a total stranger who had also been a butler, though only a minor one, Stevens bursts into tears. It comes as a real shock, both because the conversation had been casual but more so because Stevens had never so much as smiled from a pure feeling, let alone wept.
Stevens let it pour out:
“Lord Darlington wasn’t a bad man at all. And at least he had the privilege of being able to say at the end of his life that he made his own mistakes. His lordship was a courageous man. He chose a certain path in life, it proved to be a misguided one, but there, he chose it, he can say that at least. As for myself, I cannot even claim that. You see, I trusted. I trusted in his lordship’s wisdom. All those years I served him, I trusted I was doing something worthwhile. I can’t even say I made my own mistakes. Really–one has to ask oneself—what dignity is there in that?”
That is a fatalistic admission of almost-Greek dimensions. All his life he had cultivated “a dignity in keeping with his position,” only to find, in the end, he had had no real personal dignity at all. He had been a blind follower of someone else's life, and the man he'd picked to follow had been a well-intentioned fool who did real damage to people.
The elegiac tone of the story, the end-of-something feeling, is deeply poignant. The era itself, the century for that matter, was one where faith in a certain decency, the belief in a semi-benevolent and even Divine concern for human affairs, was butchered for keeps.
Many of the simple insights the book offers are valuable: in the prosaic way Nazi Germany was allowed to grow and come to fruition; how good men who did not think it through were exploited by bad men who did.
The story of this butler, so odd and eccentric, so unexpectedly moving. What a strange idea Ishiguro had to write it at all. The book has that magical power of great literature that forces you to ask: Where did it come from? Why is it here? Why was it dreamed up at all?
Well, why not read the book for yourself, maybe you will solve the mystery.