The remains of the day was a meditative look at the life of an English butler in the Nineteenth century and one which I really enjoyed.
Previously I read Never Letting Go by the same author and although I liked it, it didn’t evoke much emotional engagement. I was therefore hesitant to try this, but at the same time eager to read it as it’s so highly regarded. If I try an author once and am not greatly enthused by their work, I seldom try them again. In this instance, though, I thought it was called for due to the aforementioned reason.
The novel follows Stevens, an older man who is one of the few real English butlers left. When we meet him he’s working for an American man who bought the house that Stevens has worked in for many years. The previous owner is dead and this American man kept Stevens on when he bought the estate. As he’s American he doesn’t understand the inner workings of a butler such as Stevens and as such tries to joke around with him. The fact that Stevens finds it hard to respond adequately to such banter, as he’s simply not used to it, is a cause of great concern to himself. He thinks about this and all that has happened over the course of his life when he takes a motoring trip, at the suggestion of his employer, who will be away for several weeks. The novel really begins when Stevens begins this trip across England, taking in the beautiful scenery at various locations. It ends, rather poignantly, when he meets with a female previous member of staff that he had a somewhat close relationship with.
Stevens is not so much a man of few words, but few visible emotions. He was a hard character to relate to, but was a product of his time and work. As the novel progressed his quiet emotional demeanour slipped and we got a glimpse into his inner world. The power of the novel was due to the infrequency of this show of emotion and it illustrated so well exactly who and what Stevens was.
I had reservations about the novel due to its apparent lack of plot. For all intents and purposes, it’s just a butler who takes a trip to the English countryside. However, it was so much more than this. It was a character study of the highest order. As I read the memories of his past unfolding in Stevens mind and how he reacted, or largely didn’t react, to each circumstance, I felt I got to know him a little bit more. This was very satisfying as it was slow to come.
At times the novel was infuriating as Stevens wouldn’t react to most stimulus, but over time the motivations behind this became clear and the magnitude of what he’d lost because of it showed.
A quiet, powerful novel.