Imagine a book about a butler. A butler on a road trip. In the 1920s. Remembering his time being a butler. Polishing the silver. Straightening the pantry. Dealing with inconstant maids and footmen. You’d think: this book can’t be that exciting. Because butlers and descriptions of floral arrangements are not that exciting. Because your standards of good books are dictated by the ratio of exciting to explosion. But you don’t need to imagine much because you’ve been watching Downtown Abbey for the last five years and you’re already sold on the impossibly fascinating quality of finding yourself in a changing society: shifting understandings of class and gender, fading attachment to the aristocratic standards of manner and decorum. You already appreciate how enthralling it can be to extrapolate the upheaval of a society through close observation of a handful of characters as they attempt – unsuccessfully – to hold on to their traditions, expectations for decorum and propriety.
The question then shifts from will you be interested (you absolutely will – this is a (perhaps unexpectedly) enthralling read) to why is the story so engrossing? What is it about The Remains of the Day that had this reader utterly absorbed? Kazuo Ishiguro’s novel follows Stevens, a classic butler trained for the height of 19th century aristocratic estates, as he finds himself without friends, family or meaningful employment (his beloved Lord has been disgraced and he finds himself in the employ of a (gasp) American), when the best years of his life are behind him and he is made to confront the question of what has given – and gives – his life meaning. As Stevens putters his car across the English countryside we likewise meander through his memories, recalling his years with Lord Darlington. More than memories, we explore with Stevens his ideas about what makes for great service, the behaviours and attitudes of living with ‘dignity,’ the sisyphean struggle to adapt not simply a personality, but an identity, to a changed political and social landscape.
For this reader the most fascinating questions Stevens mines are those related to labour. He fiercely defends a life led in service of others, the deferral of desire and autonomy to a benevolent and wiser master and the subsumption of choice or opinion to those of the wiser ruling class – the force of his defense suggesting the precarity of the beliefs, safeguarded up by his staunch refusal to entertain their vulnerability. Stevens sees value in his job – which to him is not a ‘job’ at all, but an identity and life – of serving others, always and necessarily serving, never questioning, never doubting the paternal protection of his Lord. We are meant to question this unshakable faith, meant to see his abnegation of love for Ms Keaton, his deferral of desire, his ambition to be the finest butler of the greatest dignity as not apathy but a blindness to his own subjugation. That ultimately leaves him alone and lonely, without a sense of place or purpose.
Of course the obvious argument is that we read (and watch Downtown Abbey) with such attention because we find ourselves in a moment of similar change. Offered the opportunity to challenge accepted categories (most notably for the novel) of class, we continue to generate excuses for the continuation of our own service, rationales for a status quo that does not benefit the majority but is nevertheless defended because it promises stability.
So think what you will about a book about a butler taking a road trip. And then read it. And be blown away. But not so blown away that you have to change. Because nobody wants that.