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Given the formal rigour of this Booker Prize winning gem, it can be surprising to discover that the bulk of its prose was laid down over a single four-week period—ominously dubbed “the Crash” by Ishiguro and his wife—with scarce thought given to early errors, contradictions or lapses in style. Any literary misdemeanours must have been ironed out in the re-drafts, since The Remains of the Day endures as a masterclass in character revelation and narrative architecture. Ishiguro’s brief but intensive retreat from the world, in which he spurned all emails, social calls and household chores to write from 9am until 10.30pm, allowed the novelist, in his own words, “to reach a mental state in which my fictional world was more real to me than the actual one”.
The fictional and psychological world he captures is that of one Mr Stevens, an ageing, meticulous, profession-soaked, long-serving butler of an English stately home, who decides to take a roadtrip through England’s green and pleasant land to visit an old female colleague and friend. A 1950s motorcar jaunt through the Home Counties might sound sparse on thrills, but the ride allows Stevens to meditate, reminisce and relate extensive, mildly obsessive details of his inter-war years, a period that sees the rise of Nazism and the jittery collapse of gentleman politics, as well as the broad straining and gradual fragmentation of an entire British social order. He reflects upon his own marginal yet quietly impressive role over this time, serving and waiting upon “great” but often flawed aristocrats and heads of state. These personal musings spiral deeper into troubling doubts regarding dignity, self-worth, responsibility and emotional detachment in the face of professional duty.
It is a short but remarkably searing account of an individual faced with the growing prospect that all he has held dear over the years, all he has placed faith in, may have been unsound. Salman Rushdie, a great admirer of the work, described the novel rather bruisingly as “a portrait of a wasted life”. There is more hope in it than that, I believe, but the dull ache of elderly disappointment, a sense of time and opportunities lost, romances never to be regained, have rarely been explored more movingly than here. If you find screens more palatable than pages, James Ivory’s 1993 adaptation, starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, is well worth a punt.