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Wednesday, March 07, 2018

The Remains of the Day (1989) by Kazuo Ishiguro

Image result for the remains of the day movie
Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson starred in the well known movie version of The Remains of the Day, the 1989 novel by Kazuo Ishiguro
Book Review
The Remains of the Day (1989)
by Kazuo Ishiguro

   The Remains of the Day is a definite skip, probably just because the idea of the movie version- starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, made me think that it was the kind of subject I wouldn't enjoy.  It was a decision I made over a year ago, before Ishiguro won the Nobel Prize in Literature.  When he won, I actually felt a twinge, knowing I had skipped The Remains of the Day, which is his break out novel, his one Booker Prize winner (four nominations).  The movie version netted eight Oscar nominations in 1994, winning zero.

 If you had to nutshell Ishiguro, you would have to focus on the extent to which all of his books explore memory and forgetfulness. He returns to the subject of unconscious forgetting again and again.  Of course, this is a dominant theme as Stephens, the butler played by Hopkins in the movie, recalls past episodes in his life working for Lord Darlington, a fictional character who none the less bears a close resemblance to figures from the English establishment who took a pro-Nazi stance into World War II and were punished by history for their mistake.

  Stephens gradually comes to doubt Lord Darlington, and the doubt arises in the midst of other recollections about the meaning of "dignity," his strained relationship with his father, also a butler, and most importantly his relationship with Miss Kenton (Emma Thompson in the film) which, it develops, represents a missed life opportunity for Stephens.  The idea that memory is central to fiction in a crucial way is old- Proust, obviously, having crystallized memory as a fiction theme in Remembrance of Things Past.  Memory is central to fiction even when it is not a theme at all- since almost all novels involve someone writing something down at a later date.  The centuries old device of the "unreliable narrator" often implicates memory.

  I think the case could be made that Ishiguro, with his emphasis on the complexity of human memory, has received a boost from contemporaneous interest in brain chemistry and the way memories are formed.  The use of memory as a form of self deception also isn't unique to Ishiguro- a generation of post World War II German writers have returned repeatedly to the idea of conscious amnesia- but Ishiguro is the English language writer who has best anticipated the developments in the science of this area.

  The Remains of the Day is still fresh in that regard, and despite a very time specific setting- England between the wars- there is a universality of the Stephens/Kenton dynamic that has obviously stood the test of time. 

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