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What Remains Of Dignity
on 18 November 2015
This is Ishiguro's Booker-winning work, and the novel that established his reputation as a modern realist writer to be reckoned with - a reputation that he will turn on its head with later works like "Never Let Me Go" and "The Buried Giant" that defy such strict categorisation, and with good measure.
The story begins with an English butler, Stevens, who worked in a stately mansion owned by Lord Darlington, in whose home various powerful and reputable political figures has graced with covert meetings leading up to the Second World War. That Stevens had been and still is a capable and loyal butler becomes evident through his unremitting service, which he recounts in first person, even as he takes on a motorcar journey to Little Compton, Cornwall, in response to a letter he receives from his former colleague and housekeeper, Miss Kenton, when she left Darlington Hall some twenty years ago. They had shared a volatile working relationship during Lord Darlington's heyday.
And that is where the real story lies, which is almost obscured by Stevens's doddering and often self-censoring narrative, where he edits and revises along the way, seemingly unsure of what had really happened. He admits as much when he says, "But now, having thought further, I believe I may have been a little confused about this matter", when he tries to recall an occasion when he had caught Miss Kenton in a vulnerable state. He often turns preachy about his profession, and reiterates the importance of dignity ad nauseam, but through it all, the reader begins to realise that the more he elaborates, the more he hides, and in the end, he says more than he knows. That Ishiguro elicits our sympathy rather than annoyance with his unreliable narrator is truly a work of genius, because, given the qualities I had observed above about Stevens, that is no mean feat.
Stevens's unreserved dedication to his work means an inordinate amount of sacrifice, so much so that he has to give up all personal feelings and attachments, and this is something that hits the reader hard when a personal tragedy befalls him in the midst of an important event at Darlington Hall and he keeps at his task, without flinching. Throughout his narrative too, he keeps an objective, almost clinical tone, sometimes infuriating the reader for his lack of emotion, so that when he finally relents, "Indeed - why should I not admit it? - at that moment, my heart was breaking", you want to hug the poor old man and weep yourself, only to recognise that frustrating reserve in needing to convince himself that it was alright to acknowledge his true feelings, and that it would ultimately be shortlived.