I have always had a soft spot for polished manners, sensibility in stiffness , and people who put their duty above everything. In a nutshell, this is what this book is about. For me, it is the quintessence of England. I don’t know if that’s necessarily true, I am not British, but this is the highly romanticised view of the English spirit I entertain in my head. On the other hand, nor is the author – he moved from Japan to England with his parents when he was five, so maybe it’s a foreigner thing. Or maybe not. After all, the novel had won the Man Booker Prize in 1993, so maybe there are brits who see things just the way I do.
The story is set in the aftermath of World War II , when the transformations in society and manners , relationships between master and servant, are perceived even by our ageing hero, Mr. Stevens, an experienced butler who tends to be rather impervious to change. At the suggestion of the new owner of the house where he had served all his life, Darlington Hall, he starts a journey through England, intending to visit the old housekeeper of the Hall , Ms. Kenton. The journey takes place on two levels: there is the physical journey, and the spiritual journey back in time, which our hero undertakes while driving through the country. The butler recollects his past life, spent in the service of Lord Darlington, when doing his work with dignity and attending to the needs of his master irreproachably were the utmost priorities of Mr. Stevens. Although seemingly pleased with the choices he had made in life, we collect hints that not all facts were as our hero represents them: in this pre-war world, his master was associated with diplomats from Hitler’s circle, and he might have missed himself his only chance at personal happiness , by putting his master’s interests above his own. The final scenes, where he finally meets the ghost from his past, Ms. Kenton (who had been Mrs. Benn for approximately twenty years), finally throws light into all matters. But I don’t want to spoil all the pleasure for you, discover by yourselves what the outcome is.
The main character, who also serves as narrator , proves to be quite the unreliable storyteller from the very beginning. The author masterfully makes us doubt his every statement, and makes us check his version of events with our mind’s eye at every turn. Mr. Stevens is dead serious, but somehow almost all his assertions produce a comical effect (like his profound reflections on banter and his earnest endeavours to improve himself in this field, only to please his master). His very rigid work etiquette and his undying loyalty don’t make him seem cold and aloof, but even the more human. Think of him rather as a samurai wearing tails.
Bittersweet, funny and sad, driven by a character that is at the same time dignified and ridiculous, this is definitely a story to love, and even worth revisiting.