This is the fourth Kazuo Ishiguro novel I’ve read and it’s perhaps here he reached the apotheosis of their common theme about how we relate to the past. Indeed, whilst the novel is set over six days, nothing too consequential happens on any of them. Stevens, butler at Darlington Hall for many decades, takes an ambling drive cross-country to visit a former colleague who wrote him a seemingly regretful letter, but the action of most days consists of nothing more than sitting back to reminisce about a life he doesn’t even realise he’s more or less wasted.
Stevens has plenty of exciting stories to tell, though. In the 1920s and 30s his master was Lord Darlington himself, part of the meddling aristocracy who saw themselves as philosopher kings with a duty to help the little people who couldn’t be trusted to take care of themselves. Perhaps unsurprisingly what starts as concern for the suffering of ordinary Germans following the end of the First World War ends up on an unwittingly darker path within a decade or so.
Stevens isn’t a major character in any of his exciting stories, however. He is always on the sidelines, doing his bit by helping men he considers greater than himself. Meanwhile the rest of the staff at Darlington Hall have lives of their own, and Stevens considers it most troublesome when he has to replace ones he expected to be as dutiful as himself, but who then go off and get married. The last person he expects that to happen to is the housekeeper Miss Kenton, who spends years at the house, years in which Stevens grows fond of their little private chats. It is her he is driving across the country to see, decades later.
The novel is first and foremost a love story, though about a repressed love that ends up going in the wrong direction until it is perhaps too late to turn back. Stevens expresses his understanding of love through his sense of duty to Lord Darlington and Darlington Hall, and the patriotic ideals that his lordship espouses. But it is not a reciprocal love, and Stevens takes a long time to realise he deserves to be loved back. Too long, perhaps, for Miss Kenton.
The novel is only superficially about the last gasp of the old aristocracy. Some moments of satire get a bit silly at points, with Stevens’ observations and criticisms on the nuances of being a butler, and his pride (not just vanity or immodesty) in his own dedication to duty and wisdom of experience, so dripping in irony that he starts to feel unreal, just the butt of a clever joke.
But that’s the only flaw in a novel that is otherwise close to perfect. It clearly harks back to Brideshead Revisited, which centres around another grand home that has increasingly become an anachronism. Darlington Hall’s new owner is not even British aristocracy but nouveau riche American. Nobody else can afford the staff any more, and at the start of the novel Stevens even admits he is one of only a couple kept on, and most of the house has to remain under wraps. Indeed, he is as much an anachronism there now as Darlington Hall is an anachronism in postwar England. The problem is Stevens would now be an anachronism anywhere – except, naturally, the past over which he chooses to obsess.