Sunday, March 31, 2013

Introspective Narration and Perfect Butlers

The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro
(Originally published 1989, this version Tantor Media, 2012)
Format: Audio download via library (narrated by Simon Prebble)

From Goodreads: "The Remains of the Day is a profoundly compelling portrait of the perfect English butler and of his fading, insular world in post-war England. At the end of his three decades of service at Darlington Hall, Stevens embarks on a country drive, during which he looks back over his career to reassure himself that he has served humanity by serving 'a great gentleman.' But lurking in his memory are doubts about the true nature of Lord Darlington's 'greatness' and graver doubts about his own faith in the man he served."

Claim to fame: The hubby and I went to the same grad school writing program as Ishiguro. (Probably this means one of us will at least be shortlisted for the Man Booker soon.) (Not me, though - darn Americanness. But Robert is in with a chance.) Anyway, I love his work, and devoured The Remains of the Day a couple of decades ago. It stuck with me, and I found it just as fresh and engaging listening to Prebble's narration, which is up for an Audies award in Literary Fiction. 

Prebble is the second Simon in my audio-loving-heart, but it's not a large leap between the two. He's got quite the aristo quality to his voice, which suits all of the Stephanie Laurens Regency romances he reads to me, as well as this tale of Stevens the butler who wants, above all things, to be the paragon of his trade. (Indeed, Stevens goes into some detail about cultivating his accent, which differentiated him from his butler father, whom he otherwise held up as a shining example of the role.) This is one of those books where a hell of a lot more happens inside the protagonist's head than in his actions, although it is due to the journey Stevens undertakes that he is finally reflecting on some aspects of his life and career.

It is 1956, and Stevens has been butling at Darlington Hall for several decades. His new employer is an American gentleman, but most of his service was to Lord Darlington, who was a big name on the international political stage between the wars. Unfortunately for Stevens, his sympathies weren't the ones that the rest of the country ended up holding. One of the things Stevens has to negotiate within himself is the extent to which he can feel that he was a Great Butler, given the ignominious cloud under which Lord Darlington died. Stevens also struggles with recollections about his relationship with his father, and with the former housekeeper he's on his way to visit. Very small moments resonate for years, and as Stevens begins to understand them in a different light, he also begins to settle into some new ideas about himself. It's absolutely full of subtle tension and heartbreak.

Prebble imbues each moment with those quiet emotions, carrying us along Stevens's road all the way. I loved how fully inhabited he was in Ishiguro's voice, how completely present he was in the narrative. This was a great pairing of book with narrator, and I'd recommend it to, like, everyone.

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