Before there were robots, there were English butlers!

I thought I’d find this book boring (I mean, how interesting can a butler’s life be? Ok, maybe they tend to be witnesses to sordid affairs but I didn’t think this was such a book). In any case, I was wrong — it was an intriguing study of human relationships and emotions.

The book I borrowed was published by Penguin Longman (2000). The cover featured Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson (the 1993 movie of the same title). I admit the cover was the main reason why I picked up the book. I’d not seen the movie in its entirety (I vaguely remember the late Christopher Reeve had a part in it, or was I mistaken?)
cover
I formed several impressions very quickly into the book:

  1. How in heck would an author with a Japanese name know so much about English butlers and their habits? The answer — Ishiguro grew up, and was schooled, in Britain.
  2. English butlers (at least this particular one) have no life. They could sure use our SDU’s services
  3. This wasn’t just a novel about an English butler in post-war England — this was a book illustrating management principles. I’d rename the book “The remains of the day: Lessons in management”

Notes & excerpts (if the notes seem a little cryptic, go read the book!):

p32 – p38: The handling of the “tiger beneath table” incident – an example of how to act under pressure

p40 – An excellent example of how to handle difficult customers

p43 – On professionalism

p146 – On ways to find meaning & pride in our work. Or could it be a form of self delusion? Maybe. But then, it might not.

P148 – Examples of cultural differences in employer expecations of English butlers

p153 & 211- Showing how one could be blind to an employer’s wrongdoing out of a sense of duty (i.e. sacking the jewish employees). The butler was making excuses for his employer whom he obviously respected. He considers it a professional honour to do what the employer instructions without question. From that incident, it made me respect the butler less. Up till that point, I thought he was a very admirable chap for sticking to his principles. However, as I considered further, I wondered how many of us would have the moral courage to say ‘No’ to our bosses, in today’s context? Even Ms K. (played by Emma Thompson) vented anger on the butler, Stevens , rather than confront his employer. So in the final analysis, are we so different from the butler?

p162 – That sometimes bosses have to lose the pretence of rationality & show their human feelings

p188- A total lack of EQ by the butler!

p230 – Ms Kenton likes Stevens?

p193-4: On what makes a person dignified – “being dignified doesn’t mean being high & mighty”.

p206- The idea that implementing democracy without educating the masses is foolhardy

The novel was an intriguing insight to an aspect of English life not intially apparent to me. It was also a study into a very believable aspect of human behaviour, albeit brought to extremes by the Stevens character. I had mixed reactions towards him as a person, some not very flattering. However, by the end of the book, I felt sorry for him. He was, in my opinion, trying to make sense of the world as best as he could.

As much as he tried to detach himself from human emotions (his own coping mechanism towards the complexities of human relationships), in the end he reveals himself to be very human simply by showing regret.

Why did I say that? As D.H. Lawrence wrote about “Self Pity”:
I never saw a wild thing
sorry for itself.
A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
without ever having felt sorry for itself.

This book would make a great discussion topic for bookclubs. For further analysis of the characters, see this page from Sparknotes.com

The remains of the day/ Kazuo Ishiguro
Call No.: ISH (Adult Fiction section)

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