The premise of this book is just … bafflingly dull. It’s the 1950s and an English butler takes a few days off work to drive through the countryside and think back on his decades of service. Like Ishiguro’s other books, there is something staid about the writing style, it’s almost stereotypical British stiff upper lip (I would know, I was just in London, HEYO!) At the same time, it somehow draws you in and I can’t put my finger on what exactly does it.
Mr Stevens has been the bulter at Darlington Hall for decades, is loyal to the lord of the home and is unshakably proud of his profession. He thinks long and hard on what it is that makes a great butler and has come to the conclusion that it has to do with dignity. It doesn’t seem to be so much the dignity of the butler as we would consider it, but more about the butler preserving the dignity of his employer. For example, he recalls his father’s work as a butler and one day serving with grace the general under who’s command he had lost a son – and to whom he said nothing about it. This isn’t a story about his father’s dignity, it is a story about his father preserving the dignity of Lord Darlington by saying nothing about it. These are stories in which Mr Stevens carries great pride, and they are tough to read.
There are also fascinating historical footnotes throughout. Most of his reminiscing recalls the 1930s, a time in which Lord Darlington sought to unofficially pursue foreign policy. He had what he considered a very English attitude toward a fallen enemy – that when the enemy is defeated, you don’t keep kicking, and this is precisely what he believed the German reparations after World War I were doing. So he pursued what were essentially very grand dinner parties, inviting representatives from England, Germany, the United States, and France, so see what could maybe be done about easing the yoke on Germany and as power shifted, briefly fell in with, well, … Nazis. He more or less reversed course, but it isn’t a pretty picture and Mr Stevens is so utterly loyal to Lord Darlington that he offers excuses every step of the way even in what is ostensibly a retelling to only himself.
Again, it’s the story of an English butler out for a drive, but here I’ve gotten a 400+ word review out of it. It’s oddly fascinating.