Goodreads has 42,945 ratings of this book, and 2,892 reviews. What can I possibly say that hasn’t been said already, and considerably better than any combination of words I can come up with? Nothing at all, probably, but I’m going to have a bash anyway.
I first read this many years ago, and regarded it as one of the best books I’d ever read. This time, I tried the audiobook version, read by Dominic West, who has the appropriate gravitas for Stevens the butler. The plot - well, it hardly matters, being merely a vehicle to demonstrate the buttoned-up and rather tragic personality of Stevens himself, reminiscencing on the past glory days of the house where he serves. His memories of past events, coloured entirely by his own fossilised perspective of the professional nature of being in service, form the body of the story.
This has to be one of the finest descriptions of a single mind I have ever read. The author uses language with such skill that the reader completely understands Stevens and his world view, while also appreciating that the events described solely from his perspective are capable of alternative interpretations. While Stevens performs his duties with impeccable care, he is completely oblivious to the social nuances emanating from the people and events around him, which leads him occasionally to behave in misguided, almost wilfully blind, ways. Meanwhile his employer, Lord Darlington, is equally misguided in his efforts to promote the cause of Fascist Germany and equally oblivious to political nuances. Several times Lord Darlington is referred to as an amateur in politics, which contrasts elegantly with the professionalism of the butler.
I am not sure that I agree with the apparent suggestion of the later parts of the book that master and servant have both wasted their lives on inappropriate efforts. History is written by the victors, and if the war had turned out differently, then those who, like Lord Darlington, made approaches towards Hitler would have been fêted as heroes, not lambasted as near-traitors. And any employee who has done his job to the very best of his ability for many years can hardly be said to have wasted his life. I’m not sure that Stevens would ever have been capable of a normal life, regardless of occupation, so it seems unlikely that he made unreasonable sacrifices for his job. Frankly, I wondered quite what Miss Kenton saw in him.
Even with the benefit of hindsight, I still see little wrong with this book. The language is perfectly tuned for the voice of Stevens, the insight into his personality is profound and there is enough social commentary hidden below the surface to satisfy the need for depth. Five stars.