An Artist of the Floating World featured Japanese characters; here, Ishiguro breaks new ground with a slow-moving rumination on the world of the English country-house butler.
For 35 years, Stevens was Lord Darlington's butler, giving faithful service. Now, in 1956, Darlington Hall has a new, American owner, and Stevens is taking a short break to drive to the West Country and visit Mrs. Benn, the housekeeper until she left the Hall to get married. The novel is predominantly flashbacks to the '20s and '30s, as Stevens evaluates his profession and concludes that "dignity" is the key to the best butlering; beyond that, a great butler devotes himself "to serving a great gentleman--and through the latter, to serving humanity." He considers he "came of age" as a butler in 1923, when he successfully oversaw an international conference while his father, also a butler, lay dying upstairs. A second key test came in 1936, when the housekeeper announced her engagement (and departure) during another major powwow. Each time, Stevens felt triumphant--his mask of professional composure never slipped. Yet two things become clear as Stevens drives West. Lord Darlington, as a leading appeaser of Hitler, is now an utterly discredited figure; far from "serving humanity," Stevens had misplaced his trust in an employer whose life was "a sad waste." As for the housekeeper, she had always loved Stevens, but failed to penetrate his formidable reserve; and at their eventual, climactic meeting, which confirms that it's too late for both of them, he acknowledges to himself that the feeling was mutual.
This novel has won high praise in England, and one can certainly respect the convincing voice and the carefully bleached prose; yet there is something doomed about Ishiguro's effort to enlist sympathy for such a self-censoring stuffed shirt, and in the end he can manage only a small measure of pathos for his disappointed servant.