THE REMAINS OF THE DAY By Kazuo Ishiguro Knopf. 245 pp. $18.95 To admirers of the impeccable standards of Bertie Wooster's Jeeves, Lord Peter Wimsey's Bunter and other great fictional manservants, the narrator and protagonist of "The Remains of the Day" will be a figure at once cozily familiar and chillingly strange. Familiar, because Stevens is firmly in the literary tradition of the perfect English butler -- dignified, discreet, enterprising, unflappable, responsive to his master's every whim. Strange and chilling, because "The Remains of the Day" asks the price of such perfection, and the answer it gives is bleak. The novel opens in 1956 as Stevens, butler at Darlington Hall, is preparing to take the first holiday in his professional career, a motor trip to the West Country. There he plans to visit a former colleague, Miss Kenton, who served as housekeeper at Darlington Hall many years earlier before leaving to get married. The trip is the suggestion of Stevens's new employer, "an American gentleman" named Farraday, who purchased Darlington Hall on the death of Lord Darlington, Stevens's master for 30 years. These opening pages are charming, even comic. Stevens, a model of fusty decorum in his prose as in his life, finds that the style of his new employer entails unsettling new responsibilities. Farraday is given to what Stevens calls "bantering," and Stevens is obsessed with the problem of how to respond correctly. His one attempt to answer joke with joke falls flat, despite his assumption of "a suitably modest smile to indicate without ambiguity that I had made a witticism." He frets: "It is all very well, in these changing times, to adapt one's work to take in duties not traditionally within one's realm; but bantering is of another dimension altogether. For one thing, how would one know for sure that at any given moment a response of the bantering sort is truly what is expected?" There are comic moments scattered throughout the book as Ishiguro plays with the conventions of literary butling, but gradually the mood turns somber. During his six-day trip, Stevens is moved -- by his unaccustomed leisure, by the sights he sees and the people he encounters -- to muse on his long career in Lord Darlington's household, on the ideals he believed he was serving, on the sacrifices such service entailed. Pondering the "greatness" of the English landscape, he ascribes it to the "very lack of obvious drama or spectacle . . . the calmness of that beauty," with none of the "unseemly demonstrativeness" of places like Africa or America. This leads him to consider what makes a "great" butler. It is, he concludes, a matter of "dignity," and that dignity "has to do crucially with a butler's ability not to abandon the professional being he inhabits." The great butler "will not be shaken out by external events, however surprising, alarming or vexing." Not even, the book implies, when the woman he loves inchoately is preparing to leave. Not even when his father is dying. The portrait of Stevens that emerges is terrifying in its willed suppression of individuality, emotion and intelligence in the interest of professional greatness. And yet, it becomes clear, Stevens is an idealist, believing unquestioningly in the goodness, the honor, "the moral worth" of Lord Darlington -- and, by extension, in the worth of the political cause to which Darlington dedicated himself. To serve such a master was to serve great ends. Thus Stevens feels justified in having left his father to die upstairs while he poured drinks for the statesmen gathered for an international conference at Darlington Hall in 1923. The tragedy of Stevens, which at novel's climax he is forced to confront, is that Lord Darlington, however noble his intentions, was desperately wrong. Appalled by Germany's plight after World War I, he dedicated himself to the revision of the harsh terms of the Versailles treaty. Later he became one of the architects of appeasement. By 1936 he was, one visitor to the Hall tried to make Stevens understand, "probably the single most useful pawn Herr Hitler has had in this country." "The Remains of the Day" invites interpretation on several levels -- as a commentary on the British class system, of course, and as a parable of the harm perpetrated by those who are only doing their jobs. Ordered by Darlington to dismiss several Jewish servants, Stevens does so without protest though he does not approve. Later, Lord Darlington has a change of heart on the "Jewish question," but it is too late to help the fired housemaids. Though there are political and religious resonances throughout, it is as a human story that "The Remains of the Day" triumphs. Stevens is not a likable figure; some readers may find his willed suppression of the softer feelings incredible. (Miss Kenton provides a corrective here, glimpsing in him the potential for human affection he does not recognize himself and attempting to bring it forth.) Yet few will be unmoved by the moments of recognition at novel's end; they are almost unbearably poignant. Kazuo Ishiguro is a subtle writer, who manages to make what Stevens does not say almost as revealing as his words. He is also brilliant at description, capturing a scene in a few quick strokes without ever stepping out of Stevens's ponderous character. Here, for example, is the scene at a Cornish hotel when storm clouds threaten guests lunching in the garden. "Staff were hurriedly stripping down the garden tables -- while their recent occupants, including one gentleman with a napkin still tucked into his shirt, were standing about looking rather lost. Then, very soon afterwards, the rain had come down with such ferocity that for a moment all the guests seemed to stop eating just to stare out of the windows." The napkin, the pause in mid-chew, are the details of a master. A 35-year-old Englishman of Japanese descent, Ishiguro was born in Nagasaki but has lived in England since childhood. His two previous novels, "A Pale View of the Hills" and "An Artist of the Floating World," involved Japanese characters and settings. That he has tackled such a quintessentially British theme as the perfect butler has given his latest work -- the odds-on favorite to win Britain's Booker Prize -- a certain curiosity value. But "The Remains of the Day" needs no extra-literary help. A Japanese who writes of an England he is too young to have known, an Englishman who writes of the Japan he left at age 6 and has never revisited, Ishiguro has staked out his territory in the realm of all good novelists, the imagination. The reviewer is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World.