(réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 4. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1994)


"Call Me Ish" East meets West, a comparison of Kazuo Ishiguro and Christopher Isherwood

 Bernard Gilbert (Université Michel de Montaigne-Bordeaux 3)


      Angela Carter - who had taught creative writing to Ishiguro at Norwich - once remarked the oddly British resonances of his books, adding, "I've often thought how similar the middle classes of Britain and Japan are (1)." I avail myself of her authority to put forth the admittedly daring theory that the two countries can indeed curiously coincide. In the same train of ideas, a critic notes:

It occurs to me that Ishiguro's developed sense of social rank and nuance makes him a potentially acute miniaturist, whether he chooses England or Japan. Both nations have an ingrained, antique response to caste, class and station. Both are island peoples, at an angle to the nearest continental landmark. Both are former imperial powers who held dominions over populations that far outnumbered them (2).  

Starting from these comparatively stereotyped views I should like to focus on two interprets of these convergences. By mere chance, they happen to have in common the first syllable of their names, a name with which they toy with a certain relish, as if it were a multi-faceted mantra. "Call me Ish (3)," slyly declares Ishiguro to media people, just as Isherwood modulated his own name after his destination, becoming Herr Ishyvoo in Germany, Yu-Shi-Voo in China, and so on... More seriously, a deeper kinship links the British cult figure of the 30's and the "paradigm of the multicultural order of the 80's." (4) I


1. TARGETT, Jocelyne. "A writer of the Floating World." The Guardian Supplement, May 13, 1989, p. 6-7.
2. HITCHENS, Christopher. "Minority Report." The Nation, June 11, 1990, p.810.
3. ANSEN, David. "An onlooker at the Feast." Newsweek, October30,1989, p. 76.
4. IYER, Pico. "The Empire Writes Back." Time, February 8, 1993, p. 46-5 1.




here propose to analyse their improbable meeting, while apologising for being, by necessity, absurdly sweeping and sketchy.

At first sight, one may justifiably object that they only share their differences.

Isherwood, born in 1904 in the landed gentry, brought up in such Edwardian sanctuaries as Repton school and Corpus Christi Cambridge, then integrated to the Bohemian London Establishment of the roaring 20's and the red 30's has little in common with the young Japanese born in 1954 in Nagasaki, transplanted at the age of six in the London of the swinging 60's and trying his hand at all the odd jobs imaginable in those affluent and ambiguous times. The one hobnobbed with the Good and the Great, the other was grousebester for the Queen Mother.

The gap will even widen further, apparently, in later life. Isherwood wanders round the world, passes from politically committed literature in Berlin, to a much criticized break with Britain on the eve of the war, and an even more controverted conversion to Vedanta Hinduism, oddly matched with gay militantism and script writing jobs at "Hollywood-upon-Ganges (5)". Ishiguro, conversely, strikes roots in Britain coming back to Japan for a visit in 89 only, as if by politeness. On the one hand, travels, ruptures, the quest of a flamboyant personality looking for the limelight - on the other hand a secretive individual who, after being awarded the Booker Prize, will vanish into quasi clandestinity.

This reverberates on the themes of their books. Isherwood is known for his antifascist stance, his painting of decadence, his kitsch hedonism, his chic cosmopolitanism, his atypical Hinduism. Ishiguro seems to be digging the same earnest plot ever deeper with each book about non communication and moral responsibility. On the one hand a work that relishes self-presentation to the point of exhibitionism, on the other one the introspective work of a self-effaced writer.

In such case, why attempt the parallel which I am proposing?

I shall first say that, because of the Big Bang of the war, they find themselves brothers in experience.

Ishiguro was born in, but also because of, Nagasaki - that emblematic city where destruction has bloomed higher, quicker, stronger than anywhere else. Isherwood, though too young to join the First World War, will keep referring to this pivotal event in which his own father died: "Like most of my generation, I was obsessed with a complex of terrors and


5. KAZIN, Alfred. Time, March 23, 1962, p. 60-61 (see on the subject Bernard GILBERT, Christopher Isherwood témoin de son temps, Thèse de Doctorat ès Lettres, Sorbonne, Paris, 1983, 1114 p.).      



longings connected with the idea 'war'. War in this purely neurotic sense was the Test. The Test of your courage, of your maturity, of your sexual prowess. 'Are you really a Man .' (6)"

In both cases, the collapse of an Empire identifies with the past it took place in. The young are left empty, frustrated, negative, unable even to grasp the origin of the trauma. "When I was a child" - declares Ishiguro - "I thought every town had its bomb (7)." Its endless rippling effects represent a Death principle which substitutes itself to the Life force. Such fundamentally pessimistic postulate assimilates History to hysteria. Book after book Isherwood creates new maps of Hell and one of his best know works - Down there on a Visit - crucifies the hero between the four stories which all present a modern version of damnation; critics reviewed it as "visit to hell" (8) or "dead souls" (9) or "the hell of absolute alienation" (10) and Time will identify Isherwood to a "demi Virgil leading the reader through a hop-skip-and-jump tour of Hell." (11) Similarly, Ishiguro settles for good the destiny of his celebrated butler Stevens when Lord Darlington, on two occasions, bids him serve the port in the metaphoric "smoking room" of the castle, public dishonour and endless private grief will ensue.

In accordance to this death principle, in both works, things take precedence of human beings. Material symbols unfailingly cannibalise spiritual landmarks. The stress put on houses, monuments, mansions manifests the victory of imprisonment. Those Faustian places pre-exist, as it were, to their theoretical masters: the very first page of An Artist of the Floating World shows the master Ono, before the war, taking possession of a splendid house at a ridiculously and mysteriously low price, and in Isherwood's novel - The Memorial - the death monument seems to have existed in all eternity.

Significantly both works concentrate on the same type of objects, for instance on silver platters reminiscent of liturgical instruments used for funeral rites. In The Memorial, Lily the war widow makes the poisonous gift of a Jacobean silver plate for the wedding of her niece thereby perpetuating the family spell from which her own son escapes by refusing to marry. In The Remains of the Day, Stevens polishes silver with a neurotically erotic zest, like an Aladdin's lamp from which an evil genie will appear: unwittingly he is doing his bit to help his master betray the spirit of the tradition he is fondling:


6. ISHERWOOD, Christopher. Lions and Shadows. Nel Signet Modern Classics, 1968, p. 46.
7. JONEs, Nicolette. "Essentially English Ishiguro." The Observer, May 14.1989, p. 54-57.
8. HAMPSHIRE, Stuart. 'Isherwood's Hell." Encounter, November 1962, p. 88.
9. PAULDING, Governeur. "Journey to Many Places - and to Nowhere." New York Herald Tribune Books, March 11, 1962, p. 14.
10. WILSON, Angus. "View of the Damned." Observer, March 4,1962.
11. "Dilettante of the Depths." Time, March 23, 1962, p. 6 1.



Lord Darlington remarked to me: 'By the way, Stevens, Lord Halifax was jolly impressed with the silver the other night. Put him in a quite different frame of mind altogether. These were... his lordship's actual words and so it is not simply my fantasy that the state of the silver had made a small, but significant contribution towards the easing of relations between Lord Halifax and Herr Ribbentrop that evening.' (12)

Thanks to this hallowed paraphernalia the code of the past crushes down the aspirations of the young. Any broken taboo leads to punishment through a refined, mandarinal, ritual of cruelty. Isherwood's first novel shows the young hero eavesdropping on his mother expressing her utter contempt for her son - but all the while one suspects that in fact the mother had created the conditions of the indiscretion of which she seemed, but only apparently, to be a victim. Ishiguro's first novel atrociously introduces, a young child having to watch, in a terribly long scene, her kittens being drowned by her mother - this horror is amplified by its refraction in the mind of Etsuko, the heroine, who had previously witnessed in the very same spot, a half-witted woman drowning her baby while smiling unashamedly at the terror-stricken Etsuko.

In those places of submission live unnaturally truncated families, tetanized around a few archetypal figures. Social antagonisms are transferred to conflicts between gender and age groups. The family cell - enlarged with Isherwood to the school and university and with Ishiguro to the arts studio or place of work - will act as a faithful mirror, but also a protective fuse vis-à-vis society. This introduces their major common theme: the fight of the centre against the periphery.

In the centre a power figure, necessarily unique in these novels of tête-à-tête: the British Mother or the Japanese Master, whose Faustian function is to stop time. For both the war has toppled their empire, but kindled their imperialism. They absolutely need their descendants to maintain their ascendant. Victims themselves, they need to oppress in their turn, using moral and emotional blackmail. It is quite useless to itemize, after so many observers, the drift of the best and the brightest and Ishiguro himself pointed out in an interview:

I am then very much drawn to these periods of history where... moral values have done a topsy-turvy on individuals, as in Japan after the war, when the very things that had been thought of as the highest patriotic achievements suddenly


12. ISHIGURO, Kazuo. The Remains of the Day. London: Faber and Faber, 1989, p. 35-136.    


 turned out to be dreadful. Germany going through the Nazi era to the post war era presents a similar example. (13)

Remarkably, the two writers ascribe the same cause to this historic turmoil: the existence of a void left by the vanished or vanishing father. Isherwood considers it paved the way to crooked surrogate fathers and monstrously castrating mothers; because of the war, the young man is deprived of any opportunity to kill the father, forever beyond his reach; left with a permanent sense of guilt, this puzzled Oedipus feels urged to come up to his immolated father and this desperate urge ossifies the tyranny of the superego for the greatest benefit of a hypocritical social order. Ishiguro develops exactly the same analysis of an Omega Father, unsexed, beyond gender and finally fantasmatic. In both works the Commandeur is cut down to his statue only but his pedestal is the axis of the world. Action and drama will then hinge on the relationship of the centre and the periphery with the double necessity for the victims to escape the fatal attraction of the black hole without dissolving into intergalactic void.

To start from an identical diagnosis is however no guarantee one will agree on an identical therapy. And yet, the emergency of the times has drawn the two writers to very surprising convergences.

First they express the unambiguous desire to flee from the contaminated centre of the Empire and its lethal aura.

This will lead Isherwood to seek his truth in Germany - the country which killed the Father politically and fantasmatically - where he starts his anti education: discovery of guiltless amoralism, homosexual liberation, etc. This first success will drive him ever further away from the centre: Greece, China, South America, California. For this virtuoso of escape, the eastward quest will end up in America, where his experience will be fictionalized.

The same desire to break free will take Ishiguro into a westward move. In his first novel the West is a land of mirage and death, in the second it can teach, but it will be decisive in his third book when Stevens goes west to find his former love and his present self. This quest for the west permeates the very style, a chameleon's performance which a critic salutes in those words:


13. B IGSBY, Christopher. "An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro." The European English Messenger, Norwich, Autumn 1990, no. zero, p. 26.  


I cannot help thinking how neatly his description fits some of the Japanese criteria for beauty. Stevens's attention to details is comparable to that of an origami maker... [his] insistence on ritual; his stoicism in performing his duties, especially in the face of adversity; his loyalty to his master that conflicts with his humanity - all of these are prominent aspects of the Japanese collective psyche and Ishiguro imbues his description of Stevens's world with a fine Japanese sensibility. Yet - the proof of his mastery - had he chosen to publish the book under an assumed Anglo name, one would never suspect. (14)

Naturally this experience of topography leads to a geography of the mind. Before the necessary, inevitable introspection one must pass through the spectacle of the world and the crossing of History. The grand tour of the world must precede the high dive into the inner world. Their fiction is thus constantly in debt to their presence to modernity. A specialist of Germany - Otto Friedrich - will declare: "It is the improbable figure of Christopher Isherwood, novelist, playwright... Vedanta enthusiast, who has created, more than any German writer, the image we have of Berlin in the 1920's (15)."

Similarly lshiguro will receive letters from an old butler, who might have been the model for Stevens in real life and who told me how he worked for Lord Londonderry, how Ribbentrop had been a regular visitor, and how his master, who had always tried to do his best, had died a sadder, wiser man. What's gratifying is not that he writes to say I'd got the social details right, but that the book's emotional content had touched a nerve (16)."

This means that the two writers' heroes weave with the world a relationship of presence and distance. They cross History remaining aloof, immunized against any militantism, or ending by discovering its inevitable folly. Amphibious, they are also absolutely waterproof.

No surprise, then, that they should reduce communication - any communication to a minimum. The central protagonists are a camera-eye, not a fuse. Theirs is, for better or for worse, a defensive liberty; they limit themselves to the discovery of their integrity, but also of their solitude. The hero of Mr Morris Changes Trains, witnessing the fervour of Berlin workers, reflects: "Their passion, their strength of purpose, elated me. I stood outside it. One day, perhaps, I should be with it, but never of it (17)" - and Ishiguro apologizes for his


14. GUREWICH, David. "Upstairs, downstairs?" The New Criterion, December 1989, p. 80.
15. FRIEDRICH, Otto. Before the Deluge. New York: Harper and Row, 1972, p. 418.
16. M0RRISON, Blake. "It's a long way from Nagasaki." Observer, October 29, 1989, p. 35.
17. ISHERWOOD, Christopher. Mr Norris Changes Trains. London: Hogarth Press, 1969, p. 77.  



secretiveness by confessing: "Every instinct in me goes against demonstrativeness (18)." Indeed his heroes are often praised for their samurai's solitude and one of Isherwood's best book is called A Single Man.

And yet this solitude is positive; it equips the protagonists for a fresh start without lies or alibis. Above all, it gives them the key to their own past. The two writers can't agree more than on this ultimate trip: all their heroes are "à la recherche du temps perdu", of their own past lost, falsified, stolen.

An evident example is the book of Isherwood on his parents - Kathleen and Frank - in which, starting from biographical data, he manages to recreate his father, to dispel the fake animus masking a more congenial anima, so that the father finally is in the image of the son.

This is exactly Ishiguro's technique. For his characters the present is only the cherry on the cake of the past, but the past would remain enigmatic without the demands of the present. The moral consequence of this is that current truth can only be the cathartic overcoming of past wrongs.

In both cases, ultimately, the objective is didactic and strives to give us a moral for our times. The novels of Isherwood (except the first one because, naturally, one has to start from absolute despair) all end on the promise of a fresh start. Those of Ishiguro offer in extremis, generally in the very last page, that blissful margin of liberty which makes hope possible at last; this is why The Remains of the Day are not the ashes of a failed existence but the embers of a life vivified by consciousness and courage.

That reassessment, nevertheless, creates the problem of the new moral standards which risk reintroducing ideology by the back door. For critics, Isherwood's conversion to Vedanta is a case in point of lucidity swapped for dogma by a turncoat. The problem is less acute for Ishiguro on account of his unfinished work (though the Japanese don't like him all that much), but both authors concur to reject an approach which would content itself with ironical criticism, disillusioned cynicism. They want an alternative. Just as Isherwood, after toppling all the idols, expressed his longing for authority and chose a Guru, Ishiguro, in one of his rare confessions, gives us a clue when answering the question of Graham Swift: "Is it bad for art to be put in the service of politics ?" by pointing out:

Obviously, it isn't good enough to just ponder and sit on the fence forever. There has to come a point when you say: No matter the imperfections of a particular cause, it has to be supported because the alternatives are disastrous (19).


18. MORRISON, Blake. "It' s a long way from Nagasaki." Observer, October 29, 1989, p. 35.
19. SWIFT, Graham. "An Interview with Kazuo Ishiguro." Bomb, Fall 1989, p. 23.



There again, East meets West - but how will they manage to evade the fatal temptation to become, in their turn, master - thinkers? At this point, it seems to me, art comes to the rescue of life.

The example of Isherwood is particularly clear. He never allowed his new faith to replace his inspiration, only to supplement it. In this unconsummated marriage between moral convictions and artistic creation lies the secret. In oriental philosophy, paradoxically, he found a confirmation rather than a revelation, a broader humanism rather than dogmatic fundamentalism. Universal irony - which is the core of Vedanta Hinduism - brought the good news that since the creation itself is God's playground, the artist becomes fully justified to join in and enjoy the show.

But naturally this entails for him a certain number of obligations. Simplicity, clarity, honesty are the new taboos - no mandarin style but the unemphatic stress, no baroque grandeur but a kitsch parody; far from endoctrinating, this art charms with understated suggestions akinned to oriental reserve. Essentially ironical, it proves true to its calling: privilege in every way the periphery against the centre, the oblique point of view linked to the first person narrative, the hiatus, the contrapunctual, the incongruous.

Ishiguro, logically, adopts the same approach and this clean, eliptic writer can convey intense emotion with almost Verlainian sweetness. Despair is subdued, cruelty polite, persecution graceful. Action is suspended and, as he declared to a French critic, even drama looks undramatic: "J'ai toujours voulu créer 1'illusion d'aller de 1'avant et obtenir la tension du récit grâce au ralentissement, presque au surplace (20)." The recognisable Ishiguro flavour comes from this skill in creating infinitely dense miniatures, infinitely deceptive also for the reader who takes it at face value. Just as Isherwood's subtle touch made him a victim of what Cyril Connolly called his "fatal readability" (21) and VS. Pritchett his "rare gift for superficiality (22)". Ishiguro is esoterically bland. His creation of Stevens, the Butler, passed for a Woodehouse character, whereas it is just the reverse, "a brilliant subversion" (23) of this Social Stereotype as Salman Rushdie remarked, adding about his author: "I have never heard a writer trash his work so much (24)."


20. VOGEL, J.F. "Ishiguro: very British." Le Point, n° 909,19 f6vrier 1990, p. 27.
21. POSS, Stanley. "A conversation on tape." The London Magazine, June 196 1, p. 46-47.
22. PRITCHETT, V.S. "Books in General." New Statesman and Nation, November 19, 1949, p. 585.
23. IYER, Pico. "The Empire writes back", op. cit., p. 46.
24. MORRISON, Blake. "It's a long way from Nagasaki?" op. cit., p. 35.  



In those conditions, the final question concerns precisely the future of this reticent, introspective writer. Will he be able, like Isherwood before him, to propose alternatives instead of merely denouncing caricatures? For the time being - apart from sporadic homages paid to the Western democratic ideal - he has not really come out into the open. It would be a pity - wouldn't it? - that East and West should have come such a long way to agree on the mistakes of the past but leave us on the ruins of ideologies to discover all by ourselves the promises of modernity.

 (réf.  Etudes Britanniques Contemporaines n° 4. Montpellier: Presses universitaires de Montpellier, 1994)