I haven’t been able to find a better title for this post possibly because this is it: I want to write about the work I have taught most often throughout my 21 years as a university teacher. It used to be Emily Brontë’s Wuthering Heights until I took a break from it to teach Anne Brontë’s The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, a little tired of seeing my female students fall for Heathcliff despite my presenting him as a downright villain (I know I’m not done with him…). Ironically, I only started teaching Ishiguro’s masterpiece at UAB recently, to first year students, after having taught it every semester since 1998 at UOC. Now it’s the 27th time, 28th (or possibly 29th) if I consider my UAB teaching.
I cannot keep tabs on how many students have read The Remains of the Day because of my classes but they must be over 1,000. A few years ago, I even wrote a letter to Mr. Ishiguro, asking him whether he’d be so kind to acknowledge my devotion to his novel with a message to my UOC students. He never replied, which I thought was very bad PR. I must explain that I don’t like any other novel by Ishiguro. I even had a sort of misencounter with him, a few years before the letter, because there is no way I can hear the voice of the narrator in When We Were Orphans (a problem, it seems, shared by other readers). I asked him, please, to read for us his fans (meeting him at the British Council in Barcelona), a passage from the book and he declined, arguing that if the novel didn’t work for me or any other reader, there was nothing the author could do. I do regret that this is the novel he autographed for me, and not The Remains. And, no, this incident is not the reason why he didn’t answer my letter.
It seems that back in the mid 1980s Ishiguro was annoyed by being called by a critic an ‘Anglo-exotic’. He responded by deconstructing the most English of all English stereotypes: that of the perfect butler. His butler, Stevens, is given the first person narrative voice in The Remains of the Day and it’s a marvel to see how Ishiguro manages to have us, readers, dislike and sympathise with the man simultaneously. In comparison, the film adaptation by James Ivory is just melodramatic trash, despite Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, who are great.
My UOC students, usually what you would call ‘mature students’, enjoy this novel much more than their 18-year-old UAB peers, who find it, guess what?, too boring (meaning too slow). The Remains is, rather, a very subtle book which invites you to read between the lines and indeed against the grain. I ask my UOC students two questions: how Ishiguro criticises the role of Britain in 20th century History and how Stevens’ personality is conditioned by his Englishness. Yes, this is the kind of novel that seems written to help teachers explain all that to students –and I thank Ishiguro for that. The answer to the first question shows a certain difficulty to understand class issues, for since Marxism went out of fashion it seems as if class has become more tabooed than sex. I have to point out semester after semester that Ishiguro’s critique is focused on the cheeky alliance between the British upper classes and the Nazis. The answer to the second question always baffles me…
Most students choose a passage in the novel in which Stevens declares that only the members of the English ‘race’ make good butlers, dismissing the Celts (Scottish, Welsh, Irish) and the ‘Continentals’ as unable to “restrain their emotions”. Ishiguro is clearly exposing this man as a chauvinist specimen, and hinting that he has built for himself a tailor-made sense of Englishness that fits (and suits) his own emotional shortcomings. Well, it’s amazing to see how many students buy the stereotype and tell me that Stevens is ‘typically English’. Have we lost the battle against stereotypes, then? Is it still five o’clock tea and ‘siesta’? I usually reply that we need to see beyond this ‘typicality’ and see human beings as individuals, as Ishiguro suggests. Yet, it’s very hard. I catch myself using stereotypes all the time (women do this, men do that…) and it’s difficult to stop, they’re such good crutches for lazy thinking.
So, thanks to Mr. Ishiguro I have to rethink this matter every semester, which is very healthy. I guess this is what keeps the book alive for me. In these times in which identity matters so much, we must indeed consider why stereotypes still survive and, possibly, rule.