NOCTURNES by Kazuo Ishiguro

Original content...

DEC 9, 2009


Music, musicians, strains of regret and longing for what never will be, come together to form Nocturnes, a collection of five short stories by Kazuo Ishigiro. Winner of the Booker and the Whitbread Prize, Ishiguro, an established master of the longer form (Remains of the Day, The Unconsoled, Never Let Me Go) experiments here with lighter, briefer fare and that’s what we get.

A nocturne, musically speaking, is a composition of a dreamy, languid mood. The collection’s subtitle reads “Five stories of music and nightfall.” As only a few of the stories actually take place in the night, it’s clear the metaphorical sense of the word is intended, as well. The twilight hours of a career, a relationship, the sense of time having passed too quickly, choices made that can’t be undone. Ishiguro, who himself struggled to find success in songwriting and music before turning to fiction, knows his subjects well. All five narrators are males, musicians or music lovers, looking for The Big Break, reaching, pondering the harsh prosaic reality of the business.

In “Crooner,” set in Venice, a famous singer from a bygone era enlists the help of a café guitarist to serenade his wife for reasons the younger musician hadn’t anticipated. “Come Rain or Come Shine” features an aging bachelor still trapped in the habits of his twenties, who visits longtime friends and becomes an unwitting pawn in their marital quarrel. In “Cellists,” a classically trained cellist is drawn to the praise and advice of a mysterious tutor whose own virtuosity is alluded to but never demonstrated.

“Malvern Hills” gives us an aspiring singer-songwriter, pondering his limited success as he spends the summer with his sister in Herefordshire, where she and her husband run a busy café. He helps out from time to time but prefers to disappear into the hills and his art. A telling moment comes when his sister asks him to stop playing his guitar one night so her tired husband can watch his movie in peace.

“What Geoff needs to realize,” I said, “is that just as he’s got his work to do, I’ve got mine.”
My sister seemed to think about this. Then she did a big sigh. “I don’t think I ought to report that back to Geoff.”

“Why not? Why don’t you? It’s time he got the message.”

“Why not? Because I don’t think he’d be very pleased, that’s why not. And I don’t really think he’d accept that his work and yours are quite on the same level.”

I stared at Maggie, for a moment quite speechless. Then I said: “You’re talking such rubbish. Why are you talking such rubbish?”

She shook her head wearily, but didn’t say anything.

Unreliable narrator or misunderstood artist? Indignity or oblivion? Laziness or dedication to his art? Most decidedly the artist’s conundrum, deliciously rendered here.

“Nocturnes,” the collection’s eponymous story, gives us Steve, a saxophonist stagnating in his career, who reluctantly consents to plastic surgery in hopes of becoming more marketable as a performer. This story starts out wonderfully but seems to stagnate midway, turning rambling, a touch too farcical, too long, losing its initial resonance.

This would be my greatest complain about the collection. While all the stories are diverting, they lack the distilled, elliptical style that makes a short story work so well. In The Unconsoled, the technique of having secodary characters digress in a long-winded fashion became a key facet of the storytelling. What seemed initially like a flaw to me soon drew me in, as did the bizarre plot twists, scene shifts and subtle hilarity, which appear here in “Nocturnes.” The Unconsoled is a masterpiece (albeit one that challenges the unwitting reader). But what worked so well in a longer form seems to fall short of making its point in this collection.

Secondly, much of the prose here comes off as informal to the point of being ungainly. I know from Remains of the Day, with its aging English butler narrator, that Ishiguro has a staggering talent for penning wholly credible characters with pitch-perfect narration and dialogue. Most likely, this more casual approach to language was intentional, given the narrators’ ages and lifestyles. As an added bonus, it make the writing instantly accessible to the casual reader who might have tried to read Ishiguro’s other novels without success.

Nocturnes might very well garner Ishiguro an entirely new set of readers. The lighter, breezy voice, the emphasis on guitar, sax, jazzy music will attract what I think of as “the Nick Hornby set,” younger male readers who play the guitar and frequent music or record stores. But this collection might serve to disappoint fans of the Remains of the Day (my particular favorite) and Never Let Me Go, seeking more of Ishiguro’s haunting creations. No, this is not the same polished, simmering prose, but, that said, Ishiguro has never been one to try and replicate a winner. Instead, he goes on to experiment with new voices, new settings, fresh material, and in this collection, he succeeds.

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